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Players’ Voice — Devon Smith

Growing up, I was a motivated kid.

The reason was simple. I knew from a young age I wanted to be an AFL footballer. It was my dream.

Many people told me along the way I was too small or not good enough. Now, I thank them because it gave me the extra motivation to get better.

I worked tirelessly to become the most complete player I could be — working on kicking and hand-passing on both sides of the body — getting as fit as possible and often running to and from training.

Having two brothers and a sister meant that I spent plenty of time in the backyard and it was there where l learnt about my competitive nature.

When I played junior football for Lara, I played a year or two above my age bracket, and eventually played my first senior game for the club at 16 with my brothers. Funnily enough, that was my first and only senior game because I was not allowed to play again, just in case I got hurt.

I was always the small guy in the team, and I still am. Perhaps my body has filled out a tad compared to those days when I was a little runt running around.

The nickname ‘Kev’ has never been explained to me. I’ve had ‘Smithy,’ ‘Smitta’ and ‘Schnitzel,’ but my brothers and all of my mates at Lara call me ‘Kev.’ It has happened since a young age, and I hated it at the start, but now it has stuck. Mick Hurley caught on and now a few boys at the club are calling me ‘Kev.’

My entire youth was spent in Lara, where everything was outdoors. I played sport, road my bike everywhere, and often fished in Hovells Creek.

Until I was 15, I played every sport under the sun, but made the decision to focus on football after that as the possibility of being drafted became apparent. In Year 10, I received a scholarship to attend Geelong Grammar having previously attended Geelong High.

Let’s just say there was a massive difference between the two schools! Geelong Grammar is one of the most prestigious schools in the country and the facilities are unbelievable. Instead of finishing my days at 3:30pm, I was finishing at 9pm.

Those two years made me grow up about 10 years. I was an immature kid, and the school shaped me into a much more rounded person, which makes me thankful that I did take that opportunity.

I was forced to get out of my comfort zone and learn to be a professional with my training and my gym work, and try new things like public speaking, which is something that could not have been further from my radar as a teenager.

The scholarship was for football and cricket, and although footy was the priority, I absolutely loved playing cricket on Friday afternoons and Saturdays.

I actually took a 10-for in the first XI which hasn’t been done too often. I made a couple tons at Lara but couldn’t make a run to save myself at Grammar!

It wasn’t until I was 17 and was selected by the AIS that I then believed that being drafted was more likely than not. However, I still don’t think dad believed me that I was going to make it.

Draft night in 2011 was the most nerve-racking experience of life. Being invited up there and still sitting anxiously as the top 10 ended and we were all of a sudden up to 14, I said to myself, ‘Why am I at the draft when I haven’t been selected yet?’

At the time I was so annoyed that I had dropped so that late in the draft. I’m quite stubborn but looking back now it really doesn’t matter where you are drafted.

Having Taylor Adams and his family with me during that process meant a lot, and made the whole situation so much easier. For us to be selected back-to-back with the 13th and 14th selections was a dream come true.

My first two years at the Giants were some of the best years of my life. It’s difficult to explain the situation, but having 20-something 18-year-olds running around in Breakfast Point and living together was a surreal experience.

I look back on it as a 24-month camp! On my floor, there was Taylor Adams, Toby Greene, Adam Tomlinson and Tommy Bugg. Every night there was FIFA and we made the most of it.

While I”m on the topic, I’d like to thank the Lambert family for what they did for us boys, it was huge. They created a family environment for all of us and often I was there just hanging out with the kids.

The local pub was called The Palace and we spent way too many nights there as youngsters. Still to this day I have friends that I met at the pub and we still text and occasionally catch up.

It was a fun group to be around, because we were all so similar. We were told to play our way, with Sheeds and Choco leading the way, and the competitive people that you see now like Taylor Adams, Tommy Bugg, Toby Green — who they make out to be a villain — gave us a mix of players who could play on the edge.

We might have been a little cheeky on the field at times, but it was only because of how competitive we were, and still are.

