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Big Dreams for AFL’s smallest player

For as long as he can remember, Caleb Daniel was told he was too small to make the grade at AFL level.

The pint-sized midfielder-cum-forward stands at just 167cm and weighs just 67kgs but, as one recruiter put it, “had he been 20cms taller, we’d have been talking about him being a top-three pick”.

And it’s why the Western Bulldogs are so happy to have him. Rather than questioning his size, they focused on how he won the ball.

“I like to think I play big!” – 167cm bulldog Caleb Daniel

Daniel says the Bulldogs “couldn’t give a stuff” about his height and neither does he.

“I can’t control it. So I’ve always thought I’ve had nothing to lose by putting my head over the ball and cracking in,” Daniel says.

“It’s something I’ve learnt to deal with since I was younger. I’ve always been short but I just try to approach everything as best I can. Being small doesn’t dawn on me when I’m out there on the ground – I like to think I play big!”

Daniel admits he has taken inspiration from 2014’s NAB AFL Rising Star, Brisbane’s Lewis Taylor – another player to have slid down the draft order due to his height – and a handful of the AFL’s other pocket-rockets.

“Lewy Taylor is one, Brent Harvey has been doing it for a long time, but Jake Neade – who I’ve played against at SANFL level – he is a step above everyone there, and he’s quite slight but holds his own,” Daniel says.

“But certainly, I think if they can do it, why can’t I? That’s sort of my mentality.”

On talent alone, Daniel ranks within the elite of his age bracket. He is quick, agile and rarely wastes a disposal, running at an unheard of 92 per cent disposal efficiency throughout the NAB AFL National Championships while averaging 20 disposals.

He also caught the eye as the only player in the draft to wear a helmet each week.

“Mum made me wear it in Under-11s,” Daniel says.

“It’s become part of my match-day routine now, I don’t even notice I wear it. It’s just habit.”

The 18-year-old is forming new habits at Whitten Oval, admitting it’s taken some time to adjust to the Bulldogs’ pre-season regimen.

“Backing up training loads has been the biggest challenge so far. It does take a physical strain on you, doing long sessions back to back,” Daniel admits.

“But the club have managed those loads really well. The other factor is probably meeting new people and getting out of my comfort zone, speaking to new people and building new relationships with everyone.”

“I want to work with kids, charities, clinics… I just want to give back” – Caleb Daniel

“I’ve really tried to make an effort to attack each training session as best as I can, but there are a few players like Matthew Boyd and Marcus Bontempelli who I take a lot from in the way they train the house down. Tom Liberatore – he trains the way he plays.”

Moving interstate has come with its own set of challenges too, but it’s been made easier with fellow South Australian Declan Hamilton making the journey to Victoria with him, having also been drafted by the Bulldogs, with pick 39. While 2015 will largely be a year of adjustment for Daniel, he’s adamant that he won’t put a limit on what he can achieve.

“I haven’t set any specific goals on playing this year, I’ve honestly tried to take it day-by-day,” he says.

“A lot of people didn’t think I’d be here, so at the moment I’m just waking up with an open mind, doing everything as best as I can each day, and whatever comes, comes. I’m just really enjoying the opportunity at the moment.”

Though Daniel is yet to completely settle into his AFL career, he’s already looking to take the opportunity to give back to the community. At the AFL Players’ Association’s Induction Camp earlier this month, Daniel said the session run by Ladder – the AFL Players’ official charity, which aims to tackle youth homelessness – was a highlight.

“I’m big on giving back,” Daniel says.

“A lot of people helped me along my journey, and were in my corner constantly. I want to help those that are in a similar position. I want to work with kids, charities, clinics and all that sort of stuff. I just want to give back.”

Watch as Bulldog young gun Marcus Bontempelli reflects on his incredible debut season