This story was originally published on July 3, 2020.
Geelong champion and former Gold Coast Suns captain Gary Ablett Jnr will play his 350th career game on Saturday night against his former side. Three AFL figures who have spent time with Ablett spoke to aflplayers.com.au about his remarkable career and the legacy that he will eventually leave behind.
Few players have carried the weight of expectation with them as much as Gary Ablett Jnr.
The son of Australian Football Hall of Famer and all-time Geelong leading goal kicker Gary Ablett Snr, strong football bloodlines run through the Ablett family.
Ablett Jnr grew up around the corridors of Kardinia Park, where his Dad played 242 games and kicked 1,031 goals in his illustrious career.
He would kick the footy with his younger brother Nathan while their Dad was training or sitting in team reviews.
Former Geelong coach Malcolm Blight can recall a time early on a Sunday morning where Ablett Snr turned up to training – much to Blight’s surprise – with his two sons in tow.
“We had been beaten that weekend and I was halfway through a serious review of the game when this little boy crashed through the door and said, ‘Hey Dad, when are we going home?’ and that was Gary Jnr,” he told aflplayers.com.au ahead of Ablett’s milestone.
The first time Geelong Falcons Talent Manager and former Geelong Cats captain Michael Turner watched Gary Ablett play was at the under-15s level.
He was invited to train with the then-TAC Cup club, the Falcons.
Ablett Jnr was smaller than most of the other boys his age, but being the son of ‘God’ the Falcons couldn’t pass up the opportunity to watch him.
“We got a fair bit of criticism from various parents whose children had missed out because they thought that we only had him in because he’s Gary Ablett’s son,” Turner told aflplayers.com.au.
“We could see that he hadn’t matured yet, but we knew that once he grew he could develop into a really good player because that great skillset was already there.”
Balancing his footballing commitments between his junior club Modewarre and the Falcons, it didn’t take long for Ablett to impress Geelong recruiting and list manager Stephen Wells.
At the time, players could be drafted at the age of 17 and before the 2001 TAC Cup season had even started, Wells organised to speak with Turner and Ablett’s family outlining the Cats’ desire to draft him as a father-son selection.
“Gary had trained with our squad and played a couple of practice games at Camperdown – we hadn’t even played a proper game – and that was when Stephen (Wells) came to see me,” Turner explained.
Turner speaks glowingly of Ablett and the dedicated, well-behaved teenager he was during his time with the Falcons but there is one memory that stands out for the talent manager.
“We still laugh about it today but I think I am the only person to have ever dropped Gary Ablett Jnr in his entire football career from Modewarre to the AFL,” Turner joked.
It was custom in the early 2000s for the Geelong Falcons to have a brief training camp in Warrnambool – an area covered by the Falcons’ region – around the time of the races.
Unfortunately for Ablett, he missed the team bus from their training base in Highton.
“I can still remember ringing him up on the old Motorola phones asking where he was and he said he’d lost track of time surfing,” Turner said.
Being a development program and working to instil discipline and dedication into their athletes, Turner and the Falcons’ match committee made the decision to drop Ablett for the next match.
Ablett was always known for his level of professionalism during his time at the Falcons, but like most young teenagers from the coast he enjoyed skating and surfing, with school in between.
As a talent manager, Turner gets joy from overseeing a successful pathway program, with the Falcons up until recently being Australia’s most-drafted club.
“It does reflect on our program and we’ve been successful in producing those players but in the end it’s up to the individual to commit and make themselves successful – we’re just a cog in the wheel along the way,” he said.
“Ultimately, it’s down to the individual because it’s their dedication and hard work that gets them there.”
And, Ablett Jnr had that in spades.
Ablett arrived at Geelong with pick No. 40 in what would become known as the 2001 ‘Super’ Draft and the weight of expectation on his shoulders.
He settled in nicely in his first season as an 18-year-old to play 12 games before cementing himself in the club’s best 22 and playing nearly every game from there on in.
It was Ablett’s meticulous nature and dedication to his training, recovery and getting his body right that stood out for 280-gamer Andrew Mackie.
Mackie and Ablett spent seven years playing alongside each other at the Cats before Ablett moved north to join the Gold Coast Suns.
“Gary has been one that has done his own research on different training methods, dietary stuff and everything in between, which is what I think the best players do,” Mackie told aflplayers.com.au.
“He’s done that over his entire journey and he knows how to get the most out of himself.”
It’s no surprise that Ablett has forged not only a successful team career, winning two premierships in his first sting with Geelong, but also one of the greatest individual careers in V/AFL history.
Ablett is an eight-time All Australian, a record five-time (2007, 2008, 2009, 2012, 2013) AFL Players’ Association Most Valuable Player (MVP), including being voted by his peers in two of the Cats’ premiership years he was part of, and a two-time Brownlow Medallist (2009, 2013).
Mackie believes Ablett’s ability to impact the contest, notably when the ball is within zero to two metres, is his greatest strength.
