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Going places: Rocket man Callum Ah Chee out to prove his hanger is no fluke

Going Places: Callum Ah Chee Get to know Western Australia's best draft prospect who already has family ties at the top level

READ PART TWO: Reality bites for Ah Chee

MONDAY, JANUARY 26, 2015

AT LEAST once a year, Callum Ah Chee and his five brothers head to the football oval near their family home to race each other from one side of the field to the other.

Jordan, 24, the oldest of the siblings, has always been the one to catch. He's the benchmark for the other boys; beating him at running, jumping, wrestling – and most other athletic pursuits – is an achievement.

Brothers in arms: Callum Ah Chee (far left) with his five brothers in Derby, WA. Picture: supplied

Two years separate Jordan and Brendon, who is on Port Adelaide's list. Jakob (20) is third in line; he is two years older than Callum, a speedy half-forward headed for this year's NAB AFL Draft. Truan, 14, and Raff, six, round out the Ah Chee boys. When they're together at home, they stroll down the nearby hill near the ground, turn left and burst away.

"Brendon gets angry because we beat him, even though he's the only AFL player," Callum says.

The only AFL player for now. The AFL will likely have a second Ah Chee when Callum is selected at the draft. His drafting will continue a fascinating family football story.

Since he was three, Ah Chee has lived in Armadale, in south-east Perth, after the boys' parents Brendon snr and Valerie made the decision to leave Derby, a town in the Kimberley region of Western Australia.

"There was no organised sport up there, and you've got to realise that in small country towns, if your kids aren't busy they get into trouble," Valerie says.

"We decided there were more opportunities in Perth for the boys and made the big decision to move. "

Organised sport was a lure as the family made the call to move south to Perth. Pictures: supplied

Callum's great, great grandfather, Owen Ah Chee, migrated to Australia from China in the early 1800s. He travelled through the Northern Territory and the Kimberleys and stopped at Derby. He married Nellie, an Aboriginal woman from the Nyikina people, and they had 10 children, who all grew up in the region. Owen opened a bakery, where generations of Ah Chees worked.

"We were the pioneering family for that town," Brendon snr says.

Brendon snr spent his first 15 years living in Derby before moving to Geraldton for boarding school. That was his way of broadening his view of the world. From there he went to the United States as an exchange student. When he returned to Derby, he met Valerie.

Valerie also had a mixed background, with her mum Aboriginal (a Nyoongar woman) and her dad Dutch. Her grandfather was part of the stolen generation, taken from his mother in the Pilbara region of Western Australia. He ended up at Moore River Native Settlement, where he met his wife. Valerie's dad was in the merchant navy sailing the world, but jumped ship in Fremantle, where he met his wife.

Ah Chee with mum Valerie. Picture: supplied

When Valerie was seven, she moved to Holland with her family and lived there for two years. "It was awesome, but mum was really missing Australia and her family, so we moved back," she says.

In 1987, Valerie’s family moved to Derby, where she met Brendon snr. They started a family when she was 20. Callum was the last of their sons born there, with the Ah Chees shifting to Perth in 2000.

Pride in his background

Callum Ah Chee has heard the stories of his family history, and read them, too. His grandmother is an author, and has written a book detailing her Aboriginal background and how she came to start a family with a travelling Dutchman.

"I'm an Aboriginal, and I'm proud of that side of my heritage. But I'm also proud of my Chinese and Dutch background, and how it's all come together," he says. "It's cool to know your name represents so much history."

Ah Chee with footy star and Indigenous trailblazer Nicky Winmar. Picture: supplied

Ah Chee is hoping to add another chapter with his football career. He started this year in Florida in the United States with the NAB AFL Academy squad on its 10-day training camp.

He's just returned, knowing he's got a long way to go with his running. On the second day of the tour the group completed a 3km time trial, and Ah Chee finished second last, in a time of 11:57.

"I wasn't happy with it at all, and it was a reminder I can't become complacent," he says.

Clubs know Ah Chee is already good at a lot of things. He's a classy kick, can mark well above his head, and he's smart around goal. He has pace, too: he's a loping type of runner, but has completed the 20-metre sprint in 2.88 seconds.

He has shown those traits as a 182cm forward, but as a kid he used to play in the ruck because of his big leap. The 17-year-old sees his development in his draft season coming in the midfield. But just being able to complete the time trial on tour was a small positive for Ah Chee, who missed most of last year with a serious ankle injury suffered in May.

