Zac Williams was talented at every sport he tried his hand at – basketball, rugby and AFL – but recruiters felt his athletic ability was going to hold him back.
The now-GWS Giants hard-running defender grew up in Narrandera in regional New South Wales, dabbling in other sports before making the decision to pursue Australian Rules football.
His Mum couldn’t afford to continue enrolling him in three different sporting codes and so it was time to choose one – ultimately AFL won out.
But Williams needed a clear path to pursue football.
With rugby league being the dominant winter football code in NSW, Kevin Sheedy, along with the Giants’ football department and inaugural Academy coach Lachlan Buszard had the challenge of building the Giants Academy to help identify, nurture and develop elite AFL talent in NSW and the Australian Capital Territory.
“We looked at the Brisbane model during their premiership era and they had close to 13 players who were home grown,” Buszard told AFLPlayers.com.au ahead of the 2019 AFL Grand Final.
“The challenge for us was to go and find NSW-zoned players who we could then draft to the Giants.”
In 2009, the AFL began the process to allow the Giants list concessions to draft zone access players ahead of their inaugural season but that did not come into being until February 2011 when the Giants Academy was officially launched.
From deep in Wiradjuri country, Williams is one graduate whose dream came true as a result of the Giants’ Academy program.
When Williams arrived at the GWS Giants Academy as a 15-year-old he was a shadow of the player he is now.
“Zac was a really talented player who had absolutely elite footy IQ, but the biggest knock on him was his athletic ability,” Buszard said.
Everything Buszard had seen had Williams placed as a “competitive bull”.
But significant work was needed on improving his aerobic capacity.
According to Buszard, he was a product of his environment.
He had grown up playing local football with farmers and tradesmen and didn’t understand the professionalism required to play AFL. After all, local football in regional NSW was the highest level of participating he had an understanding of.
“Zaccy was playing with people who were going to the pub after a session for a pot and a chicken parma,” Buszard said.
For a player like Williams, bringing him into the Academy was important from an aspirational aspect – it gave him something to work towards.
After a few years in the Giants’ Academy, the club took a punt on the defender, drafting him with pick No. 54 in the 2013 Rookie Draft.
Despite being the last Giant picked that year, he remains as one of only two players from the 2012 draft at the club (former No. 1 pick Lachie Whitfield is the other).
In his first weeks as a Giant, Williams lived with Buszard until he was able to adjust to the requirements of playing in the AFL.
His personality and drive to be the best allowed him to work through the challenges he experienced to become one of the Giants’ most important players.
Since 2011, 30 players have been drafted by AFL clubs from the Giants’ Academy, including five players who will don the charcoal and orange in this Saturday’s Grand Final.
For Buszard, there’s an incredible sense of pride seeing academy graduates go on to continue playing football, at whatever level that may be.
“When you see someone like Zaccy who every other club ignored it makes you proud,” he said.
“He worked hard and proved his worth… I’m super proud of him for the footballer and the person he has become.”
Success for Williams hasn’t come easy with the rebounding defender having to complete his ‘apprenticeship’ and overcome a serious achilles injury to be where he is today.
After playing just two games in 2018, both in the finals series, he has managed 23 games this year to become one of the Giants’ most prolific defenders.
Although he is not at the Giants anymore, come Saturday Buszard will be sitting in the stands with a “big smile” on his face and goosebumps on his skin.
“I’ll be nervous for the lads but it’s been a huge journey to get here for everyone that’s been involved with the club along the way,” he said.