“The talent is exactly what everyone sees on TV but it’s maybe even more profound in person,” he said.
“I think at times even his teammates have been taken aback by what he’s been able to do.”
Despite the success of his career and the attention that comes with carrying the Ablett name, Mackie said the best way to describe Ablett is as a “genuinely nice guy”.
“He’s such a big figure in the game, but he was always able to separate who he was in the present time and present company,” Mackie said.
“The way he has conducted himself, whether it be with teammates or fans, is something I think all young kids should look up to… he’s earned a lot of respect along the journey.”
After nine seasons and 192 games in the blue and white hoops, Ablett announced he was joining what would be the League’s newest side: the Gold Coast Suns.
Ablett joined the Suns on a lucrative five-year deal and was named captain of the side leading into their inaugural season in 2011.
Blight, who served as a Coaching Director of the Suns until the end of 2015, said having Ablett join the fledgling club at the pinnacle of his career was a pivotal moment to growing the game on the Gold Coast.
“You only had to see the number of jumpers with youngsters wearing the No. 9 (to see the impact Ablett had),” he said.
“There were little kids coming to the football, wearing his number and you knew that they were going to be the future generations of Queenslanders that followed the AFL.”
Ablett’s time at Gold Coast was not without its challenges.
On-field, as a new club the team was struggling to perform – Ablett played in 35 wins between 2011 and 2017 – and for the first time in his career, Ablett was struck down with significant and debilitating shoulder injuries.
At one point in 2015 Ablett considered giving the game away, telling aflplayers.com.au in 2019 that he was “ready to give up” following his second surgery.
Despite his own personal struggles and inability to remain on the field, Blight said Ablett was an important leader for the young Suns side.
“Gary was a driven person and he was always seeking to get better, which I think is the perfect way to be as a footballer,” he said.
“Looking at young players like Dion Prestia and David Swallow – who has gone on to be co-captain of the club – they were driven guys anyway and much like Gary in the way they went about it, but they were still young professionals and having him there helped to actually understand everything required for them to play at the elite level.”
Blight can recall sitting in a midfield team meeting with then-midfield coach Matthew Primus, and the group discussing whether there was too much of a focus on Ablett as a player.
Another midfielder put his hand up at the time and said they would rather have Ablett in their group rather than against it.
Having spoken to many of the players during his time at the Suns, Blight would say some were “in awe” of taking to the field with Ablett.
As a leader he was never the demonstrative type but led by his actions.
In his five seasons as captain, Ablett developed his own leadership style – from public speaking, talking to the media, and interacting with his teammates – something that Blight said was an important learning curve.
Rejoining the Cats ahead of the 2018 season and returning to his home on the coast, Ablett has found some of his best football again.
Although Geelong coach Chris Scott made it clear that Ablett would be no walk-up start to the Cats’ best-22, the 36-year-old has managed to play 47 of a possible 52 games.
It’s the question that Blight is always asked but is never sick of answering: How does Gary Jnr compare to his father?
“I’ve always thought that longevity was going to be the key about which one would come out on top… Gary Jnr surpasses Dad in that milestone” Blight said.
“However, one of the great lines I’ve ever heard from a sporting person was the great (legendary horse trainer) Bart Cummings.
“When asked which his best Melbourne Cup winner was, he said, ‘Champions are to be admired not compared,’ and whenever I get into this debate, I like to remind myself of that.”
Notwithstanding any level of comparison, Blight does acknowledge that Ablett Snr was a more explosive player with the ability to change games at the drop of a hat; although, in his view, Ablett Jnr is the complete footballer.
If Blight were to list 10 attributes that a footballer should have – from kicking, decision making, ability to read the game and an ability to bring teammates into a game – Ablett Jnr ticks all 10.
And, in Blight’s eyes there are few players that fit that mould.
Mackie can’t help but agree.
As someone who shared the field with Ablett as both a teammate and opposition player, Mackie said that at 182cm he is deceptively strong – it’s part of the reason he is able to cope so well with the opposition attention he has received over the years.
“There’s not a lot of players who have been able to withstand and I suppose relish it,” Mackie said.
“Expectations of players and performance to the high-end level is something that is a challenge in itself, but here is someone who took that head on and has been able to keep raising the bar for himself.”
It’s near impossible to sum Ablett Jnr up in one sentence but for Turner when he reflects on his 19 seasons and 349 games so far, his commitment to himself is never far from his mind.
“To come through the AFL ranks and be such a successful player in your own right when you’ve got such a famous father is a testament to his character and his determination,” he said.
“He’s got great ability but some people shy away from that sort of thing and Gary never did.”
Eventually it will become time for Ablett Jnr to retire and Blight said there is no doubt he should be a walk-up inductee to the Australian Football Hall of Fame.
“There is not one person in Australia that follows AFL and would say that Gary doesn’t deserve to be in there (the Hall of Fame),” Blight said.
“He’s a jet and you can’t say more than that.”