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Going Places: Jaidyn's long year of learning

Tomorrow's Heroes: Jaidyn Stephenson The Vic Metro Star oozes X-factor with his ability to make things happen

Thursday, July 20, 2017 

RAQUEL Stephenson remembers her son Jaidyn coming home upset one night after a day at primary school. His friends had been playing a game at lunch time, and picking sides.

The same four boys were always picked last, and again were that afternoon, to make up the teams. Jaidyn wasn't one of them – he was one of the first – but he still felt for his friends.

"He said, 'It's not fair, mum, that these four get picked last. I always make sure I pick them first'," Raquel recalled of the conversation with her young son.

"He was always really worried about the kid who got chosen last, because he was so considerate of everybody – old people, young people, his younger sister Tegan. Most people would say he had an old head on young shoulders."

Those qualities came to the fore last year. It was a life-changing event Stephenson describes as the toughest thing he's faced. In early November, one of his closest friends, Niall Hargreaves, died suddenly. The pair had grown up playing together at Ferntree Gully Football Club. The two had scheduled a round of golf, but Hargreaves would die the night before their planned get-together.

Stephenson found out the news via his mum, who woke him up in bed. His first thought was that he must have slept through the alarm and missed golf. He quickly realised it was far more serious.

"I burst into tears. Then I got onto the phone to my mates and they already knew because they had been at a party that night which I hadn't been to and they had found out then. They all came around to my house and I tried to be strong for them. I didn't really cry and tried to make sure they were OK," he says.

"As I had been captain of the footy team, I thought it would be good if someone from the club spoke at his funeral so I put my hand up to do it. I had a few nerves the night before, but I got up and I'm very glad I did it. I was very nervous and shaky going up there, but I took it really slowly and made sure I got it out."

The loss still sits with Stephenson. He finds daily reminders of his friend, of funny things they did together, of when he first met him as "the kid with the helmet and funny English accent" at the Victorian under-12 try-outs.

Those memories won't leave him. Hargreaves’ father asked Stephenson whether he could wear a black armband for his son if Stephenson eventually made his AFL debut. "I wore an armband in round one this year for Eastern but I'd certainly wear it if I get drafted and get a game. Definitely," he said.

Stephenson's desire to be strong for his mates during that time meant he bottled up his own grief, until it got too heavy. Several days after his mate’s death, he headed to an Eastern Ranges pre-season training session where the players were scheduled to run a 2km time trial. Stephenson did it – he hadn't yet told coaches about his week – but ran it in 7:50 minutes (nearly 90 seconds off what is considered a good time). His legs simply wouldn't move. He felt like he had no energy.

"I was asked if I was even trying, and that's when I explained what had been happening," he says. The next week, he headed to Darwin with the NAB AFL Academy, and found it refreshing to get away and have his mind on something else.

Stephenson was already a level-headed person before last year, a mature kid who kept an eye out for others. But he has no doubt last year's experiences gave him a slightly different perspective on everything.

It is perhaps one reason why he doesn't get too upset about playing a bad game, instead staying confident the wheel will turn. That was the case during the recent NAB AFL Under-18 Championships, in which Stephenson overcame a quiet start to put in perhaps the best game of his three years at under-18 level.

Stephenson battled to get into Metro's round one win over Western Australia, but felt his defensive acts – tackling, blocking, helping out teammates – had hopefully caught the eye of recruiters. He played on the wing in the second game against Vic Country, but again struggled to find the ball and found it difficult to be in the right spot in an unfamiliar position.

He felt no pressure after two down games, and had no doubts that eventually things would fall his way. That happened in the third outing, against South Australia at Etihad Stadium, when he kicked five goals from 28 disposals and ran amok.

Everything that is exciting about Stephenson was on show: he snuck through tiny gaps and into space, took bounces, tucked the ball under his arm, kicked a couple of how-did-he-do-that goals, and did it all from the wing. 

Jaidyn Stephenson starred with five goals and 28 disposals against SA. Picture: AFL Photos

He couldn't get going in Metro's final game – a loss to the Allies after Metro had already secured the title – but was pleased overall with what he put out there.

"It wasn't amazing, and I had my quiet games. But I still think even in little glimpses I showed what I had with my willingness to take off and run," he says.

The championships attract plenty of attention, and Stephenson has found that as the year has gone on, more and more people in his community have stopped to ask how his footy is tracking. His local club also recently asked him to speak at its sportsman's night, alongside AFL greats Kevin Bartlett, Anthony Koutoufidies and Terry Wallace. He did, and they offered to pay him for it, but Stephenson wouldn't take any money from the club.

"I was happy to do it," he says. "I just find I'm often telling the same story when people ask me how it's all going, and it can happen everywhere – down the shops or even at a party. It's the first thing people say and I don't like being known for my footy, so it can be uncomfortable," he says.

It's not a complaint but a reality. Another reality is it is something he'll have to get used to if things go his way on draft night. The draft is now less than four months away, and his season is quickly drawing to an end with only a month to go before the finals. "I want to finish well. I have stuff to prove as a midfielder," he says.

