I kicked nine
It was 2015 and I was 23, playing first-grade footy for Killarney Vale. It was Mark ‘Spike’ McVeigh’s old club, his old man’s a life member there too, and from time to time Mark would pop his head in at training. At the time, he was the Giants Academy coach.
I must have been going all right because, after training a couple times, Spike came up and asked me if I was still interested in trying to play AFL footy. Then, one time, he was more direct about it and asked how I’d react if the opportunity was there.
I said to Mark it’d be awesome. But it didn’t make all that much sense to me, really. I was sure that chance had passed. I was pretty old and it wasn’t normal for guys my age to be drafted. I went home and spoke to my fiancee Crystal, who gave me full support and encouraged me to give it everything I had.
Spike stayed interested. After a game later that season, he said, ‘There could be a chance for me to get some guys from the Giants to come and look at you. What do you reckon?’ I was all for it.
Over the next week or so, I became really excited about the prospect. I started thinking back and realised that I could have maybe played AFL early on. That disappointment in that lost opportunity grew, but so did the fire to make sure I took this one.
After that chat with Spike, I went home and told Crystal and she couldn’t believe it. We started thinking, ‘How good would that be?’
Two or three weeks went by and our team had a semi-final up in Newcastle. The morning of the game, Mark sent me a message saying, ‘There’s going to be some guys having a look at you, so rip in’.
I kicked nine goals that game and we won, which I was pretty happy about - but the Giants people didn’t say anything to me. They just sat in the stands and watched. A bit later, I got another message from Mark. ‘Well done,’ he wrote, ‘You had a crack’.
Mark and I spoke a bit over the next three or four weeks. Then, he called and said, ‘How do you feel about coming in and meeting Leon and having a bit of testing done?’ I couldn’t believe it. I just thought, ‘Here I am, working on a building site and I’ve got Mark McVeigh ringing me, asking me to come meet the coach of the Giants’.
So, I went down to Sydney, went in to the club, met up with Alan McConnell - who I hadn’t seen since he was my coach when I was 16 - and met with Leon.
I think they were pretty surprised. Dad made me have a good think. ‘Do you realise what you’re doing here, what you’re giving up?’
We did some testing and then Leon said he’d give me a program to work on over the next six weeks at home before the next pre-season. I went home and really cracked in.
It was a pretty full-on few weeks! I was training as hard as I could, working in my carpentry job as well - and then my second daughter, Charli, was born. There was just this sense of big life changes happening. It was a really good feeling, even if it was a bit hectic.
By the time the 2015-16 pre-season came around, I was so determined to put my head down and do everything I could to impress the coaches. Nothing was guaranteed, of course.
Come the rookie draft, that November, Leon sat me down in his office with Spike and said something I’ll never forget: ‘The rookie draft is this week. We’re going to take two players - we’re going to take Sam Reid and we’re going to take you’. It was an unbelievable feeling.
To finally belong
I guess the message of my experience is that, even when you have a great opportunity before you, you have to be ready to take it. Even though I might have had the talent when I was 17, I think if it had happened at that time, I probably wouldn’t have lasted long. I didn’t have the work ethic, didn’t have the determination and wasn’t prepared for it.
It was a different story when I was 23. I had life experience behind me. I’d started to realise what hard work was about. And, just as importantly, I had amazing people behind me. Crystal, especially, gave up so much, was so patient and supportive, to allow me to pursue something we thought had passed us by.
In my first year with the club, 2016, I didn’t play any senior games. But when my debut came - a year and eight rounds later - Crystal was working at the club and I walked down the hall and told her. It was a magic moment for us. To be able to walk two rooms over and tell her the good news was unforgettable. It felt like I was paying her back for all the sacrifices she’d made for me.
The morning of the game, Mark sent me a message saying, ‘There’s going to be some guys having a look at you, so rip in’.
That first game, I just remember running through the banner and thinking, ‘Far out, this is actually happening. I can’t believe it’. I thought, ‘Here I am, this guy who was given an opportunity young and I’m here, at 24, somehow given a second chance and playing my first game’.
That feeling of amazement is still with me every time I’m on the ground. I look around and I’ve got Josh Kelly and Callan Ward running next to me and I think, ‘How am I on the field with these guys?’
We’ve got another big assignment this weekend, against the Tigers at Giants Stadium on Saturday. But I can’t wait. This season, so far, I’ve put myself in the best shape, managed to get a spot in the AFL side and been in pretty good form.
It’s taken a bit longer than most - I’ve gone the long pathway, I guess - but I’ve finally got to the point where I truly feel like I belong out on the ground. I belong in this team. This is where I’m supposed to be.