Ahead of his 250th game, Aaron Sandilands’ former teammate and captain, Matthew Pavlich, reflects on the giant ruckman’s decorated career, exclusively to Aflplayers.com.au.
Big by nature, quiet by design.
Aaron Sandilands is somewhat of a contradiction.
Despite his dominant size, ‘Big S’ is a hard working, humble and quiet guy. He arrived at the footy club as a shy, and in some ways self-conscious, young fella.
Given his height and how much he stands out walking down the street, he’d grown accustomed to being stopped and asked how tall he was, what size shoe he wears and what the weather was like up there.
And he hated it.
All of those cliché questions would be frustrating and would lead to him being self-conscious.
Walking into the footy club, it took the young kid form the Great Southern region of Mt. Baker a long time to feel comfortable in his own skin. Now he has come to understand his sheer size and he uses it as a laughing point, despite it being a challenge initially.
An endearing feature about him is the fact he is happy to go about his business without any fuss and put his work boots on, whether they’re his footy boots or the ones he wears when he works alongside his dad in their commercial landscaping business. He works hard, quietly and in an old-fashioned way.
He came to the footy club at the end of my second year so we grew up together in some ways. You could see early on that he wasn’t as far behind as some players who had come into the game with a similar height. He wasn’t just a bean pole when he came in, he had a decent amount of size on him and level of co-ordination.
And importantly, it was evident early on that he had a hunger and a taste for hard work — he had a great character.
While he has developed his leadership over the past five or six years, particularly with a few senior players leaving the club, he remains quite unassuming. That said, taking on a broader leadership responsibility actually helps his football. It stretches him to be the player that all his teammates want him to be; a big, powerful leader who demands the best of himself and his colleagues.
His football around the stoppages thrives on that even though he is humble and shy by nature.
Like most players he has always gone into the gym regularly to keep his size on, some of the numbers he lifts are extraordinary. Whilst he’s a big man, he could drop off pretty quickly if he didn’t keep it up so his work ethic is self evident in the gym.
SOME THINGS YOU DON’T KNOW ABOUT SANDI
One thing that most people wouldn’t know about Aaron is that he has a commercial landscape business and has worked in that field for a long time with his dad.
The big fella actually chopped off half of his toe while helping his dad in the business years ago. From memory, I think it was his second toe on his right foot which probably isn’t ideal when your business both as a footballer and outside of it requires you to be on your feet all day.
Two years into his career we went on a spur of the moment trip together to the U.S. with Paul Hasleby and Troy Simmonds. Like us all, he was really excited to get over there for the first time and expected that he wouldn’t stand out as much walking down the street because there’s so many basketballers and athletes who are tall.
Unfortunately for Aaron, he still stood out and had to deal with Americans asking, ‘how tall are you, man? Are you seven foot?’ He was a bit bemused by the attention he received over there. It made for funny viewing for us!
For whatever reason, the song ‘Black Betty’ by Spiderbait has always been synonymous with ‘Big S.’
As you would all know, the lyrics go something like, ‘Oh-oh Black Betty, bam-ba-lam,’ etc. and somehow when the song came on when we were all together, the boys started singing, ‘Oh-oh big Aaron, Sandilands.’
It has become this iconic legacy that the players all do now if we’re having a beer and the song comes on. He even gets up and does a bit of a dance, too. It’s very humourous.
WHERE DOES HE RANK?
I often get asked about the players I’ve played with and who is the best. Aaron ranks right up there when it comes to players I’ve played with at the Dockers. Luke McPharlin, Peter Bell and Nathan Fyfe would rival him in that top top group, but in terms of longevity, durability, and overall influence on the game, being a four-time All-Australian and a best and fairest winner, he almost takes the cake.
When he is at his best on the field, he is impossible to stop due to his size, both tapping the ball to midfielders and when his hands are on, he’s so hard to spoil.
Dean Cox is probably the best ruckman throughout this modern era, but Aaron sits right up there with him in my view.
He has been so dominant and there’s not too many others who have had the career he has had in terms of consistency and the influence that he has on his team. Ruckman are important but none more so than Sandi at Fremantle.
He’s had some challenging moments along the way with the turf toe injuries, broken ribs and a punctured lung last year and the tearing of hamstring tendon in 2013. Most AFL players who play over 250 games will have injury issues, but he has certainly suffered some unique ones.
I don’t think his career will be extended too much by virtue of the adjustments made to the ruck rules, but it certainly helps his influence around the stoppages.
He appears keen to go on, but it will be largely dependent on whether his body and mind are willing. He’ll be a 35-year-old playing ruck if he continues and hopefully he does given Fremantle’s ruck stocks aren’t the deepest at the moment.
MY FONDEST MEMORIES
Although he had the capacity to play well from time to time, it was during the back end of the 2006 season, where we won nine consecutive games and came close to playing in a Grand Final, that was probably the first time we saw him consistently perform at such a high level — the big fella took on Sydney premiership ruckman Darren Jolly in the Preliminary Final and dominated.
The other experience was throughout that whole 2013 season where I worked really closely with him in rehab; in the gym, pool and on the training track in the middle of winter. We’d both had a significant lay-off with injury and were working hard to get back on the park so we could play finals. We worked our backsides off together and it was great having him pushing me by my side.
He’s only the third Fremantle player to achieve the 250-game milestone. It’s a huge achievement and it speaks volumes to his durability, his consistency and his influence. He’ll be a big part of the Fremantle fabric when the club is even further into its existence.
I’m so proud to have played with the big guy and pleased to see him develop and grow because it didn’t come easy for him. There has been a lot of hard work involved and I’m glad to see his career continue to prosper and him coming to terms with his size.