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Thursday, October 26, 2017 

IT IS part of the life of a likely draftee that they get to know AFL recruiters. Particularly for a player like Jaidyn Stephenson, a member of the NAB AFL Academy for the past two seasons. Part of the Academy programs calls for AFL club personnel to shadow players – interviewing them, attending training sessions, and even going on overseas camps to study and meet the next generation of talent. The scouts' presence at everything across the year becomes the norm.

Sometimes they pose odd questions. Gold Coast asked Stephenson earlier this year what was one thing he wouldn't want them to know. "I told them I had bought a tattoo gun and gave all my mates tattoos," he says.

This is a true story: Stephenson enjoys getting it out and inking little pictures or words on his mates (he has a few small tattoos, and has even used the gun on himself as well).  

Sometimes Stephenson is the one asking the questions. When Greater Western Sydney's recruiters visited, he wanted to know what they do with first-year players, where they live and how the club manages their transition.

"I liked their set-up at Breakfast Point, where all the draftees live together. Once they left I had a chat with mum and dad and said how good that would be," he says.

Most clubs have visited Stephenson at home, and he admits he's had the same thoughts after most of them have left. He's imagined himself in their colours, and tried to picture where he might be able to win a spot in the senior side. Lately, he's been doing a lot more of that, with the draft only a month off. He doesn't know where he'll go, but believes he has done enough to be picked early.

"I don't have any clear-cut feeling about a club that they like me or they don't. I'd love to go to North Melbourne – I think I trained all right when I was with them as part of my Academy program, and I'd like to think they would look at me if I was there at pick four," he says.

"Cam Rayner is the clear standout and I'd have him at pick one. Then the next four or five it could be in any order. I think I'm in that group. But I don't really mind. I'm more interested to see who I might go with, in terms of other draftees, than where I could go."

His confidence stems from an excellent finish to the year, after moving close-to permanently into the midfield for the Eastern Ranges and dominating games.

His run of form included a 39-disposal game (plus nine inside-50 entries) against Sandringham in round 15, 25 touches and a goal the next round against the Calder Cannons and another 25 disposals the following week against the Geelong Falcons.

Stephenson finished the home and away season with 34 touches, six clearances, seven inside-50s and a goal against the Oakleigh Chargers, before he was Eastern's best player in its elimination final loss to Dandenong, kicking a goal from 30 disposals. He also laid 11 tackles.

After a three-week break, Stephenson then took to the MCG on AFL Grand Final morning in the NAB All Stars clash and was named best afield after booting three goals from 22 touches in the curtain-raiser before Richmond's premiership triumph.

Stephenson was best on ground in the All Stars clash on Grand Final day. Picture: AFL Photos

Stephenson knows his string of impressive games was a long time coming, but also feels that even when he wasn't dominating games, he was learning important facets of his new midfield position.

"It has definitely been the best year for my footy. It might not have been the most successful, but I've certainly learned the most and improved the most this year," he says.

"The work rate needed was an eye-opener for me. I was a little bit lazy coming into this year and the start of this year because everything had just come so naturally. I didn't have to work too hard to get what I wanted, but when I had that tough period I realised something had to change and I needed to be working harder. It's paid off."

Stephenson wasn't done there. After proving he could find the ball – "I think a fair few people thought I was a 12-20 disposal kind of player" – he went to the NAB AFL Draft Combine in Melbourne determined to highlight his endurance base.

Everybody knew he had pace, which he showed by running 2.95 seconds over 20m, but he backed it up by finishing in the top 10 performers in the 2km time trial (6:21 minutes) and the aerobic Yo-Yo test (level 21.8). "I showed not only that I can run quickly, but I can hold it out," he says.

That was three weeks ago, and it ended what was a long year of learning for Stephenson. He learned a new position, learned about how to deal with expectations and rise to them and learned more about what he wants to do with his career and how challenges will always pop up.

Next week Stephenson will start his year 12 exams, and a couple of weeks after they're finished he's booked on a week-long cruise to the South Pacific with his girlfriend and another couple. He will return on November 24 – draft day – eager to see what happens. 

"I have it in my head that I'm going to get drafted and there will have to be something come up from here that will stop me from doing that," he says.

"It would mean everything for me. I've been trying to get this since I was four years old. I've made a lot of sacrifices to get here. I gave up cricket, karate and tennis, which I liked, and more recently as I've gotten older and parties start to happen, I'll rock up at nine o'clock and be gone by 10.

"I don't drink like a lot of boys my age do because it's not worth it for my footy. People see the fun parts of trying to get drafted, and that's fair enough. But I've given up a bit as well and I'd love to see it all be worth something."

Stephenson says being drafted would 'mean everything for me'. Picture: AFL Photos

Want more Going Places?

Jaidyn Stephenson part one: OCD and the search for perfection

Lochie O'Brien part one: The country kid who's a self-described 'lion'

Lochie O'Brien part two: What's 'pissed off' this top prospect?