As well as three torn ligaments, Ah Chee also fractured his foot, and was in a moonboot for eight weeks. He ended up missing the rest of the season, including the under-18 championships.

The reason Ah Chee sat out last year's NAB AFL Under 18 Championships. Picture: supplied

The frustration got to him at times – he hated updating the manual scoreboard on the sidelines – but he stayed disciplined with his rehab program.

One night, when his mum and dad were unable to give him a lift to Western Australia’s training, he caught a train from Armadale. The train broke down, so he had to catch two replacement buses and then walk to training (wearing his moonboot) in pouring rain.

He called the state talent manager Raff Guadagnino to say he'd be running late. Guadagnino said it was fine if he didn't make it. But Ah Chee wanted to get something out of his night, so got there with 15 minutes left, rode an exercise bike for that time and then left shortly afterwards.

"It was the first major injury I've ever had in my life, so I took it pretty hard," Ah Chee says. "I missed out on a lot of games I thought I'd play."

Playing the long game

Ah Chee didn't need to look far to know patience is a requirement for the top level. Brendon was drafted by Port Adelaide in 2011. But with injury and form struggles in his first three seasons, Brendon is still yet to make his AFL debut.

Older brother Jakob (right, with Callum). Picture: supplied

Callum was lounging on the couch at home in Armadale the night Brendon's name was called by the Power.

"It was all a bit unexpected. He didn't think he was going to get drafted, but it was so exciting for him and the family. He was so happy. Seeing that influenced me to work harder and try to get there too," Ah Chee says.

"When Bren comes home he talks about how the AFL's a completely different environment to the under-18s. He's said things can happen that upset you, but you just need to stay resilient."

Ah Chee is already being spoken about as the best prospect from Western Australia in 2015, and he has a set plan for his season: play consistently, improve his engine, move up the ground and play senior footy for South Fremantle in the WAFL. Also, he wants to avoid becoming flustered by the extra pressure.

"It's daunting, but every other boy who wants to get picked is going through it too," he says.

"Last year I watched so many games and wished I was playing in them. This year is my chance. Sometimes you have to remind yourself that this is it, this year will determine what happens."

SUNDAY, APRIL 19

Taking flight the norm for Ah Chee

CALLUM Ah Chee's iPhone kept buzzing. He had just finished playing for the NAB AFL Academy team against the Northern Blues' VFL side, a curtain-raiser to an AFL match at the MCG.

Dangling around his neck was the MCC Chairman's medal for being best afield. He won it for gathering 22 disposals and kicking two goals in a dazzling performance.

He was getting text messages, calls and tweets, while also being tagged on Facebook and Instagram. Ah Chee's huge mark in the final term – after he ran, jumped and sat in the air for what seemed an eternity – was captured at its highest point by a photographer, and had gone viral. You can watch the mark below.

"My phone was going nuts," Ah Chee says.

Ah Chee replied to each text he got, and although he is naturally humble, a part of him wanted to remind everyone it wasn't a fluke.

The MCG screamer that made Ah Chee a social media star. Picture: AFL Media

An area to the side of his family's living room at home is dedicated to their sporting achievements: there are trophies, ribbons and guernseys. There's even the Port Adelaide Indigenous jumper from 2014, which his mum, Valerie, designed.

At the back of one shelf is a framed set of images of Callum as an under-14 playing for the Kelmscott Bulldogs, taking a huge, high chest mark on the goal line over an opponent. It's identical to his grab on the MCG. "The feeling when you're that high is pretty special," he says.

Planning a fast start

Ah Chee is about a month into his season. After he got back from America his mum bought him a gym membership, and he went three times a week for two months. He wanted to hit round one in form.

He started in South Fremantle's colts' team and had 24 touches in the first game playing across half-forward. He was quiet in round two, but returned to form with some clever flashes for the Academy team in its first VFL game against Werribee at Simonds Stadium in Geelong.

Hangers are a habit for Ah Chee, in action for South Fremantle. Picture: supplied

Recruiters keep telling him to ask his coaches at South Fremantle to put him in the midfield, but he finds it difficult to do that. It's not his way to sound like he's putting himself ahead of his teammates.

