Early in season 2013, Melbourne recruiter Gary Burleigh was eager to scope out the talent-laden Brighton Grammar side.
A strong team, Brighton contained two standout players who would feature prominently come draft time at the end of the season.
But what Burleigh didn’t intend coming across was a blonde-haired half-back by the name of Jayden Hunt.
“I was predominantly watching Josh Kelly and Christian Salem for that year’s draft,” Burleigh told Aflplayers.com.au.
“I saw Brighton play on five or six occasions as the year unfolded because those two were on our radar and Jayden kept bobbing up. He wouldn’t have outstanding games but he would have moments in games where you thought ‘there he is again’.
“He really started to grab my attention later in the season where his x-factor, clean hands and his ability to take off – that’s what really got my attention was his speed, ability to change direction and angles and his run and carry.”
For the majority of the season, Hunt was a relative nobody to the draft world. He didn’t play much the previous season because of back troubles and was invested in tennis.
He was also small in stature which prevented him playing in any role other than a small forward – which he was handy at.
The Brighton Grammar side was coached by former AFL player and coach Robert Shaw. Following a growth spurt before the start of the 2013 season, Hunt was moved away from his role as the side’s resident forward pocket.
“He was always a forward, creative skilful, clever forward. He had amazing pace and everyone was always convinced that he was a forward but I actually thought he could play in the back-six,” Shaw stold Aflplayers.com.au.
“So in Year 12, I put him in the backline, where he had never played before. I gave him the responsibility of taking the kick outs and picking up the best small forwards, and basically what you see him do now is what he did for the school at a smaller scale.
“I remember the day I told him he was going into defence, I said ‘mate you’ll be playing in the backline all year’ and he laughed and said ‘I don’t think I’ve ever been down that end’.
“Year 12 was the year he really came along leaps and bounds. He was always talented and a really clever footballer but his move to defence added maturity, urgency and a lot of responsibility.”
It was a decision that would have a profound impact on Hunt as he was impossible to miss across half-back. But Burleigh needed to know more about this kid, so he asked Shaw for more information.
Shaw was adamant that his dashing defender should be on an AFL list for the 2014 season, but when the APS competition finished, Burleigh needed to see more.
“On the Thursday or Friday after their school season finished, Robert rang me and said he’ll be playing for Old Brighton in the Under-19s, so I changed my plans from watching TAC Cup to go and watch this under-19s amateur team play just to see more of Jayden.
“He hadn’t been on our radar before because he just hadn’t shown enough – he was a bit of a highlights package. So I went down to Brighton Beach Oval where I’d never been before and it was a windy, slippery day but he was there on the half-back flank.
“He would’ve had about 20 possessions and kicked in from full-back and was hitting the centre of the ground with the wind, but there was this one passage of play, I think it was in the third quarter, he grabbed the ball from half-back and just took off. He had two bounces and just launched from 60m out and it went through goal post height and I just thought ‘wow that was seriously good’.
“I know it’s a lower level but that’s special, not many people can do what he did so I rang [Melbourne National Recruiting Manager] Jason Taylor halfway through and said ‘I reckon we have one here’.”
Hunt played a couple more games for Old Brighton’s under-19s and Burleigh went along. He even ventured to the APS Athletics competition to watch Hunt race in the open 100m sprint – where he ran the seventh fastest time against conditioned runners.
Now with a firm idea of Hunt’s capabilities, Melbourne were keen to keep him under wraps. But their hopes were dashed when they spotted a rival with an eye on Hunt.
“I went to watch his next game at Princes Park and Collingwood’s Derek Hine was there, so they had clearly cottoned on to Jayden,” Burleigh said.
“They might’ve done a follow-up on him, people talk and maybe there was a tip off from the previous week and Derek is from down that area also.
“I didn’t quite know how interested Collingwood were in him, but for Derek Hine to go and watch one player in September means a fair bit.”
*Jayden Hunt’s results in the 2013 APS Athletics comp, with Port Adelaide’s Karl Amon not far off the pace.
Collingwood might’ve had an eye on Hunt but they were certainly keeping it a secret, with Shaw saying Melbourne were the only club to inquire about the fleet-footed youngster.
As draft day approached, the Demons planned to take Hunt as late as they could, knowing there was an element of risk involved with a player strictly from a school competition.
Melbourne entered the 2013 draft with picks 9, 40 and 57, and was mindful of Collingwood’s interest, who had picks 6, 10, 65 and 77.
“Jayden wasn’t in our rankings at the start of the year but by the end of the season, I ranked him around the mid-20s based purely on the glimpses he showed,” Burleigh said.
“I think Collingwood were also interested in taking him around that mark. They had some interest in Jay Kennedy-Harris who we took at pick 40, but you do some research and find out where the interest is and Melbourne knew they only had to beat Collingwood for him at the time.
“So there’s a bit of gamesmanship there to find out where you needed to pick him, they could’ve taken him as a rookie but they knew Collingwood were lurking.
“Jason Taylor really backed his recruiters in and it was in his first draft as the number one man in charge of that area, it took some guts to call Jayden’s name out. With a new coach, it would’ve been easy to take the safe option and not back his staff in considering he hadn’t been exposed to Jayden that much.”
After a couple of injury–interrupted seasons, Hunt has proven to be one of the better steals in recent draft history.
The dashing half-back impressed in his Round 4 debut and steadily improved as the season progressed. After 19 games, he led the Demons for running bounces in 2016 and received a place in this year’s 22Under22 squad.
And with a long and exciting AFL career ahead, it’s hard to believe Hunt nearly escaped the AFL system.
“They get besotted by the TAC Cup system, scholarships, squads and talent pathways but there’s blokes playing school footy who should be on AFL lists,” Shaw said.
“Because someone at TAC Cup doesn’t rate him or look at him because he has a knock in his game, the players just disappear, so Jayden’s is a great story in many ways.
Burleigh agreed, and said Hunt’s story is one of opportunity coupled with a bit of luck.
“I think his mates had to talk him into playing in Year 12, which essentially means a few of his friends have talked him into an AFL career.”
Jayden Hunt is part of the 2016 22Under22 squad.