On draft day in 2011, I was at the draft in Sydney hoping Richmond would take me.
They had gone as far as telling my parents that if I was available at pick 15, they would select me, but deep down I knew the Giants were more likely considering they had 11 of the first 14 selections.
Truth be told, the only reason I had some hope of ending up at GWS was the distinct possibility that my great mate Devon Smith would be joining me up there.
Before we knew it, we were snapped up with the 13th and 14 picks.
On the Friday, I flew back home and celebrated with family and friends and, by Sunday, my new life in Sydney had begun.
When I was growing up, my dream was similar to a lot of young Victorians. It was to play AFL.
I viewed AFL clubs as these amazing places with exceptional unlimited facilities but that wasn’t initially the case in Western Sydney.
We were training on a baseball diamond for the first month out in Blacktown because we didn’t have our own footy oval or a facility. Our meetings were held in portable classrooms. Our recovery centre was a few wheelie bins filled with iced water. It was a bit underwhelming.
During my two years at the club, I lived with Devon Smith, who was one of the many people that helped me survive through the first eight months away from home. I was incredibly homesick and now when I look back at that time, I know that I was battling some mental health issues due to being away from my family, friends and my support network.
Perhaps I took for granted what I had on offer at home — such a close family and a structured lifestyle — but I don’t want this to sound like I’m complaining. Truth be told, the club were great to me and the other young players who had relocated to chase their dreams.
They did they best they could do considering the circumstances. Melissa and Craig Lambert became my interstate parents and went above and beyond to make sure my life was as settled as it could be in my new home. I will be forever grateful for the love and care they showed me and my fellow teammates. Believe me, it was no easy feat being foster parents to 20 18-year-olds.
Leaving GWS was an incredibly tough decision to make. After 24 months of living in Sydney, I had made some incredibly close friendships. Besides that, I knew we were going to be good, I think everyone knew and it was only a matter of time before we became a real September threat.
I held off from signing, waiting until I was really confident I was ready to throw everything I had to making a career for myself at the Giants. When I thought the time was right to negotiate a contract there was a significant difference between what I thought I was worth and what the club were offering me. The Giants were confident they were going to land Buddy Franklin and were obviously trying to free up salary cap space.
My next move was to reach out to Melbourne clubs that had shown interest in me throughout the year. After meeting with five or so clubs, including Collingwood, Geelong & Richmond the lure to come home and play for a big Melbourne club in front of massive crowds on the MCG was something I jumped at.
When I grew up playing footy, suiting up for the Giants in front of 5,000 people wasn’t what I pictured. I used to watch Anzac Day and think, ‘Wow, that’s amazing! I want to play there.’
I see it as the most powerful day on our nation’s calendar, and the opportunity to be part of that occasion was a major contributor for me selecting the Pies.
My first game for Collingwood was a shocker. There is no other way for me to describe it. I was completely overawed. I got myself so worked up for that game that I got to a point where I couldn’t even think straight on the ground.
I battled those feelings for most of my first year in Melbourne. I wasn’t used to the pressure that comes with playing football here.
I was doing absolutely everything each week that it became too much. It didn’t matter if it was a day off, I’d be at the club doing sweat sessions on a treadmill, working on my kicking or lifting weights.
That was until Ben Johnson came up to me and gave me some advice that has stuck with me ever since. He saw what I was doing and said, ‘Just go home, and chill out. You get the ball enough, you’ll be fine.’
I thought about what Ben had said and took a different approach to the second half of my first year. I relaxed. Don’t get me wrong, I was still training hard, I just hit the off button and tried not to let football completely consume me.
When I was 18 and 19, my pre-game routine was strictly identical, it had to be the same. My preperation for game day is now much more relaxed, this comes off the back of seeing a sports psychologist towards the end of my first year at Collingwood. Those sessions helped me focus on what I could control, allowing me to enter games with a clear head and avoid being caught up worrying about the external noise.
Leadership and emotional intelligence is something that I continue to learn about. I’ve always had a good work ethic and previously struggled to sympathise with people who didn’t. Over time, I have learnt to understand that each player on a list is different and, out of 45 of us, no two people are the same.
Mental health is something I have taken a strong interest in and, right now, I’m learning about mindfulness and humility, and it’s all off the back of mental health awareness. The healthier you are mentally, the better you will perform as an athlete.
I have grown to appreciate meditation and have a focus on being present. That has been big for me in the last couple of years. It helped with all the scrutiny I went through in my first year at Collingwood.
Social media is something that I have tried to delete a few times. This may come as a surprise, but I would prefer to spend 20 minutes reading a book than 20 minutes scrolling through Instagram.
Throughout my life, I have always been a book person. My dad is a big reader and he regularly gives me an autobiography to read. I’ve learnt many valuable lessons from reading other peoples stories involving sport and life in general.
Being at the Giants, I never experienced social media and the impact it can have on a professional athlete. When I first came to Collingwood, I was bombarded with abuse to the point where I thought it was validated.
My mindset now is very different. Regardless of how I’m playing, no one has the right to put me down. All that matters is how my teammates and coaches perceive me as a footballer and as a person around the club.
Most fans would view me as an aggressive footballer. I believe I get the best out of myself playing that way and have put in work to control my emotions when in the heat of the battle.
The biggest influence on that aspect of my life has been Nick Maxwell. My leadership style changed because of him.
I used to be a demanding leader who just thought everyone had to work harder than everyone else to get results, which I think is still true in some respects but there’s much more to it.
My emotional intelligence has changed a lot. I understand people’s feelings and why they react to certain things. There’s much more to being a leader than being the best trainer and performing on the weekend. Leadership to me is about building strong relationships and ensuring all of our players feel equally valued around the club.
Maxy’s selflessness left a mark on all of us at the football club. When he played, it was apparent that he would die for his teammates and the club.
Now, it’s a different kind of selflessness. He gives up his time to mentor us away from the field to help us become better young men.
When I was first traded to the club, Maxy picked my dad and I up in the off-season and took us out for lunch and showed us around.
Straight away, I thought this person genuinely cares about making other people’s lives more enjoyable.
When I think about how I want to be remembered, Maxy pops into my head straight away. Most footballers would strive to have the sort of impact he has had.
To keep it simple, I want to be viewed as a passionate person with a thirst to succeed and someone who was a great friend and competitor.
And of course, I want to be part of team success. I’d be lying if I said that I hadn’t thought about going deep in the finals this year because we have the group and the talent to get us there.
But there’s still a lot of water to go under the bridge.
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