Jordie McKenzie has become a leader at Melbourne
I never really lost sight of my big goal to play at the top level
MELBOURNE midfielder Jordie McKenzie says the hurdles he had to overcome in his early career have helped shape him as a player and as a leader.
McKenzie was recently elevated to the Demons' nine-man leadership group, but says there were "dark times" when serious injury threatened his burgeoning career.
Rewind to 2007 when McKenzie, who hails from Terang in south-west country Victoria, was vying for a spot on the Geelong Falcons TAC Cup team list.
He had caught the eye of recruiters at the Under-16 championships the previous year in a Vic Country team that included the likes of Patrick Dangerfield and Tom Rockliff.
Everything seemed to be going to plan until he began to pull up sore from most training sessions.
After several visits to surgeons in Geelong and Melbourne, it was decided he needed surgery on hip impingements on his right and left sides.
Following the surgeries at age 17, McKenzie missed the entire 2007 season and only returned for the last eight games of 2008.
"He went through some really dark areas in his life," mentor and former Falcons assistant Paul Hendrickson says.
"A year and a half out of footy is a fair time, especially when you're 17."
McKenzie admits it was an extremely tough time, full of frank discussions with his parents and those closest to him.
"You sort of start to doubt whether you're going to get an opportunity to show that you're worthy of a spot on an AFL list," McKenzie told AFL.com.au.
"There were some dark times … no doubt it was frustrating."
Despite the severity of the injury, it never crossed McKenzie's mind that he wouldn't make it back to football.
During his recovery, McKenzie was put through rigorous, and at times very physical, conditioning sessions at Terang Recreation Reserve.
Hendrickson says this is where McKenzie's trademark determination shone through.
"I think the injuries had a lot to do with how he can overcome any obstacles that are put in front of him.
"It steeled him up for things to come."
McKenzie returned to play the last eight games for the Falcons, acquitted himself well in his customary run-with role against some of the TAC Cup's best midfielders, and gave himself the best chance to be drafted.
"I never really lost sight of my big goal to play at the top level, but it was just a matter of whether I'd done enough for the recruiters," McKenzie says.
He was overlooked in the 2008 NAB AFL Draft, but the Demons had seen enough to select him with the first overall pick in the 2009 rookie draft.
McKenzie played three games in his debut year in 2009, after which Adelaide offered him a place on its primary list for 2010.
"I was comfortable at Melbourne and it really wasn't a tough decision to stay at the Dees at all," McKenzie says.
"I was very happy to stay there and reward the faith they put in me."
Content with his decision, McKenzie played 19 games in 2010 and became a mainstay in Melbourne's midfield, earning a spot on the senior list in 2011.
McKenzie has since earned a reputation as an effective stopper, running with and trying to nullify the influence of the opposition's most damaging midfielder.
His stoppage work and defensive pressure have become hallmarks of his game.
He has topped 100 tackles in his past three seasons and is steadily building on his possession output, averaging 17 disposals in 2012.
Now with the leadership role under his belt, the expectation is he will take his game to a new level. McKenzie hopes he can help lead Melbourne's hoped for rise up the ladder.
"We've shown we can match it with good sides, but probably not for long enough," he says.
"I think that comes from working hard together, training hard together and knowing our roles, and being able to execute that for a whole game, not just in bursts."
Demons midfield coach Brian Royal is confident McKenzie has the necessary qualities to be a leader, citing the way others follow him.
"Jordie's got a really good understanding of what it takes," Royal says.
"His attention to detail in everything he does is high quality."
McKenzie has won the Norm Smith Memorial Award, the Demons' coaches' award, three years running, and he is very much admired and respected by the playing group.
As Hendrickson puts it, "For him it's not all about Jordie, it's all about other people. He's very self-sacrificing in that way."
Ben Guthrie is a reporter for AFL.com.au. Follow him on Twitter @AFL_BenGuthrie