It never has been. Playing for Kelmscott's junior teams, he was clearly one of the better players. But he never thought of himself that way. One time he took a match-saving hanger in the under-12s, but as he came down he landed on an opponent.

He was too busy to celebrate after the siren rang, instead seeing if the player he hit was OK. Valerie thinks her upbringing is reflected in her children's values.

"His modesty is a cultural thing. When I grew up, you were always made fun of if you thought you were 'too deadly'. I'm from a big family, and there's a pecking order, so if stepped out you were soon put back into line," she says.

"But on the flip side, it is important that he recognises his achievements."

Ah Chee felt uncomfortable at the status he was given when he started at Wesley College on an Indigenous scholarship in 2012.

It was halfway through year nine, and he and his parents thought it would be a good opportunity to take up the offer at the prestigious school, where Lance Franklin and Ben Cousins are part of the football alumni.

He left his friends at Kelmscott High School, where his brothers Jordan, Brendon and Jakob had already graduated from, to head to Wesley.

However, he says he found travelling from Armadale to Wesley each day (often by bus and train) too much, and he made the hard call to return to Kelmscott to continue his schooling.

Another steepling goalsquare grab, this time taken as a junior for the Kelmscott Bulldogs. Picture: supplied

He left as Wesley's school football season was about to start, and knows some people there were probably angry with him for committing and then departing so soon.

"I felt like I let them down, and afterwards I thought about how they would see me. I was nervous about how I would be perceived when I got back to Kelmscott, but having such a good circle of friends made it easier," he says.

"It is pretty tough making a big decision like that and being positive about it, but I'm happy I gave Wesley a go. I don't regret it. It's good to try something new. Life would be boring if nobody did anything different."

Ah Chee in a class of his own

Recruiters like the point of difference Ah Chee brings to this year's draft. The group overall might be short on pace and class relative to previous years, but he has both.

"He's a Rolls Royce," one club scout says. "He's so smooth across the ground and is one of those players where everything slows down when he's involved. He'd have a lot of suitors pretty high in the draft, maybe in the top three."

Ah Chee's pace and class caught recruiters' eyes quickly in 2015. Picture: AFL Media

A recruiter from another club says Ah Chee's humble personality is appealing. "He's a really intelligent, engaging kid who speaks articulately," he says.

"He's getting the message now about his footy, too, and I don't think until the tour he had really had too much brutal feedback. But he's smart and he understood it. He's from pretty good stock with his brothers, who are all high achievers."

Last night was particularly special for one of his brothers, with Brendon finally making his AFL debut.

Four days ago Callum was in the shower at home when Valerie knocked on the bathroom door, telling him to quickly get out. Ah Chee thought something had happened to a family member, so rushed out to find her crying in the kitchen. His heart sank.

"I was like, 'Mum, what's going on?’ She said 'You're not playing this week'. I said, 'Oh my god, just tell me what has happened?' She said, 'Bren's playing against North Melbourne in Melbourne,'" Ah Chee says.

The whole family went to the game at Etihad Stadium, and waited until Brendon pulled off his substitute's vest and ran on in the fourth quarter. His first handball set up a Power goal, and they won by eight points.

"I started high-fiving some random Port supporters," Ah Chee says.

Brendon Ah Chee (left) enjoys the spoils of victory with Power teammate Chad Wingard. Picture: AFL Media

 

Brendon's breakthrough came in his fourth season at Port. He had suffered injuries, been dropped to the SANFL reserves, and had self-doubt creep into his mind.

An added challenge was being away from home during that time, and Brendon has missed seeing his youngest brother Raff grow up and not been there much as Callum's footy has progressed.

But his girlfriend has just moved to Adelaide and he enjoys what Port has done for him. "I see that he's developed into his own person over there. He's got his own life," Valerie says. "But he always remembers where he comes from."

Brendon's long-awaited debut reinforced to Ah Chee that he wants to be playing in the AFL in a year's time. He thinks of himself in the best 15 prospects in the country, and two weeks ago when he went to the Melbourne-Gold Coast game, he realised the big time is closer than he thought.

"Seeing boys like Jarrod Garlett and Angus Brayshaw debut in that game was pretty exciting," he says.

"I was watching them thinking it could be me in a year. You can be here at one point and then not that long after be playing on the big stage. I'm itching to get on an AFL list."

READ PART TWO: Reality bites for Ah Chee

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