Rory Sloane hasn’t always been the persistent and determined footballer we see today.
Of course, those traits have always been there, but long before he was the in-form player of 2017, it wasn’t football a young Sloane showed the most promise in.
While footy was always bubbling away in the background throughout his childhood, the boy from Upwey in Melbourne’s east was more than handy with a racquet in his hand.
So much so, that close family friend and high school teacher Stafford Smith thought he was destined for an international sporting career.
“If you had asked me back then what he would be doing today, I would’ve said he’d be a professional tennis player,” Smith told Aflplayers.com.au.
“Here was this little nine-year-old, blond-bombshell running around playing against 14 and 15-year-olds. He was a very promising player.
“He played football at the same time but he was a gun little tennis player. He was just so tenacious.”
Tenaciousness has been the theme of Sloane’s sporting life.
Although he had talents for most sports involving a racquet, ball or bat, it was his attitude and competitiveness that stood out above his other skills.
Sloane’s footballing prowess was recognised in 2007, when he won the best and fairest for the Eastern Ranges in the TAC Cup while still in Year 11.
Eligible for the upcoming AFL draft, he seemed destined to be selected after fielding interest from a few AFL clubs, but he was overlooked.
However the level-headed teenager, who was participating in a school bike ride at the time, saw an opportunity when most others wouldn’t have.
“He chose to go on the bike ride down the Great Ocean Road with all his friends even though the draft was on. Rory had interest from a few clubs, but the Crows were the most interested,” Smith added.
“But he didn’t get picked up and received a phone call from Adelaide apologising for not drafting him because something else came up but they said they’ll keep an eye on him the next year.
“Now most kids would’ve been devastated and shattered that they didn’t get drafted, but Rory wasn’t.
“In a way, he was relieved that he was able to come back to school and finish Year 12. It might’ve jolted him but he was happy to be playing with his mates at the Eastern Ranges.”
Sure enough, Sloane returned to the TAC Cup, won another Eastern Ranges best and fairest award — at the time becoming the second player to win multiple Ranges club champion trophies behind Sam Mitchell — and taking out the 2008 TAC Cup Coaches’ Award.
Second time round, the Crows held true to their promise, selecting the hard-at-it midfielder with pick 44 in the 2008 draft.
Sloane became a Crow at an inopportune time, with the club making finals in the last four consecutive years, meaning breaking into the line-up would be difficult.
But the youngster with golden locks entered the system a year ahead of most draftees, according to Tony Armstrong, Sloane’s Crows teammate who arrived at the club a year earlier.
It didn’t take long for Sloane to make an impact in the SANFL.
“We played at North Adelaide together and I’d be at half-back and he’d be on the wing. I reckon he went out and had like 35 touches and kicked a few goals as a 19-year-old in a super comp and he never looked back,” Armstrong told Aflplayers.com.au.
“I remember thinking how long it was taking me to get good at this level and he was dominating in the back half of his first year.
“I don’t reckon North Adelaide saw much of him after that.”
They didn’t, with Sloane making his debut against the Hawks in Round 20, 2009. True to his tenacious attitude, he collected more tackles than disposals.
The then 19-year-old registered only the six handballs but managed seven tackles against the reigning premiers in an encouraging display.
He would play out the season in the SANFL but would work himself into the Crows best 22 the following season playing 14 AFL matches with only injuries holding him back.
While he had cemented a spot in the side in only his second season, Sloane was already a part of the group.
His personality was evident from the moment he walked through the door at West Lakes and is a strong reason why players love him as much off the field as they do on it.
“That infectious energy that you see that comes through in the way he plays footy, you can see he’s having fun, it was evident from the get-go,” Armstrong added.
“He came in and was beaming and stoked to be there. If I was to compare him to an animal it would be a golden retriever. He’s happy and bouncy, it was awesome and I remember it really clearly.”
As the year’s rolled on, Sloane was steadily becoming one of the competition’s better midfielders.
His professionalism was always elite and has been a factor in his development, with Crows’ captain Taylor Walker noticing the progression in Sloane’s foot skills since arriving at Adelaide.
“I remember his kick being okay and was good enough to be at AFL level but now it’s elite,” Walker told Aflplayers.com.au.
“He’s done a lot of work on that along the way and he always wants to get better for himself and the team as well.”
On the verge of 150th AFL match and now one of the league’s perennial players, Sloane is as loved by footy fans as he is respected and admired by teammates and opponents.
But despite his rise in fame, Sloane was never going to be one to lose sight of his roots and those who helped form the foundation of his character, as Smith explains.
“Our school goes to central Australia each year and we stop in Adelaide. We take around 80 or 100 plus kids and we stay the night at the beach house.
“It only takes a phone call and every year since he’s been at the Crows, Rory has come down.
“He’ll stand there and catch up with all the teachers and take pictures with the kids during the couple of hours with us.
“He did it in March this year even though he had only just broken his eye socket. That’s Rory for you, he has time for everyone.”
That giving nature has resulted in the 27-year-old emerging as one of the Crows’ leaders and elevated him to the role of vice-captain.
While other players develop into strong leaders and some don’t become leaders at all, Sloane always showed potential to be a role model at AFL level.
It’s easy to see his natural leadership through his actions on the field but it’s the way he relates to his teammates that shines through behind closed doors.
“On the weekend where he’s getting tagged and is blaming himself a little bit, whereas as a team, we need to help him out more. He’s trying to shoulder all the blame because he’s so selfless,” Walker said.
“He’s a caring guy and always puts others first. Rory loves to surf and takes all the young boys down for a surf when he can — he’s just a caring fella.
“Sloaney has emotional intelligence, he always thinks about other people and can read other people. He has four or five traits that are really valuable as a leader.”
The whole AFL industry loves Adelaide’s two-time best and fairest winner.
The way he plays the game and the way he carries himself away from the field embodies what fans want from their AFL stars — a hardworking style of play coupled with a relatable persona.
They’re two reasons why the league and its fans loved St Kilda great Lenny Hayes and while Sloane has a long way to go before the comparison should be made, the pair share similarities in how they’re received by fans.
You’d struggle to find a flaw in Hayes’ character and Sloane is just about on par.
“I love seeing guys like Sloaney do well because you know he’d love seeing you do well. He’s a ripper and even though he’d be so busy with footy and all his business ventures now, he has time for everyone,” Armstrong said.
“You won’t hear a bad word said about Rory.”