Throughout my six years with the Giants, I gave my blood, my sweat, my heart and my soul. The foundation players made a pact that we would stay together to achieve a premiership.

Even last year, I still wasn’t sure if I was coming home or staying with the Giants, but I looked around the locker room and the people and the staff had changed. Around 75 percent of those that I wanted to achieve success with were gone.

One of the biggest things was when Nathan Wilson left. He was one of my best mates, and once he told me that later in the year it played with my mind to think that if I did hang around, who was going to be left?

It was so hard watching that preliminary final loss to Richmond last year. I hadn’t played for four weeks leading up to the game and I had been doing a mountain of work to get up to play, and my knee was at 90 percent and I felt in my head that I was right.

Leon and the coaches went with Stevie J, and I remember sitting behind the goals and as Richmond got in front in the third quarter, it was then that I felt in my mind my time at GWS was over.

It was terribly difficult to tell them I was leaving. It’s also hard because you don’t know where you’re going to end up. I remember the trade period and my dad and my girlfriend ringing me asking me what was going on and where we were all going to be, and every day I thought I was closer to finding out, but the reality is that you don’t know.

In the end, I wanted to get to Essendon but I didn’t know if I would due to the potential length of the deal and multiple other factors. Eventually, it went smoothly and I was traded reasonably early in the week.

As a player, you don’t reflect that much, and looking back now, I didn’t realise how unhappy I was in my last year at the Giants. I kept saying to myself that I was lucky being in the AFL and having the chance to potentially be premiers, however coming home has made me realise there’s much more to life than football.

I have a better work-life balance — playing golf and being able to drive 30 minutes to see my nephews and have dinner with dad — just things you take for granted up there.

I wouldn’t change anything from my time in Sydney to now because it has been such a good learning experience. I grew up a lot from that.

My first day at Essendon was like my first day at school again. The nerves were there, and there was an element of excitement. It stimulated my love for the game again doing things like a different weights program, a different running program and meeting new people.

I was asked the other day whether I’ve always been a tackling beast, or whether it has just been a new trait because I played predominantly forward at the Giants. Andy Althorpe, who was my coach at the Falcons, told me that he remembered a day in one of our finals where we lost by 140+ points, but said I had 20 disposals and 20 tackles and never gave up trying.

To answer that question, I think it has always been in me, but only this year is it being brought to life more. Perhaps that is a by-product of the amount of time I have spent in the midfield, which is something that wasn’t as prevalent in Sydney.

When you’re drafted, all you want to do is make your debut and then play seniors. However, after a few years of being happy playing AFL, you want to play the role you think you’re suited to. It was always in the back of my mind that I was drafted as a midfielder, and that is where I have always wanted to play, even if people only remember me as a sneaky small forward at the Giants who kicked crafty goals.

Despite starting the season 2-6, I have enjoyed the entire year. There is a sense that I have fallen back in love with footy again.

Of course, there are tough moments when you’ve won just two of the first eight games, and after the Carlton loss we were at rock bottom as a group.

Following on from that disappointment, we had open and honest conversations with each other. We had our backs against the wall, but since then we have changed our identity to a high-pressure team who kick the ball forward and stripped it back to basics.

No one ever likes hearing those things and having tough conversations, but you know when one of your good mates tells you something that they’re doing it for the right reason. You can’t get bitter, you have to get better. We have a caring environment at Tullamarine, and that made it a safe place for us to provide direct feedback to each other.

From my perspective, it was hard providing feedback to my new teammates, but I tried my best to open up and be honest. Zach Merrett was one that at the start of the year we thought wasn’t quite playing to his normal level, but we told him that he is a gun and he needed to be in the midfield and getting the ball forward and that he is elite with his tackling pressure. Since then, he’s hit some form and is back to his best.

Regardless of how the year pans out, I’m just thrilled to be playing back at home. I feel re-energised, and with the second half of my career in front of me, who knows what’s next!

Up until this season, I was perceived as a small forward who didn’t defend too much. I hope that now the perception has changed since they have watched me closely.

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