Kyle Hartigan was relieved that David Noble and Hamish Ogilvie didn’t ask him to do a beep test.
After all, his aerobic capacity had never been brought into question and he had previously proved his fitness three years earlier at the combine.
It was November of 2012, and after feeling rusty following the conclusion of Werribee’s post-season footy trip to Airlie Beach, Hartigan was stepping into the unknown.
“I wasn’t in great shape, but I didn’t let them know that because I wanted to get drafted,” Hartigan told AFLPlayers.com.au.
“They flew me over and I had an interview with the club and did some training. I must admit that I didn’t have a lot of fitness behind me following the trip, so thankfully I just did a 20-metre sprint test.”
Just a few weeks earlier, the underrated stopper was sitting in an exam room at trade school when he decided to accept a call in the middle of the test. Little did he know it would alter his life.
Realising that it was an interstate number was the catalyst to answering.
“It was Hamish Ogilvie and he told me that he was from the Adelaide Football Club,” Hartigan said. “I told him that I was in an exam and that he needed to call me back. I couldn’t concentrate for the rest of it because all I could think about was why he was calling.”
Intrigue aside, he had more than a fair idea as to why the Crows’ recruiting manager was on the other end of the line, but to say it was a surprise would be a gross understatement.
At that time in his life, he had begun to give up hope. A chance at an AFL career wasn’t on the radar after finishing up his third year at Werribee and missing out on the national draft as an 18-year-old.
“I’m probably the only person in Adelaide who loves Kurt Tippett,” Hartigan joked. “If that didn’t go down I probably wouldn’t have been here because they lost their picks and had to look to mature-age players to fill the void while they had those sanctions.”
His good sense of humour aside, it took more than a slice of luck for the burley defender to realise his dream.
Hartigan balanced work and football — like all VFL players do — and vowed to never waste a day (or a training session) when he was overlooked at the draft in 2009.
He battled against more-fancied AFL-listed opponents on a regular basis, and recalls a challenging experience against Brendan Fevola in 2011 where he got towelled up, “I played on Fev one day when he was at Casey and he gave me a bath which was a great experience. Chances like that gave me a great opportunity.”
Not long after missing out on being selected as a teenager, he trained at Essendon with Matthew Knights and Adrian Dodoro and was unsuccessful. He was then forced to be a sitting duck in a tug of war with Williamstown and Werribee as both VFL outfits vied for his services upon finishing up with the Western Jets in the TAC Cup.
The fundamental issue was that the Jets were aligned with Williamstown, but Hartigan wanted to join Werribee because he could see a clearer path to senior football.
Due to Williamstown and Werribee being at loggerheads, he nearly signed with Shannon Grant and the Bendigo Bombers before an 11th hour agreement with Werribee was negotiated.
“We had to go to Arbitration and we paid $5000,” said Simon Atkins, who was Hartigan’s first coach at Werribee in 2010.
“That was the most you had to pay back then to get a player to play with you. I said to Mark Penaluna, our general manager at the time, that if we’re going to spend this money, this kid has got to be committed.”
As fate would have it, it was a blessing in disguise that he didn’t join Williamstown due to the presence of a big-name Bulldog who spent a portion of the 2011 season in the reserves while recovering from a spate of injuries.
“There was a better opportunity for me to play senior footy a lot quicker at Werribee, and it turned out that Brian Lake played a bit at Williamstown so I wouldn’t have a got a game there in hindsight,” Hartigan explained.
If you watch him play and admire his doggedness, you could be excused for assuming that he had played in the back half for the entirety of his footballing journey, but remarkably, Hartigan’s shift to defence came at TAC Cup level.
Growing up, he switched between midfield and forward and it wasn’t until his first game for the Western Jets — under the tutelage of Steven Kretiuk — that he moved to the back pocket.
And he hasn’t looked back since.
Nothing has come easy for the man who grew up in Taylor’s Lakes and barracked for the Cats, a team the now 25-year-old eliminated last week.
He used to drive roughly an hour to Werribee training following hard day’s labour as a sparky.
For Hartigan to go from the devastation and the shattering feeling of missing out on the draft after spending time at the AIS squad, to spending three years in the VFL and all but giving up hope, to now playing on the biggest stage is one of the game’s endearing stories.
He’s forever indebted to Werribee for the three years he spent there and regularly contacts his former teammates.
While he was plying his trade in defence, Tigers staff were compiling tapes of his play and sending them to AFL clubs in an attempt to catch their eye.
“He was always a competitor and he always had an x-factor,” Atkins said. “He started in the reserves at Werribee and we told him not to worry about where he started. There’s a Chinese proverb that ‘the journey is the reward,’ and that may take two weeks, it might be three weeks or it might be 20 weeks. Kyle is the perfect example of it because he spent three years at VFL level and look where he is now.”
To say that he was low, or even slightly bitter at not being drafted, would be an understatement. He had been told all along throughout his junior representative days that he’d be drafted, but it didn’t eventuate.
The Werribee coaching staff had to pump him up to let him know that this was potentially just a pit stop in a larger story.
That larger story begun to pick up speed towards the back half of his first VFL season.
“I coached him in the last part of the season and he was never beaten,” Atkins explained. “Kyle is good one-on-one, his attributes when the ball hits the ground are sound, and he can play on a tall or medium-sized forward.
“For him to go to Adelaide in the rookie draft — and I know he wanted to stay in Melbourne — and now be an integral part of their defence says a lot about him as a player.”
The Crows were impressed with Hartigan’s preparedness to work hard, on and off the field.
Brenton Sanderson, who was his first coach at Adelaide, recalls a determined 21-year-old with tremendous character.
“For us at the time it was a no-brainer when it came to a rookie selection,” Sanderson told AFLPlayers.com.au. “He filled a need for us with Ben Rutten coming to the end of his career and we had lost Phil Davis a few years earlier. What appealed to us at the time was his character and the fact that he was working full time and still traveling about an hour to get down to Werribee.”
In Round 18, 2013, roughly eight months following his selection with pick 14 in the 2012 rookie draft, Sanderson handed him an AFL debut.
A moment the former senior coach looks back on fondly.
“One of the special moments of being a senior coach is when you tell a player that they’re going to debut. I’ll never forget Kyle coming into my office and telling him that after missing three drafts and coming to us as a rookie that he was going to become an AFL player. You could tell that he was completely blown away that he had made it. There is a template that you come in and get drafted as an 18-year-old and you force your way into the side early in your career, but other guys take a different pathway to becoming a successful AFL player.”
Fast-forward a couple of years, and there’s a bond that exists at the Crows, where Hartigan describes the environment as a ‘brotherhood.’ In terms of life experience, they confronted bigger life challenges than what they’ll go through this Saturday.
“When face hardships it moulds you,” Hartigan said. “It’s like I have 42 brothers over here. We’re forced to bond like a family because a lot of us are from interstate, and then you couple that with what we’ve been through.”
What the Adelaide Football Club has been through could make success taste even sweeter on Saturday, but in his true dour, defensive fashion, Hartigan hasn’t let himself think that far ahead.
“If we win it’ll be amazing, if we lose it’ll be heartbreaking. After the season I’ll reflect on everything, but It’s hard to embrace it all right now.”