When David Mirra was running around around MCG for the first time as an AFL player, he was doing what he’d always done before.
Despite the tricky conditions, Hawks fans got an insight into why the club finally drafted the 27-year-old former Box Hill skipper — a reliable, strong-bodied defender who reads the ball well in the air.
But at the end of every season since Mirra’s first eligible draft year of 2009, AFL recruiters have focussed on what he couldn’t do rather than what he could.
That led to a long and distinguished career in the VFL for the Scoresby product, which bemused former Box Hill coach, and now Hawthorn’s Head of Development Academy, Marco Bello.
“There were knockers saying he can’t do this and he can’t do that but he kept showing what he could do,” Bello told AFLPlayers.com.au.
“My recollections of why he wasn’t drafted initially and in those first few years at Box Hill was it always centred on him not being quick enough or not having a great kick.
“You want everyone to have all the attributes but sometimes they don’t. David’s strengths should be suffice.”
Mirra’s name was continually floated around the traps. Recruiters annually checked in with the Box Hill coaches with some years featuring more inquiries than others.
Bello, who was a development coach at Box Hill before taking on the head role, remembers thinking as early as 2012 that Mirra had something to offer the elite level competition.
The 2014 season — where Mirra led the Hawks to a second consecutive Grand Final — seemed to be the year that would propel the stoic defender into AFL clubland. But nothing eventuated.
It wasn’t the first time, nor would it be the last, that Mirra would fail to realise his dream on draft day.
Five years earlier, the Eastern Ranges teenager missed his first chance, with the aforementioned flaws in his game apparently too great to ignore.
Former Port Adelaide and Richmond player, Andrew Moore, first came across Mirra during that 2009 season and recalls a teammate who executed the fundamentals better than most.
“I think because he never stood out that much apart from winning or nullifying contests, he was overlooked,” Moore told AFLPlayers.com.au.
“I don’t think he developed as quickly as what some of the other guys did but he was never beaten. He was one of the more reliable players out there, especially in a one-on-one contest. He’d either win or always nullify the contest.”
While his football did the talking, Mirra’s leadership quickly became the thing that separated him from other young players.
Rising through the ranks and establishing himself as a senior member of the Box Hill side, Mirra was part of the leadership group in 2012, with former Kangaroo Daniel Pratt and former Hawk Beau Muston leading the side.
But, despite being eight years Mirra’s senior and with 119 games of AFL experience, it was Pratt who was learning things off the then 21-year-old.
“He and I were very different in the way we went about our leadership,” Pratt said to AFLPlayers.com.au.
“It was good for me, personally, to have Dave alongside me. He was serious and straight to the point and I’m fairly knockabout. He has a strong voice but he doesn’t have an overly strong opinion if that makes sense. He’s balanced in his approach and one thing I learnt off him was that you’re not always right — he was only a young guy then, too.”
The following year, Mirra stood in for the injured Pratt, who, while being the sole captain, missed the 2013 VFL Grand Final against Geelong.
While only a 22-year-old at the time, Mirra wasn’t going it alone and Pratt references his relationships with the entire playing group as a key driver of the success of the side.
“He had some great relationships with the listed players off the field, not just when they rocked up for the preview of the game on the Friday night for the captain’s run,” Pratt said.
“That is why, I think, when he got to the end of the year and was forced to lead the side, he had a lot of guys around him to help out.”
Mirra took over the captaincy full time in 2014, leading Box Hill to two more Grand Finals in as many years.
Teammates are quick to credit him for building the culture of the Box Hill Hawks and a key driver of their success.
Personable and motivated, Mirra had the right balance of knowing when to relax and when to knuckle down. While the fluidity of player movement in the VFL often results in players taking their clubs for granted, Mirra was someone who genuinely cared about his teammates and his club.
“He’s a passionate guy,” Bello added.
“The first thing that stood out for me was his passion. He didn’t know many of the players there initially but you could tell he had passion and drive early on to succeed, be it individually or in a team sense.
“It didn’t take him long to talk more and be involved in driving himself and the team’s improvement. He was a driver of team and club culture. From an early age, he had that drive and to be successful.”
Moore joined Box Hill for the 2017 season after his AFL career ended, reconnecting with his former Eastern Ranges teammate.
Coming from the AFL system, Moore was captivated by Mirra’s ability to refocus the group when things got tough and his footy smarts took over.
“It’s never about Dave Mirra, it was always about how to improve other people, younger players or coaches — he was selfless like that,” Moore said.
“He has a good coaching mindset as well so he’s able to teach others really effectively. He comes across in a way that everyone responds to.
“His overall leadership style, which a lot of people including myself are always trying to improve, is a class above. It’s really impressive.”
Off the field, Mirra was a settled man, having done some study and working at New Balance. He’s not the life of the party but he’s not one to sit in the corner on his own either.
Mirra isn’t averse to some humour as well and he’s a family man first and foremost.
“We could have a chat on the phone and take the piss out of ourselves,” Bello said.
“We had our odd disagreements at times but everything would always settle quickly because we had a great relationship for a long time.
“We’re almost like brothers in terms of being Italian and we always had that camaraderie. His parents, nonna and nonno were always in the change rooms and his dad was a water boy on Grand Final day — he loves having them around.”
After slotting seamlessly in the Hawthorn line-up with 18 disposals and 12 one-percenters in soaking conditions on Sunday, Mirra did what he’s always been able to do — play like David Mirra, the only difference being the size of the stage he was on.
Having transitioned through the coaching ranks at Box Hill and now at Hawthorn, Bello was as excited as anyone for Mirra’s debut in Round 4 and he takes great satisfaction in being a small part of his journey.
“It was just as exciting as if I was the one who was drafted, I reckon. That’s the reason I love the job that I do and working with the younger guys. To see them live their dreams and make a list and play AFL football is just as good.
“I’m now at Hawthorn with the guy I’ve seen grow up.”