While the majority of AFL players began their careers kicking Auskick balls around with moderated rules, Kendra Heil lined up against fully grown men.
The Canadian-born Collingwood AFLW player first saw an Australian Rules ball in her mid-20s after seeking a change from a rugby career at university.
And it wasn’t long until Heil took the field for her first AFL game in Canada.
“I remember I started in the forward pocket because they were worried about me getting injured, but I kicked a goal,” Heil told Aflplayers.com.au.
“I come from a rugby background so I actually found the game a lot less physical than rugby.”
Falling in love with the sport, Heil moved to Melbourne with her Australian partner and joined the Eastern Devils in the VWFL due to its reputation as a great club.
While initially playing in the reserves, it didn’t take long for Heil to crack into the senior team — only a couple of hours in fact — and she never looked back.
“My first appearance for the Devils was in back-to-back matches actually,” Heil recalled.
“It was a practice match against Diamond Creek and I was playing in the reserves but I also had to fill in a position with the senior side.
“I went to the bench for the senior game and the rest of the team were already warmed up and I came on and started tagging because I didn’t quite know where to go — sometimes I still don’t know where to go — but I was fit enough to run with the best players.
“I didn’t sleep at all the night before because my cat died in Canada, so it’s fair to say I was exhausted at the end but I loved it.”
Heil played on the likes of Daisy Pearce and Steph Chiocci early in her VWFL career before transferring to a more attacking role on the forward flank.
Things were going well before injury struck and Heil missed the majority of the 2016 season with an ACL tear in the most unfortunate circumstances – she hyperextended her knee after stepping into a pothole while decelerating.
The injury meant the 28-year-old was overlooked in the inaugural AFLW draft, before Collingwood came calling through the free agency system.
And with her signing to the Magpies, Heil may well be the first AFL player, male or female, to make it to the big leagues after originally learning the game overseas.
But as things were getting back on track, her ACL blew out once more, ending her AFLW season before it started.
Heil understands the misfortune of her injuries but it hasn’t deterred her love for the game or every minute she’s spent at Collingwood.
Now without football and unable to work for a period of time, Heil needs something to do and what’s better than undertaking a hobby she put on hold in recent years – portrait painting, but with a Collingwood flavour.
“I have a lot of spare time and I figure I would feature Collingwood in some paintings because they’ve been so supportive. I will do some of club’s players in all three formats, male players, netball and female players.
“A couple of them will be signing the paintings. I have one of Moana Hope completed and I’ve also done one of Mason Cox since he was the first guy who I had a really good chat to at Collingwood and he’s been so lovely.
Heil plans to auction the portraits and donate a portion to a charity of her choice, which will preferably be one associated with cancer after her father passed away from the disease a few years ago.
While she won’t be taking the field in 2017, Heil still goes into the club around four times per week and spends time with her teammates.
Add to that her painting exploits and she’ll still form a vital cog in Collingwood’s first season in the AFLW.
“Painting helps me escape during the day but it also keeps me involved with the club because now I’m looking at images of them playing, which is why I’m still looking forward to the women’s games because they’re going to be so many cameras and action shots.
“It gives me that sense of excitement again even though I won’t be able to step out there and play.”
If you would like to purchase any of Kendra Heil’s artworks or request a painting, contact her via Twitter: @AFL_canada_heil