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The untold story of Jake Carlisle’s maturation

Days into his first week as a member of St Kilda, Jake Carlisle began the near two-hour journey back home from Seaford to Ascot Vale in peak hour.

Keen to make an impression, the former Bomber came back a few weeks earlier from the off-season and from all reports, had a strong week on the track, culminating in worthy praise from his peers and coaches, and a highlights clip was played of his best moments with Essendon for the whole group to see.

Upon getting home at 7:30pm following the long drive, Carlisle ate some dinner, set his alarm and literally passed out. Before he knew it, it was 8:30am the following morning, and he woke to six missed calls on his phone from St Kilda’s Player Development Manager, Tony Brown, Alan Richardson, and his manager, Anthony McConville.

The session, which commenced at 7:45am at Moorabbin, included some training with professional boxer, Sam Soliman. When he arrived late, and very sheepish, Alan Richardson sat the new recruit down in front of the football club and delivered a spray, but what came next took an even larger toll.

An hour session with Soliman followed, where the then 24-year-old had to perform rope pulls, push-ups and plank holds, and then eight three-minute rounds with the professional boxer who also has experience with mixed martial arts.

“I couldn’t breathe and nearly passed out but I said to myself, ‘I’ve got so much to prove to this group,’” Carlisle explained. “I kept telling myself that while a few of the boys came back from a beach recovery session and watched on for about 20 minutes. I built a fair bit of their trust from there.”

Between an infamous incident in Las Vegas that was made public only hours after the trade went through in 2015 — which caused some friction within the playing group — and his subsequent late arrival to a fitness session in his first week, Carlisle will tell you that he “couldn’t have had a worse start”.

Alan Richardson vouched for the key defender following his stint as a development coach at Essendon, and their list management team, which featured Ameet Bains and Tony Elshaug, had identified the obvious need for a big-bodied defender after years of Sam Fisher and Sean Dempster toiling away bravely against larger opponents.

“For us, the football need was overwhelming,” Ameet Bains said, almost three years after executing the trade. “But Jake would be the first to admit that there were some issues coming out of his last year at Essendon.”

Those issues revolved around Carlisle’s on-field demeanour during the 2015 season, a year that proved to be enormously difficult for the entire Essendon playing group and one that pushed him to breaking point. “I either needed to play for another club or I won’t play footy at all,” Carlisle recalled. “I wanted to pack up shop and just be a normal person playing local footy. In the end, it motivated me to go somewhere else and have something to prove.”

Players source motivation from a number of different outlets, but if Carlisle needed more after an indifferent beginning to his tenure with St Kilda in late 2015, he need not look further than a tweet posted that October by a respected football analyst.

The post read, ‘Jake Carlisle will be a bust. #youwatch,’ and if you think the comment sailed off quietly into the night, you would be wrong.

Not only was it noted, the tweet was printed, laminated and currently resides in Carlisle’s locker, “I put it up there to inspire me to play better,” he said. “I’m not going to bite back, I’m just going to play good footy and lead this backline.”

Almost three months after the trade was completed, Carlisle and 33 other past and present Essendon players were suspended by WADA for the 2016 season. Through a connection with long-time supporter, and the managing director of Buxton Constructions Andrew Briggs, St Kilda set up a work placement for their new recruit to give him a taste of the outside world in his year away from the game.

“The 12-month suspension was a real disappointment for him and for us as a club, but to Jake’s credit, he turned up on time and appreciated the opportunity,” Tony Brown explained. “He had hip surgery in that time as well, and combined the work experience, rehab and travel in his break.”

“He took to the time at Buxton wholeheartedly, to the point where they went beyond the trial period they were having with him, and extended his days,” Bains recalled. “He really invested in that process and made himself better.”

The year off provided challenges for obvious reasons, but some of the frustration revolved around the disruption it had on Carlisle’s ability to build meaningful relationships with his new colleagues. “Not only was it three months into my time at a new club, it was another 12 months before I could see them all again and train with them.”

Back in his time with Essendon, Carlisle would fill out his personal notebook with analysis on potential opponents leading into a game, whether it be on the individual or the collective. Returning to St Kilda leading into the 2017 season, he wrote just one note, ‘All actions, less talk’.

The message was simple. After a tricky beginning, and an untimely ban, football was going to be the focus. The goal was to earn the respect of his teammates, and the plan was to train hard, and beat his opponent week in, week out.

The hip surgery in 2016 meant he was unable to run for seven to eight months, which halted his start to 2017, but by the back half of the year, St Kilda fans were salivating. And that has carried through to 2018, where despite his most recent setback with an unfortunate punctured lung, and a concussion sustained against the Dockers, the 26-year-old has led St Kilda’s defensive group with distinction, which has helped him to ‘get his mojo back’.

Jade Gresham will forever be linked with Jake Carlisle, and not just because they’re teammates, but also because they arrived as part of the same trade.

