This article was originally published in July, 2017.
Alex Witherden had all the talents needed for a potential AFL career.
Entering the under-16 national championships, the youngster was one of Vic Country’s most skillful players — with his precision kicking a clear strength.
But while he had the silky skills and the ball-getting ability across half-back, Witherden also displayed a level of toughness throughout the competition.
“He actually broke his ankle or his foot during the carnival, missed one week and came back and played as couple of days later,” then Vic Country teammate and current North Melbourne youngster, Jy Simpkin, told AFLPlayers.com.au.
“He had a crack in his foot or ankle region after being stood on in the first game of the carnival, which showed a lot of toughness and surprised us all to do what he did and still play well.”
While his teammates caught a glimpse of his bravery, Witherden’s class was on full display throughout the carnival.
One vivid recollection Simpkin has of his right-footed mate is during a crucial moment in one of their clashes at the same carnival.
Witherden had a set-shot on the boundary line from 30 metres out — what his teammates considered to be borderline impossible to convert.
The cool teenager calmly slotted the drop punt through the big sticks, leaving his teammates gob smacked — it’s this type of elite kicking under pressure that has been on show so far in his short AFL career.
But Simpkin and Witherden’s relationship extends further than their later years as juniors.
The pair first met in Grade 6 while trying out for the state’s under-12s team and Simpkin was taken aback by Witherden’s confident but friendly nature.
The duo clicked straight away and forged a friendship that would prove telling once they reached their draft year.
Simpkin’s injury troubles in 2016 are well-documented, with the Murray Bushranger breaking his leg in April. After visiting Simpkin at his hospital bed post-surgery, Witherden would suffer the same fate only a short time later.
“I broke my leg two weeks before he broke his, so we went all through last year not knowing what was going to happen with our futures,” Simpkin added.
“I remember seeing the news that he had broken his leg on Twitter. Cal Twomey sent out a Tweet from that game and that’s how I found out.
“His was a lot worse than mine. Alex broke his fibula and tibia whereas I only broke my fibula.
“He was pretty down at the time but we both knew we’d help each other through it which hopefully put a little more ease in his mind. We both went through the same emotions and similar problems.”
The pair kept up their contact throughout the season but instead of trading recovery secrets, they used each other as an outlet to escape their leg troubles.
With Witherden going to Brisbane and Simpkin to the Kangaroos, the pair are a chance to line-up alongside one another as opponents for the first time in Round 23.
And if that circumstance eventuates, Simpkin knows exactly what to say to put the Round 17 Rising Star nominee off his game.
“I’ve thought about what it’d be like to line-up against each other in Round 23, it’d be interesting,” Simpkin said.
“We wouldn’t be afraid to dish out the banter on the ground. He’s always worried about his looks, so I’d be trying to rough up his hair or something for sure while he’s on the TV.
“He used to spend a bit of time on his hair back in the day.”