The NAB AFL Draft has shaped thousands of lives over the past few decades but with the highest of highs come the lowest of lows. Plenty of budding up-and-comers fresh out of school have nominated for the draft but left the year beginning a life where AFL football, their dream, is all but gone. What is just about every junior footballer’s dream, being drafted can sometimes not be all it’s cracked up to be either.
By being drafted, the lives of footballers change forever and there’s suddenly an expectation to deliver and be the very best player that they can be, something which is impossible when you have to consider Murphy’s Law into the equation. As we’ve learnt with many draft picks over the years, there can be steals and there can be busts at all ends of the draft order but either way you look at it, the draft is one of the most defining moments in all of their lives, for better or worse.
Each year, there are countless people who become obsessed with the national draft, spending a large part of their year assessing potential draftees, club’s pick positions and aligning the two together. The footballing community latches on to these suggestions and the pressure on some junior footballers to make it to the club or pick they’re aspired to be, on behalf of the fans, becomes all too much. Sometimes we forget that although these kids are super athletes in their own right, they’re still just kids. Kids who have just finished their education and are only on the brink of exploring adulthood.
Lucas Cook, pick 12 in the 2010 AFL Draft from the North Ballarat Rebels, was touted to be an exceptional tall forward player who impressed for Vic Country in the 2010 National Championships as well as representing Australia in the AFL/AIS Academy Squad. He was an under 18 All-Australian forward and he believed that if he was to lucky enough to be selected, his best chance was in the second round.
Cook didn’t expect to be picked up so early in the draft and with Melbourne undergoing a football department transition of its own, within two years of being on Melbourne’s list, he was delisted without a debut. A draft bust? To an extent it was, but it was the mistreatment of Cook by Melbourne that ultimately severed their relationship.
Cook, desperate to prove the doubters and the Demons wrong, worked tirelessly post-Melbourne to return to play AFL, but the VFL soon became his sanctuary, signing with the North Ballarat Roosters as a defender. Cook has now signed on to league powerhouse Port Melbourne, but one must wonder – what could have been?
The high expectations of being a pick 12 player are now completely left behind as Melbourne continue to struggle as a football club. What about the other kids who were picked up and never made their debut, or even to the kids who have clubs watch them play but deny them a spot on their list come draft day? Or the kids whose dreams were simply never filled?
Eight picks after Cook, a young midfielder from the Geelong Falcons by the name of Jayden Pitt was selected by Fremantle. He represented Vic Country as a junior and as season 2013 came around the corner, with 10 AFL games under his belt, he discovered an irregularity with his heart and under doctor’s recommendation was forced into retirement at just 21 years of age. He is now back home, helping out as a development coach with the Leopold Football Club knowing that his life as an AFL footballer is over. AFL was his dream and now he is no longer able to live what he once held on to.
One of Cook’s former schoolmates was Josh Free, son of ex-Richmond captain Tony. Coming from Swan Hill, Free moved to Ballarat to attend private school and signed with the North Ballarat Rebels in the hope of being drafted. Richmond kept a keen eye on him for many months and scouts watched his TAC Cup games as well as his school games. A hard-bodied midfielder, Free was picked to be selected to as a father-son selection. However, once that opportunity passed, Richmond fans were hoping that they would salute their former servant and pick up Free late in the draft.
Free was never drafted and instead, Richmond utilised pick 44 on Matt Dea, an undiscovered classmate of Free who obviously caught the eyes of the scouts sent to watch Free during school games. Free went on to play for Port Melbourne, but struggled to secure a spot in their senior side within two years before leaving.
It’s a tough, brutal system that perhaps glorifies success more than it sympathises with unfulfilled aspirations. Perhaps after Thursday night’s draft, we should try to acknowledge the kids who invested their time in being drafted and pursuing a dream yet were never selected and now have to reconsider their future. Even the kids, such as Pitt and Cook, whose AFL dreams have now been quickly disintegrated have to redefine their careers, their lives, as the rest of the football community moves on by.