“Try and cut back on the chips.”
That was the advice from Tony Elshaug and Chris Pelchen and became the first of many dramatic changes I would be making.
It was late 2013, I had a couple of events coming up and the Saints were yet to sign me, so it was best I listened to their words of wisdom. My diet was one of the things that was overhauled as I adapted to life as an AFL player.
Four years on and the journey has ended at St Kilda — the place that gave me the opportunity to do something no one else has done.
But my journey in the AFL can’t end here.
I gave up too much, leaving everything behind to be here and have experienced so much for it all to finish now. I have more to offer.
I don’t know if I’d define myself as a risk-taker but, going back all those years ago, I knew I had to do something different after college.
I had to make a decision to play basketball overseas or play footy. The opportunity to do something new and challenge myself in a way that not many Americans think is possible, because they aren’t aware of the sport, was too good to refuse.
I have taken chances throughout my life that could be considered risks. I went to three different colleges and along the way I was prepared to leave everything I knew for a better opportunity.
I’ll always know that I’ll be prepared to take the chance and the challenge and more often than not come out on top. That’s not to say I knew what I was getting myself into by taking up Australian Rules!
Unfortunately, my time at the Saints is up and this has led to a bit of time to reflect on what I’ve accomplished and learned during those four incredible years.
It started to hit me this year that I’ve been here for four years — it’s a long time but has gone so fast. It’s been tough at times but it’s also been amazing.
Every athlete experiences highs and lows, there’s been so many people who helped me get to where I am today and I couldn’t be more grateful to those people along the journey.
I recently saw a photo of Paul Hudson teaching me the mechanics of kicking on the sidelines, it must’ve been one of the my first sessions as a Saint.
It’s hard to believe how far I’ve come in that time. Even my body has changed dramatically — it just wasn’t an AFL body at that point in time.
Then two years later I would experience one of the greatest thrills in my life — running out alongside my teammates in a St Kilda jumper.
I remember Alan Richardson ringing me on Tuesday night to tell me I was playing. It wasn’t enough time to get my family out here from America but my roommate, Arryn Siposs, and I were jumping for joy to the point where his dog was losing his mind — it was a great moment.
I don’t remember much from the game but I felt like I was floating across the Etihad turf, although I was extremely exhausted, but the game ended in a draw.
It was one of the strangest feelings I’ve ever experienced. I didn’t know how to feel — particularly because it was the first time I was on a ground in an AFL match.
Along the way, I was taught a few lessons from opposition ruckman. In the VFL, I remember playing against Tom Campbell and I just couldn’t get my jump right at the centre bounce, which changed everything.
There was also Nick Meese from Williamstown who has such a big body that I had to change up my tactics — he frustrated me at times.
But my toughest day was against my idol and the reason I pursued the AFL dream, Nic Naitanui, in Round 23, 2015.
I got a great lesson from Nic about what it was like to be an athletic ruckman and have an impact on the contest in other ways.
The ruck is one of the remaining spots where you go toe-to-toe with your opponent for the majority of the day so you have to pride yourself on beating him first and foremost.
But the most challenging part of the sport is the fitness and the detail for skill work. You have to work on your craft in any sport so that was expected but what surprised me was the fitness base that I needed to compete.
I’m still growing in that aspect. I’m now in a place where I can run myself into the ground. Even little things like swimming — I’m not a good swimmer but I can outswim anyone I know here now. Those small aspects of developing have been the biggest improvements since I’ve moved over to Australia.
To do the stuff AFL players do nonstop for 130 minutes, chasing down opponents, hitting each kick, leaping for marks and constantly communicating is something not many in the world can do.
I still want to do more. I had some opportunities but I don’t feel like I was able to prove what I thought I could be.
While I improved, there is a level I want to reach. I felt like I developed throughout each of the four years in the system and I feel like I can keep going. I haven’t reached the ceiling yet.
The journey has been worth leaving everything behind for.
I’m getting a lot of messages from people wishing me the best and saying ‘don’t forget what you were able to accomplish’ but I was so caught up in not looking back because I knew I had to improve so much more than the next guy to be competitive in this game.
The ability to reflect on what I’ve achieved in the sport — being the first born and bred American to play at the top level — is one of the craziest things I’m trying to grasp right now. Now might be a good time to attempt to understand the magnitude of what I have accomplished.
I’ve always wanted live without regrets and take risks that have great rewards.
If you’re thinking of trying something new and getting out of that comfort zone, my advice would be to go for it — I can guarantee you wouldn’t know who I am if I didn’t take the risk to come to Australia.
There will be a lot of people supporting you along the way. You’ll find yourself a stronger person for going through the challenges and that’ll make you a better person for it.
Hopefully, for me, there’s more of that to come.