In Round 5 this year Hawthorn and North Melbourne played out a classic.
North dominated the game, but not the scoreboard. It had chances to win in the dying stages, but the Hawks would hold on to win by three points.
Cyril kicked four, Max Bailey – three, and Mitchell had 28 possessions, but in a game so close it’s the little things that matter the most and in 15 seconds without gaining a possession, Paul Puopolo had as big an impact as any that Sunday afternoon.
It began on the far wing and finished 100 metres away on the opposite half forward flank. In those 15 seconds Puopolo overtook three teammates and pursued five North opponents.
The final act was one of desperation, as Puopolo flung himself in front of the boot of Scott Thompson intent on launching the ball deep into North 50 metre arc. With Puopolo’s interjection, the ball ricocheted into the arms of Luke Hodge – advantage Hawthorn.
That passage was replayed over and over throughout the next month; AFL 360 host Mark Robinson described it as the “one per center of the year”. Others used it to highlight the deficiencies of others. “Why doesn’t player ‘x’ chase and tackle like Puopolo” they ask? The question should be why does Puopolo?
The answer lies in his past, specifically his journey to the AFL and the MCG that Sunday night. If you think he chased his North opponents with unwavering fury, the pursuit of his dream was just as furious.
Rewind six years and Puopolo was kicking the dew off the grass in the forward pocket for Norwood in the SANFL reserves. The closest he was going to get to the MCG on grand final day was in his dreams.
A year earlier stress fractures forced him to miss three months of football, cruelling his under 18 season and any hope of getting noticed by recruiters.
Stress fractures weren’t the only handbrake on his draft prospects at that point, despite his goal sense and insatiable appetite to chase and tackle; Puopolo continually missed out on South Australian underage selection because of his height, or lack there-of, at 173 cm.
In a swings and roundabouts scenario, his player manager, Nick Gieschen, was a teammate of Puopolo’s at Norwood and the more likely AFL proposition.
“From what I remember Paul was a long way off playing AFL football. His lack of height, fitness base and the fact he was playing a lot of reserves footy meant he wasn’t on the radar of the AFL scouts,” Gieschen says.
“To be honest I wouldn’t have thought he was a realistic draft chance at all.”
“Paul would turn up to pre-season training after a full day’s work in his construction gear, it must have been really tough times, but to his credit. He stuck at it… I really admired his tenacity and determination, these qualities stood out.”
The truth is Puopolo shared this opinion of his football; he was constantly shunted from the senior side when Adelaide or Port Adelaide players returned to the SANFL.
He had all but given up on his AFL dream, but with the announcement the AFL would be introducing two new franchises, the fuse was re-lit.
“I guess the SANFL is a pretty strong competition of footy and there was a lot of good older players there and seeing all them make it (to the AFL) and not play games and come back to the SANFL I just wanted the opportunity, to even try and prove that I am a good player,” Puopolo says.
“I think I was pretty lucky when the new teams came out, they started looking at mature age players, it made me more determined, saying ‘well I know they are looking, I can try to prove myself’.”
Things really started to click for Puopolo at the beginning of the 2010 season when Norwood coach Nathan Basset decided to switch him from the forward pocket to defence. With the backing of his coach, Puopolo vowed to focus on what made him a good player and not what was holding him back.
“When you are not the tallest guy going around you’ve got to have other attributes that make you a good player and it probably took me a while to find those attributes and get them stronger. Probably something I have always had is my speed, but getting that strength and being a bit more resilient in the mind turned me into a stand out player in the SANFL,” he says.
“I just wanted to prove that being small you have that ability to play.”
And prove that he did.
“By the end of the season, he was the best player in the SANFL. He would get the ball in the back pocket and just take off, weaving his way through the defence. No one could tackle him,” Gieschen says.
At 22, Puopulo was drafted by Hawthorn with Pick 66 in the 2010 National Draft. He started in defence with Box Hill, but again a switch to the opposite end of the ground was his making. Since his debut in Round 7, 2011 Puopolo has played in 56 of a possible 57 games.
He has carved a niche as a pressure forward who makes the most of his opportunities and enjoys a chase down tackle as much as a snapped goal.
It’s fair to say he has blossomed beyond anyone’s imagination in the AFL system; a key factor in this metamorphous is leaving the tools behind. If the journey from SANFL reserves to grand final day isn’t rugged enough, combining it with a full-time job on a construction site should render any potential transition impossible.
“I sit back now and think “how did I do it?”. I was getting up at 5.30am, getting ready to go to work and I was travelling an hour to get to work. I was working for about eight hours in the heat and the mud in construction. After that I was driving out to training and as much as I could, I would have a nap in the car before I would get out on the track and give it everything I got at training for three hours.”
“It’s probably why it has made me such a determined player, because I was doing the hard yards just to get here. Now getting the opportunity I sit back and think, jeez I want to be the best player I can be at this level.”
The obstacles along the path less travelled to the AFL provide half the reasons why Puopolo is so determined to grasp his chance in the big time; the other half is his family.
Puopolo, 25, as his surname suggests is of Italian heritage. His father is from a small farming town in Italy called Unzano. Frank Puopolo arrived in Australia by boat at age 10, without a cent to his name or a word of English.
“I look back and think moving countries and starting from scratch is a pretty tough thing to do, because he had eight sisters and one brother. It’s a massive family and to do what they did, it’s amazing.”
2012 was a challenging time for the Puopolo family. Paul’s mum, Gina, underwent two operations to remove a malignant brain tumour. It was a turbulent year for Puopolo, the highs were playing in finals and ultimately a grand final and the lows, losing to Sydney and the periods of separation from his family in a time of need. But while uncertainty around his mother’s health occupied his mind frequently, the support of another family – the Hawthorn family – was certain and constant.
“I guess my mind wasn’t really on footy. It was on my mum’s health and family and how everyone was going. Because it just doesn’t affect my mum, obviously she is going through it, but my sister and my dad, everyone was struggling a little bit with it.
“It made it really hard, the coaches talked me through it, they gave me all the help I needed to have and I thank them for what they did and how they helped me.”
“It (Hawthorn) has that real family environment and that is something I’m really strong about. Coming to a club like this I am pretty lucky; everyone helps each other. It’s family first and then footy, and Clarko is really strong on that too.”
Gina and Frank Puopolo have now moved to Melbourne to be closer to Paul and his sister. While talking about Gina’s battle, his brow furrows but a broad smile comes across his face when he reports 2013 has been a better year.
“She’s going really well at the moment, so that’s a positive and she loves her footy so she’s coming to watch me play now.”
Next time you see Paul Puopolo zipping around the football field chasing an opponent like they’ve just stolen his wallet, you will know why. Paul Puopolo has come a long way to fulfil his AFL dream, the Puopolo family a lot further. He’s not about to give up chase yet.