With Sydney included as the third party to get the deal across the line, their ability to throw in pick 14 in 2015 — which would eventually become 18 — netted the speedy Northern Knights product.

Since then, Gresham and Carlisle have built a unique and somewhat surprising bond when you consider their age gap.

If you live in the Moorabbin area and frequent the café scene, there is every chance you have seen the two during their weekly breakfast tradition.

“We started together at the club and didn’t know many of the boys so it was good to hang around each other,” Jade Gresham said. “He took me under his wing and showed me the ropes. He’s been a big help. He is very loving and caring, but from the outside people don’t know what he is really like.”

Since coming to the club, Carlisle likes to regularly remind the young star that they’re at St Kilda for a reason, “I always get into Gresh and I say, ‘You and I have done well in that trade because if I never came here you would have been taken by another club’. It has all worked out well.”

And on the other side of the coin, Essendon selected Aaron Francis with the sixth selection. During the 2016 season, Carlisle admitted to enjoying the fact the youngster wasn’t playing straight away, because he had to endure his own pain due to the 12-month ban.

But as things have become clearer, he genuinely feels for Francis and hopes for the best, “I feel for him going through this adversity, but I’m sure he will be a good player.”

In August 2017, Carlisle was a guest at an auction night at the Calder Cannons. Part of their program in 2008 and 2009, the former Cannon has always been keen to give back to the club that helped him be drafted. But on this night nearly 12 months to the day, he left a strong impression on their coach at the time, Andrew Johnston, and long-time talent manager, Ian Kyte.

“Jake came over and said, ‘I’d really like to come back and do something.’ We wondered what he meant by that, and he said, ‘I’ve stuffed up enough to know and be able to teach the boys and relate them to my experiences,’” Ian Kyte remembered. “He said that he’d like to come back after everything everyone did here for him.”

Kyte has always had a strong relationship with Carlisle since the two first met in 2009 during his time in the under-18s, and since he has been part of the AFL system, the Cannons stalwart has been a sounding board of sorts.

Despite their closeness, Kyte was surprised by Carlisle’s frank approach and subsequent offer. But since commencing work with the defensive group this season, the Cannons have benefitted markedly. Carlisle’s ability to see the game unfolding and be proactive has been a shining light, along with basic skill development and defensive craft — assisting his pupils to push off quicker in a marking contest, when to roll off and developing their starting positions.

“He is Jake Carlisle — just a bloke who happens to play the game a bit better than most of us — but his footy brain makes him quite exceptional in what he can do with kids at this stage. He has built relationships with not only the players, but also the parents.”

So concerned that his time at the Cannons might be limited, Carlisle and Kyte sat down a few months back and planned out the rest of the season, determining when the weekends would align for the Saint to attend match day, on top of training. On Saturday, the Cannons face Oakleigh, and Carlisle will be on the sidelines rallying the troops once again.

“I continually remind him that this is secondary to his AFL football, he continually reminds me that he wants to develop his coaching,” Kyte noted.

Season 2018 has been far from positive for St Kilda, but their ability to expose an influx of younger players to the big time may assist in the long run.

So far, the club has unleashed five first-gamers in Hunter Clark, Nick Coffield, Ed Phillips, Bailey Rice and Darragh Joyce, and introduced former Port Adelaide defender, Logan Austin. They’ve also put game time into the likes of Josh Battle, Ben Long and Rowan Marshall.

Perhaps in former years Carlisle would have let his frustrations get in the way while enduring a sub-standard season, but the maturing leader is determined to find the positive, “Right now I honestly couldn’t be more motivated to lift this club up,” he said. “We have taken a backward step, but at the same time we have taken a positive step because we have got game time into these young guys. I’m looking forward to continue working with them and developing my leadership. We have seven games left together to try and do that, it’s never a wasted year.”

To those close to him, Carlisle’s maturation has been substantial. There have been blips along the way, but the consensus is that he has found his balance. Much maligned and used to scrutiny, he has let his football do the talking over the last 16 months.

And if you ask those around him, they will back that sentiment, “From how he started at the club, to today, it has been a huge transformation,” Brown explained. “To see him grow and mature has been tremendous.”

“It’s been significant [how far Jake has come]. It’s hard to quantify, but it’s enormous,” Bains said. “It has been an evolution, but having that time in 2016 where he had to find a way to spend his time productively and have paid employment and work his way through that was a big step. He is now much more content in life, both from a football perspective and a soon-to-be family perspective.”

He and his partner Mel are expecting their first child in August, but they are doing their best to keep the gender of the child quiet, “I’m so excited and ready for fatherhood,” Carlisle said. “I have a stable life and I’m happy where I am. With the little one on the way, there’s no more motivation than that to work hard.

“People often ask if I regret anything that has happened, but I never regret anything because it makes me better for it. I’ve learnt a lot from my mistakes.”