In November 2015, Michael Hartley walked through the doors of the Essendon Football Club with an opportunity few receive — a second chance in the AFL system.
Fast forward to September 2017, and the former Collingwood rookie has come face-to-face with some of the best forwards in the game on a regular basis.
But that’s not something you could have told him prior to arriving at the Bombers, because he has also come face-to-face with the realisation that his AFL dream was over.
“I would call you a liar if you said I would be playing against these guys,” Hartley told AFLPlayers.com.au.
“I had my fingers crossed that I would get back in the system but I didn’t think I’d get back and play as many games as I have. I love playing against the biggest, baddest and ugliest forwards going around.”
And letting his more talented teammates gather much of the media’s attention is exactly the way he likes it.
“I’m all about the team and allowing ‘Hurls’ to do what he does. I’m just doing my job in locking down the key forwards and letting the superstars do their thing.”
Originally recruited via the NSW Scholarship program in 2008, Hartley was then taken with selection No. 87 in the 2012 rookie draft, but lasted just two years on Collingwood’s list due to a luckless run with injuries before being delisted.
Much to his surprise, he earned a reprieve from Essendon in 2015 following some impressive form in the VFL with Coburg,
In his two seasons at the Bombers, the 24-year-old has experienced plenty of highs and lows with John Worsfold’s side, now setting himself for a finals campaign after finishing 18th last season in trying circumstances.
And the underrated stopper can’t wait for Saturday, with a battle against a red-hot Lance Franklin on the cards for the key defender.
“It should be pretty sweet, I didn’t think it would happen as quick as that,” Hartley explained. “That was my thought when the 12 guys were told they weren’t playing. I didn’t think we would be going as well are we are. Everyone at the club is up and about — even the coaches. It’s going to be good.”
Hartley may only be in his second season at Bomberland but he’s been impressed with the club’s supporters, with Essendon now boasting more than 67,000 members in 2017.
“They are the best going around. There’s six buses going to the game on Saturday which is pretty cool. They deserve a lot of appreciation and thanks for sticking by us. It’s been a few tough years for them.”
Hartley doesn’t receive a large amount of attention from fans – and he’s more than happy flying under the radar – one man who garners supporter excitement is Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti, a teammate Hartley shares a close relationship with.
“We are both a similar age and we are both pretty quiet,” Hartley said.
“I get along with Tippa and his family well and vice versa. He is a ripping fella. His mum follows him all over the country and my parents follow me all over the country, so they meet up a lot of the time and watch the games together.”
When they take to the field again with their Essendon teammates at the SCG on Saturday afternoon, the one-point loss earlier in the season will linger in their minds.
But this time around Hartley is confident the Bombers are well prepared for a similar scenario.
“We went over that pretty thick the week after and recently as well. We learnt a lot. We know what to do in that situation now and we should be ready if the game does go down to the wire like that again.”