This article was originally published on May 22, 2019.
In perfect conditions at Frankston Park in 2017, a 16-year-old Bailey Smith cemented himself as a top draft prospect.
Despite being 15 months out from his draft year, Smith led his team to a 30-point victory with a NAB League career-best 44 disposals, 13 inside-50s and 10 clearances.
In a Sandringham Dragons line-up featuring AFL-listed players Will Walker and Hayden McLean and against a Western Jets opposition boasting Zak Butters, Xavier O’Halloran and Buku Khamis, recruiters turned their attention to Smith.
“It became the moment that people started noticing him and thinking, ‘yeah, this kid with the long, blonde mullet’ is going to be something,” Sandringham Dragons assistant coach Jackson Kornberg told AFLPlayers.com.au after Smith’s Round 9 Rising Star nomination.
Those involved with Smith through the NAB League and Xavier College football programs knew what he was capable of at the tender age of 16 but it was the first time he’d achieved such a feat on a stage where those who mattered were watching.
“Whilst that day was an enormous effort, it certainly wasn’t an anomaly,” Kornberg said.
After a disappointing under-16s national carnival by his own lofty standards, Smith set his sights on improving himself as a footballer and a leader with one goal in mind – finding himself on AFL list.
Fastidious with his training and diet, Smith left no stone unturned in achieving his ultimate dream.
“That was all he wanted to achieve and so he knew what he had to do, whether it was extra running or extra footy sessions, he had a goal in his mind and he was going to do everything in his power to achieve it,” Kornberg said.
As Smith chipped away at his craft, the accolades began to flood in – a Xavier College best and fairest in year 11, before becoming a member of the AIS-AFL Academy and captain of the Sandringham Dragons and Vic Metro MVP in the 2018 National Championships.
A niggling achilles injury, which Smith had been carrying throughout the season and Vic Metro campaign, derailed his Sandringham Dragons finals campaign but a focus on his rehab and diligence in getting his body right saw him rocket into top-10 draft calculations.
Kornberg remembers watching Smith play for Xavier College against Geelong Grammar in what would be his final match of 2018.
“I was watching him run around knowing he had this niggling injury but his will to get to contests and impact was enormous,” he said.
After that day in August, Smith would not play another game of football until his JLT Community Series debut in February.
“Here’s a young guy who missed virtually an entire pre-season but stepped into an AFL team with an elite midfield and is impacting at a high-level,” Kornberg said.
Born in mid-December, Smith is two weeks off still running around in the NAB League and not a Western Bulldogs guernsey but has found a way to play his role in a midfield consisting of names such as Marcus Bontempelli, Jack Macrae, Tom Liberatore and Lachie Hunter.
“While we’re at Round 9, people forget that he’s a young 18-year-old and we’re really only just starting to see the beginning of him and what he has to offer.”
Despite Smith’s star rapidly rising, Kornberg said he wasn’t one to forget his roots.
A chance text message from St Kilda player Nick Coffield ahead of last year’s National Championships saw the pair strike up a close friendship. Coffield’s influence on Smith has been so profound that he’s made a conscious effort to be that figure for this year’s crop of draft hopefuls where he can.
Smith keeps in contact with his former Dragons teammates who are now in their top-age year and attends under-16s training as an assistant when he is available.
The support network surrounding Smith consisting of his family, friends and football clubs is not lost on him, Kornberg said.
“‘Bails’ focusses on forming relationships with individuals and helping them out just as he remembers people helped him out too.”
When Kornberg thinks of Smith as a person, a quote eliciting selflessness and authentic behaviour springs to mind.
“When you reach the top, remember to send the elevator back down for others… Bailey lives and breathes that.”
“He doesn’t do things because he’s been asked or feels an obligation but rather because he genuinely wants to go back and help others.”
AFL RISING STAR NOMINEES IN 2019
Round 9 — Bailey Smith (Western Bulldogs)