Paul Stewart entered his 10th season on Port Adelaide’s list not expecting to play another AFL game.
Stranded on 87 matches following an injury plagued career, Stewart knew his role with the Power in 2016 was mentoring the younger generation while plying his trade at SANFL level.
While he still had hope of forcing his way back into the side, the hard-working 29-year-old was under no illusions of his position in the side.
“Kenny [Hinkley] and I had a few conversations in the last two years and at the start of this season, he made it clear to me that I might find it difficult to play senior footy and I wasn’t kidding myself at that point because I was coming off hip surgery so I was behind the eight ball from pre-season onwards,” Stewart told Aflplayers.com.au.
“I’ve never been one to kid myself on where I’m at. I know I’m not blessed with the most talent going around, so I’ve always known where I sat within the team and my opportunities to play and it wasn’t news to me that it was going to be tough to get back in this year.”
As fate would have it, injuries to other players opened the door for Stewart and he found himself lining up for the Power in a Friday night clash with Essendon in Round 3.
Three months later, following good form and a sound body, he was able to reach his 100th AFL game in a 94-point win against Brisbane — a proud reward for someone who toiled hard for a lengthy period of time and given his expectations at the start of the season.
But a reality check from the Swans in Round 20 resulted in Stewart finishing his Port Adelaide career in the SANFL side with 101 games to his name. While admitting it was sad to hear his contract wouldn’t be renewed, Stewart wasn’t surprised by the decision given his regular and honest discussions with Hinkley.
“I came into the last year of a contract three or four times thinking ‘I’ve got to do something’ to get another contract but getting away from football can be really handy” – Paul Stewart
If anything, the duo’s pre-season chat meant the South Australian native was able to ramp up his work away from the club and expand what he had already explored a few years into the system.
“In my fourth or fifth year when I hit that 23 or 24 age, I started seeing what direction my life was going in if footy does finish up. I’ve always admired the way development coaches take passion in teaching young guys and that type of role comes naturally to me as well,” Stewart added.
“Being through a lot of ups and downs on and off the field throughout my 10 years, I feel I can really help young guys coming through the system at 18 and steering them in the right direction.
“I’ve also been in Michael Doughty’s back pocket all year to see how player management works. I sat in a few meetings in the Melbourne office, so it was all a good way to get away from footy and when you’re doing something you’re passionate about, it’s a lot of fun.
“It’s something that comes naturally to me and I’m passionate about it, so that’s the field I want to enter in the next few years.”
Passing the AFL Players’ Association Professional Certificate (Player Agent) course exam this year, Stewart hopes he can pass on some of the experiences he’s endured on and off the field either as a player manager or a development coach.
On the field he’s had injuries and various form slumps, while off the field he’s dealt with losing a mate in John McCarthy in 2012 — describing that period as the “hardest time of my life.”
He understands the importance of work-life balance and said participating in activities away from football can also translate to on-field success.
“I came into the last year of a contract three or four times thinking ‘I’ve got to do something to get another contract’ but getting away from football can be really handy.
“One thing I’m big on is having your off field stuff sorted, whether that’s study or work, it’s very important, especially when the average playing career is only four or so years.
“The AFLPA do a great job in supplying players with opportunities to study. I think players are better these days in knowing what’s available but it can always get better — it’s obviously good for your future but it becomes good for your footy as well, and players probably don’t know that.”
Thanks @PAFC coaches, players , support staff and all the supporters for the past 10 years. Been unreal.
— Paul Stewart (@PaulDStewart14) October 24, 2016
A brilliant team mate and friend. Hopefully he remains in the industry he has so much to offer. Good luck Stewy. https://t.co/Aw4lzf2BpE
— Kane Cornes (@kanecornes) October 24, 2016
2016 was the first season Stewart has gotten through injury free and with no post-season surgery, he’s open to potentially returning to SANFL side Woodville-West Torrens — where he was drafted from in 2006.
But Stewart is laying low for a while with six-week-old daughter Arlo and partner Kirra Vince — sister of Melbourne midfielder Bernie Vince — before deciding his next step in the following couple of months.
His goal in the short term would be securing a player development role before carving out a career in player management.
“I’ll be looking for opportunities to stay in football definitely and that’ll all be sorted out in the next few months.
“I was born in Adelaide and the SANFL is a great competition so I’ll have a look out there and where my opportunities lie, but I’m enjoying having a break for the time being and I’ve just had a little girl now so I’m enjoying a bit of family time.
“Bernie’s been over doing a bit of babysitting too which is handy.”