The 2007 Australian Football League (AFL) season may be only a few weeks old but for players such as Sam Mitchell of the Hawthorn Hawks, the season really began in mid-October. “That's just part of the game,” says Mitchell. “If you want to play elite-level footy that's how long you've got to train to get yourself to that peak fitness.” And there is a similarly long story behind Mitchell's seemingly quick success in the AFL, from the 2003 AFL Rising Star award to last year's Club Champion award and a top 10 finish in voting for the 2006 Brownlow Medal—the AFL best and fairest award.
Growing up in Melbourne, Mitchell admits he hasn't known a time or place “where footy wasn't the centre of attention for most of the year—it's always been that way for me.” Mitchell's football story goes back to participating in an Auskick program at age five. “There's a pretty good system,” he explains.
“You start there and play all the way through. You join a local footy club, and there's a pathway that can take you every step of the way, from when you're five years old to when you're 35.” But in 2000, it seemed Mitchell's football journey had stalled. “Every year there's a draft in late November,” says Mitchell. “About 2000 players nominate each year but just 60 get drafted.” That year Mitchell was among the many who were not selected. He wrote to every AFL club, seeking their interest and received no replies.
“It was one of the tougher parts of my life,” Mitchell recalls. “I had been always playing footy from a very young kid. And when I went through that year and played some reasonable footy and then to have no interest in me from any clubs— that was a tough time and pretty disappointing.
“But I had some people who really looked after me in that time and kept my confidence up and I went to play for Box Hill and managed to play some good footy there. We won a premiership that year, which always helps, and then got picked up the next year. I guess people look at my story and say, ‘You did it the hard way,' but I was still only 19 when I was drafted, so I didn't do it so hard. There are a lot of players who do it harder than I did.” In his first year, Mitchell played just a handful of AFL games but in the next year he stepped up, playing 21 games, and announced himself on the AFL stage. As a “rising star,” he admits he has felt some of the pressure of potential.
“Particularly in the early days of your career, people write nicely and generally positively about young players,” he says. “A bit later it starts to become more critical. But I've always had the attitude that if you're going to read the papers when they're positive, you have to read them when they're negative.
“Cathy Freeman said it well when she said, ‘Pressure is a privilege.' As a player, if you had no pressure on you, you would feel people don't think you can play; so if people are putting pressure on you, they obviously have a little bit of belief in what you are able to do.” Playing in a traditional AFL club based in AFL heartland, Mitchell has an appreciation for the culture of which he is now a conspicuous part. “I guess—possibly—you take it for granted,” he says. “But it's an old game—the league was founded in 1897—and it's the way people come together in this city, in particular.” n It is in this spotlight that Mitchell plays his game and his larger roles. “On the field on match day, my best work is done as what they call an inside midfielder, in the thick of the rough-andtumble of the game, getting my head over the footy and ‘winning the ball in close,'” he explains. “It's more the physical side of the game.
“But I think what's also very important to the game is what else you bring to the footy club, not just on the field and when you're playing but also giving leadership off the field. We have the youngest team in the competition, so I have a little more experience than most of the guys and being able to lead them in the right direction and accelerate their development is a pretty important part of my role.” Mitchell is quick to explain that this is not just about football. “Obviously, we want them to become good footballers as quick as we can make that happen,” he says. “But we also want them to be—as [Hawthorn club president and former Victorian Premier] Jeff Kennett puts it—we want them to be good citizens.
“So we want to educate them as much as we can about getting something outside of footy. Footy's a fulltime job now but we still have enough time to do a little bit of study or work or something else. It's been proved that players who have something outside of footy are going to play better footy in the long term. So we try to encourage all our young players to get involved in something outside of the game.” n Obviously already a team leader, Mitchell was appointed vice-captain last season and has made it known he would like to become captain one day.
And this positive influence extends to his involvement in the community.
“I did a bike ride in early October for the Sunrise Foundation, which was aimed at raising awareness of depression and letting people know that depression is not a weakness, that there shouldn't be a stigma about it,” he says. “Within our playing group we try to align ourselves with a couple of charities each year and within our group we've done a little bit of work with those guys.
“The AFL players association does charity work as well. So you see a lot of players doing good things. But most AFL players don't really want recognition for those sorts of things. We just do a little bit to make our small positive influence where we can and we don't like talking about it all that much, to be honest.” Mitchell is conscious of being a role model. “My sister always told me when I was growing up that you have to live your life with integrity, and I think that's a pretty important part of the game as well,” he says, “being able to be relied on. When you say you are going to do something, make sure you follow through and do it.” n In a career that has already seen significant highlights, Mitchell judges his footballing achievements on what he has yet to do. “I don't take a lot of time to reminisce on what's gone so far,” he says, “because I always find that takes you backwards rather than going forwards. The reason we all play footy is to play in finals and I've played 86 games so far and I haven't played in a final as yet. So that's probably the most disappointing part of my career so far.
“I don't think any of us would even play if there was no chance of finals, so I think where our footy club is at, at the moment, it's a pretty exciting time. How fast we can make our climb up the ladder, no-one's really sure, but hopefully it's soon.” For Mitchell, and his team, commentators are seeing 2007 as a season of possibilities. “We can't really predict the future, so we're not sure how we're going to go,” says Mitchell. “We've put a fair bit of emphasis on systems we've put into place and we'll play some exciting footy this year. I think the fans and supporters have got a lot to look forward to when they watch us play.” At just 24, Mitchell is not focused on life after football but suggests some kind of business involvement. He sees the common elements of persistence, determination and self-belief. Those qualities are certainly part of his present sporting success and his goals in life and football.
“We do a lot of goal-setting and different players play for different reasons,” he reflects. “But certainly winning is on everybody's mind— that's what everyone wants to do. Whenever we get the chance to go out there, we always want to win and it's disappointing when we don't.
“But I think the most important thing is when you get the most out of yourself.
“You hear of so many guys who say, ‘I could have been this' or ‘I could have done that,' ‘If only . . . ,' or whatever.
You never want to end up being one of those who didn't live up to his or her potential.
“So one of the key areas for all players— and not just in sport but in everything— is if you can finish footy, schooling or whatever it is and say, ‘I couldn't have done any more,' then you'll die happy and not wondering about what could have been.”