One moment in history predetermined Reece McKenzie’s life, yet it occurred nine years before he was born. That moment was the 1987 Carlton Premiership. His father Warren played only 67 games for Carlton, but he is best remembered for his goal in the Grand Final.
Three years later, Peter Foster donned the Charles Sutton Medal. The Footscray best and fairest winner managed 163 games for the Bulldogs, thus allowing his son Jayden to become eligible for a father-son priority selection. In 2014, the Bulldogs are overflowing with famous names: Liberatore, Wallis, Hunter and Cordy. At any other club, a father-son selection is treasured. At the Dogs, it’s become banal.
While the top two TAC Cup goal kickers seem to be in a similar situation, McKenzie is kicking goals to take the pressure off himself: meanwhile, Foster is kicking them to attract some attention to his potential.
Cemented in footy folklore, 27 years have passed since Warren McKenzie was immortalised. He has three children now, and he services elevators for a living.
I walked into a busy café in Lower Templestowe, and in typical Melbourne fashion it was pouring rain outside. Looking around, I saw Warren and his son Reece waving at me, both having been drenched from the downpour. Instantly, it was Reece’s sheer size that impressed me. His father was 190 centimetres in his heyday, but the starlet stood at 196 centimetres and 100 kilograms, dwarfing his famous father.
That interview was admittedly one of the most difficult to get through. As only a naïve journalist would, I started with the hairy question: how do you deal with the pressure of being a famous son?
“It’s extraordinarily tough,” McKenzie said.
“With Carlton being one of the biggest clubs, there’s so much external pressure. But I put it to the back of my mind. I have Zac Ballard (brother of Fremantle’s Jacob) at the club, and seeing the way he deals with it helps me focus on what’s important.”
My poor decision to start with a tricky question put McKenzie on the back foot for the entire interview. He was shy, and when I asked him questions about his goals to become an AFL player, I realised he had only played one TAC Cup game. The pressure on him was immense. McKenzie dedicated his life as a 17-year-old to basketball, but when he realised it would not lead him to success, he returned to the Northern Knights Football Club.
Carlton fans have quizzed me on McKenzie’s talent since well before the start of the season: despite being ineligible for the father-son selection, McKenzie has already become their great white hope.
It seems like nothing McKenzie does is enough for draft watchers. Early in the year, McKenzie was dominant against a strong Eastern Ranges outfit, but he nailed only one of his six shots on goal. It saw pundits flock to Twitter, savagely denouncing him as a poor kick.
McKenzie proved those doubters wrong at the draft combine this week, as he nailed 24 of his 30 attempts in the kicking test. He showed his elite speed with a time of 2.87 seconds over 20 metres, good enough for second overall. 27/30 was good for equal first in the handball testing, and his standing vertical leap was seventh best overall.
If anyone still has doubts over whether McKenzie is just a big kid beating up on smaller ones, you only have to look at his athletic prowess to know he is the full package.
As the year progressed, McKenzie kicked bags of 10, seven and six goals in three games against the Northern Territory, Bendigo and the Ranges. Those same fans were unimpressed, given the sides he dominated against were inferior teams.
Carlton followers loved McKenzie, but had ridiculously high standards of him. The chances of McKenzie falling to the Blues’ second round pick are looking slim, but these fans talk about him as though he is already branded with a navy blue seal.
While McKenzie kicked goals to appease fans, Foster tried to nail them to forge his own name. A stress fracture in his foot left Foster on the sidelines for 14 weeks in 2013. He managed to play five games at the end of the year, with his semi-final performance attracting some attention.
“Despite playing so well, I saw guys around me who had excellent years not even getting a bit of a look in. I didn’t think I was much of a chance to get drafted,” Foster conceded. The Calder Cannons forward came back as a 19-year-old, with a fire burning inside him.
It came down to the last round of the home and away season. The Knights faced the Cannons, as McKenzie vied with Foster for the goal kicking title. In the end, the Cannons defeated Northern, and Foster came away with six goals to McKenzie’s three, thus crowning him the league’s leading goal kicker.
Whilst there was external pressure as a father-son pick, Foster found comfort in the presence of others.
“From 16 years old, I was invited down to Whitten Oval on the school holidays with other father-son guys in Josh Wallis and Zaine Cordy to train at the club,” Foster said.
“My old man is good mates with Josh’s father Steve from back in their playing days. Steve works down at the club and just having the support from those guys helps a lot.”
Foster was not nominated by the Bulldogs for a father-son selection, but he will do his best to impress at the state combine. It is his final chance before the draft to impress recruiters.
It would be ignorant to say that because both McKenzie and Foster are around the 100 kilogram mark, they are ready for the rigours of AFL. The mentality it takes to be an AFL player is something that comes with maturity.
Before I watched McKenzie play for the first time this year, I’d been informed he could be a basket case on the field. Despite having yelled at a runner, nothing could be further from the truth.
“I get frustrated with the way I play sometimes: I have really high standards of myself. Usually I keep it together, but that day I just had to let off some steam,” McKenzie said.
McKenzie’s maturity has come on quickly in just a matter of months. He was as shy as can be when I interviewed him back in April. Now, he’s on national television with his father on TAC Cup Future Stars.
The Northern Knights forward is an introvert and a self confessed book nerd, with the Lord of The Rings and Game of Thrones series his preferred method of escape from the football world. Bodybuilding is his favourite hobby, either working on his own body or training with his younger brother.
Disappointment is something that has fallen upon Foster’s shoulders a few times in his short career. The Achilles issue was the most difficult to swallow: even though he played it down, being looked over in the draft was not something he could forget easily.
Foster missed out on an invitation to the draft combine, but that wound was soothed with the call up to the state combine. The dagger that drew the most blood though was the 2014 TAC Cup Grand Final. “There are not too many nerves, it’s just really exciting,” Foster said just days before the game.
Although far from the worst in a losing Cannons outfit, Foster was well beaten all day aside from two easy goals. With several weeks until Foster attends the state combine, there is no doubt he will be unable to erase that pain.
He was lucky enough to be brought back to the Cannons through the TAC Cup’s 19-year-old rule. If Foster misses out on getting drafted this year, the chances of him getting picked up in the future become extraordinarily slim. Although the VFL is becoming a more viable option for recruitment, the TAC Cup is by far and away the greatest source of recruitment.
The demands placed on all prospective recruits is high, but it is important to remember, even though McKenzie and Foster have had a wonderful introduction to the AFL world, they aren’t even 20 years old. The excess baggage that is heaved onto father-son picks is far more of a blessing than a curse.