An initial impression of the widely grinning Max Heath would tell you all about his affable, sociable nature.
But Heath, who was drafted to St Kilda from the Sandringham Dragons with the seventh pick of the 2021 AFL mid-season rookie draft, is anything but the big friendly giant his off-field character portrays when he enters the fray on-field.
Instead, the 203-centimetre ruckman’s playing style is characterised by an assertive and imposing attack on the ball.
The big man’s on-field aggression, though, is no simple case of white line fever.
Rather, it stems from a burning, bullocking desire to protect and inspire his teammates.
“I just enjoy tackling and being really physical on the ground, because I know it elevates my teammates into going in harder,” Heath told aflplayers.com.au.
“They know I’m going in just as hard, and hopefully I can protect them or really help them out in that sort of way.
“I don’t want to hurt people, [but] I want to have a real physical impact on the game and put kids into the ground. Now, I’m focused on putting men into the ground.”
Given his insatiable appetite for the contest, it’s no surprise to learn of Heath’s childhood admiration for Brisbane Lions legend Jonathan Brown, a three-time recipient of the AFLPA’s Most Courageous player award.
“I idolised the way he went about it and how courageous he was,” Heath reflected.
“He was my favourite player growing up.”
Heath pinpoints Brown’s 2002 mark against Hawthorn — when the triple-premiership forward charged back with the flight to take the Mark of the Year — as a particular source of inspiration.
“I just remember that mark against the Hawks was really good. A few other times he did that he probably came off second best, but I really liked that about his game, how courageous he was. It’s something I want to implement into my game as well.”
St Kilda’s Moorabbin home is a familiar hunting ground for Heath — it’s also where the Dragons, his NAB League club, are based.
But now, he’ll enter RSEA Park as a Saint.
“It’s been pretty surreal to start off with,” he said.
“It’s something I’ve always wanted since I was a little kid, so it’s a dream come true and I couldn’t be happier.”
But the dream hasn’t been handed to Heath.
He nominated for the AFL Draft last year, and when he wasn’t selected, he began to wonder whether he had the makings of an AFL player.
Post-season ankle surgery also meant a heavily reduced pre-season at the Dragons, where he decided to play on as a top-ager.
But a desire to rebound from the disappointment of draft night combined with the faith of his coaching staff, and soon, Heath’s doubts were quelled.
“[The coaches] were really supportive of me,” he said.
“First off, it was trying to get my body right because I had ankle surgery. I barely had a pre-season to start off with, but they really had faith in me [and] they always believed in me.
“I didn’t think about giving up for a second. It was probably more [wondering] if I was good enough. It was something that did creep in, but something that lessened that thought in my head was training hard and giving it my best. Playing games this year, I realised I can be up to that level.”
Late last week, Heath, who is in year 12, returned to Xavier College as an AFL player.
The mid-season draft’s number one pick, Jacob Edwards, also returned to school with his dreams realised. Both ruckmen played their junior football at Beaumaris.
Remarkably, Heath plied his trade in the ones while the late-developing Edwards played in the seconds.
But, even as an AFL-listed student, Heath remains level-headed.
“Almost everyone [at school] said congratulations and all the teachers were getting around me. But I’m just really keen to start playing some footy and get to work,” he said.
And when St Kilda return to Melbourne after a COVID-forced stint in Sydney, Heath will be ably guided by the ruck wisdom of veteran Paddy Ryder and the tutelage of star big man Rowan Marshall.
“I can’t wait to get to those guys and pick their brains,” Heath said.
“I can’t wait to speak to them and start training with them. It couldn’t have gone any better [than] having two great mentors to help me early in my footy career. I couldn’t ask for anything more.”