Often when a player retires earlier than expected it’s due to one of three reasons.
1) His body is unable to hold up to the rigours of AFL,
2) He isn’t getting a game, or
3) He faces significant challenges off the field.
Ashton Hams doesn’t quite fit into any of these categories – yet at just 27 years of age, he’s retired. It’s a decision that surprised many, particularly as he didn’t make his debut until the age of 23.
So why did he retire?
“Oh mate, I’m getting old!” he jokes. “27 is old!”
In all seriousness, he’s had a pretty good run with injuries, played 24 games for the Eagles in the last two years and isn’t the type to find trouble away from the footy field.
The 174cm West Coast pocket-rocket says being in and out of the senior side took a mental toll on him, but he also has a clear affinity with South Fremantle – the WAFL side he played for prior to being selected by the Eagles in the 2010 Rookie Draft.
Traditionally, West Coast and Fremantle listed players have been spread throughout all nine WAFL clubs, meaning Hams was still able to play for South Fremantle when he wasn’t in the Eagles’ side. As of 2014 however, West Coast will be exclusively affiliated with East Perth. Hams admits the new alignment played a role in his decision to call it quits.
“I played about six or seven years at South before I got picked up, so that’s probably the main reason,” he explains. “I just couldn’t put an East Perth jumper on.”
It’s rare to find a player so attached to a WAFL side once he’s established an AFL career – Hams played 39 games in his four seasons at the Eagles – but clearly ‘South’ holds a special place in his heart.
He mentioned the WAFL side he’ll represent next season at least 12 times during our interview and says he can’t wait to get back to his old club.
“I just want to enjoy my footy at South for a couple more years and just get fat and old,” he says with a laugh.
“I just want to enjoy my footy at South for a couple more years and just get fat and old,” – Ashton Hams.
Mentoring some of the younger players is one of the most exciting challenges.
“I was drafted when I was a bit older – about 23, when most people get picked up at 18,” he says.
“There’s still plenty of time [for these young guys] to get drafted, so if I can get that [message] across and they keep working hard at WAFL, they can easily get picked up. If I can teach them a few things to help them get picked up again, that’d be nice.”
Despite being a somewhat senior player at the Eagles in recent seasons, Hams insists mentoring others will be a relatively new experience.
“I tried [at West Coast], but they didn’t really listen,” he jokes.
“You look at other blokes who they could be talking to, like Priddis and Kennedy and those boys. I sort of didn’t try to do that much sort of stuff, so that’s why I’m looking forward to doing a bit more of it at South.”
Hams is clearly a jovial character, but his self-deprecation also hints at something a little more telling. He gives the impression he’s never felt like he belonged at AFL level. Asked if that’s the case, he replies, “yeah, definitely – especially getting picked up so late.”
“I didn’t ever think it was going to happen, and then it did… It’s funny you should say that. It was exactly the same at South for a few years – I didn’t think I belonged there.”
39 games in four years at the Eagles is an impressive achievement, particularly considering he was rookie-listed during his first season, but Hams played just as much football in the WAFL during that time.
“Obviously being in and out of the [West Coast] side… it’s very frustrating,” he admits.
“You think you’re going okay and then you get the arse, so mentally it’s quite draining. It’s a long season when you’re in and out. In saying that, I still really enjoyed it. The boys get you through the year and they’re always there to help out. With the forward group I had a couple of good mates in Lecca and J.K [Mark LeCras and Josh Kennedy] who helped me out a fair bit.”
If being dropped from the West Coast side wasn’t hard enough, being named as an emergency meant he often didn’t get the chance to play for South Freo either – something he always felt was a cathartic footy experience.
“I’d come to South and just play footy – see ball, get ball sort of thing. It’s just so awesome and so relaxing.”
That old-fashioned, instinctive style of footy is something he’s missed.
“There’s so much structure [in the AFL] these days that you’re not even out there playing footy – you’re out there running patterns. It’s so structurally set up. It can get annoying.”
He won’t miss that part of the game, nor the meetings in which those structures were drilled into him and his teammates.
“There are a couple of senior boys who used to talk about having one meeting a week, when you now have three, four or five these days. It’s pretty taxing.”
Having said all that, Hams couldn’t be more grateful for the chance he was given at the Eagles.
“I loved it. Even retiring, it’s still the best four years of my life. Great club, great blokes – I couldn’t have asked for anything more,” he reflects.
“To get picked up that late and by a great club like the Eagles – and to get to stay in Perth as well – I’ll treasure it for the rest of my life. It was just a great experience and one I would never take back.”
Hams saw the disappointment of narrowly missing out on an AFL opportunity first-hand. His twin brother Kyle was “very close” to being picked by the Eagles – at Ashton’s expense.
“It was a toss of the coin. They were pretty keen on both of us,” he remembers.
“It was pretty tough at the time, especially for mum and dad. They were excited for me but were pretty upset about Kyle not getting picked up because we did, well we still do, play exactly the same and he actually probably had a better year that year than me. It could have gone either way, and I was lucky enough to get picked up… but it would have been nice to have him there by my side.”
Like many retiring players, Hams will miss his teammates and the day-to-day footy club environment.
— Nic Naitanui (@RealNaitanui) August 24, 2012
“It’s pretty cool hanging out with your mates all day every day, going out for lunch and all that sort of stuff. It’s a good lifestyle, really. At work you just get a quick lunchbreak, but we seemed to squeeze in morning tea, afternoon tea and lunch.”
Since retiring he’s gone back to standard lunchbreaks while “doing a bit of landscaping with a couple of mates”. He’s also on the lookout for work for 2014.
“I’d just about finished my second year sparky’s apprenticeship before I was drafted. Unfortunately I probably won’t go back to it because you can only put it on hold for a year, and then you have to start again.”
Inevitably, it will take Hams some time to adjust to life after AFL. Thankfully, it’s not yet time for him to adjust to life after football altogether.
“I’ve got a couple more years left in me, and I just want to enjoy my footy,” he says.
“Another flag would also be very nice.”