THE REALISATION came to Will Ashcroft younger than it hits most.
Then a member of Gold Coast's Academy, where his father Marcus was the club's football manager, a 13-year-old Ashcroft had been tackled to the ground, landed on his right shoulder and required surgery.
He was already the best in his team, having dominated for Queensland's under-12s side, but he was shattered to have to sit on the couch and nurse a long-term injury. So he didn't. He got to work. He upped his training and rehabilitation to get back, became interested in his diet and vitamins for his body and also started a daily journal. He hasn't missed a day since.
"I'm up to about week number 230 or something," Ashcroft told AFL.com.au.
"I started then and it's kept me in check since and I write it every night. I've got a whiteboard and I write up what I'm going to do each day and I tick that off as I go. It's a part of me now that started as a thirst to see what I could do and I've kept going."
Ashcroft's thirst for work is a driving force within the teenager, who starts this season as a leading contender for the No.1 pick at the NAB AFL Draft and potential father-son for Brisbane.
One recruiter said this week the 17-year-old had set a new standard for draftees. "He's as driven as anyone I've seen," they said. Another was just as impressed. "He knows what he wants and does everything to get there. He means business," they said.
Business for this year starts this week for Ashcroft, who will play for the Sandringham Dragons on Sunday in the first round of the NAB League season. He will be a part of the NAB AFL Academy's program early in the year and then Vic Metro's campaign in the under-18 national championships.
The midfielder is dynamic, tough, consistent and a natural ball-winner. Think Carlton's Sam Walsh. But none of it has happened by chance.
Having finished year 12 at Brighton Grammar last year, after moving to Melbourne with his family in 2019, Ashcroft spends his time preparing himself for an AFL career. Asked to reel off the extra things he has added to his routine, he smiles.
"It's a pretty long list," he said. "All of it?"
"I try do a craft sessions a couple of extra times a week working on things I don't get to at training. I watch vision – some of AFL players and some of my own. Recovery is big and I try to go to the beach or pool where I'll also stretch. I keep my nutrition as healthy as it can be. I do extra gym and boxing three times a week.
"I love it. I love knowing that other people aren't doing that stuff all the time so it's helping me. You have to love it otherwise there's no point doing something you don't love because that's no good for anyone.
"I want to put every second I can into it and know that when I finish no matter what I've achieved I've done everything in my power and I've got no regrets. And I just love it. So why not have a crack?"
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Footy has been what Ashcroft has known. He was born in 2004, the year after his dad retired following 318 games and three premierships with Brisbane, but has caught up on Marcus' career via videos. When he was seven he was inside Gold Coast's facilities as the start-up club began its existence, kicking the footy with former Sun Michael Rischitelli and later getting a jumper from a much younger Touk Miller.
When Marcus took on the job as the AFL's national talent pathways manager in 2018, Will would join in Academy trainings and kick balls back to the likes of Walsh and Matt Rowell. As a year 10 at Brighton Grammar, having moved to Melbourne with his family, he played on Carey Grammar's Rowell.
"I was half-forward and he was half-back. I got one kick on him then he went into the midfield and dominated," Ashcroft said.
His mixing with AFL players reached new levels over summer when he trained with Brisbane as part of its father-son program. In sessions he matched up well with some of the AFL's best midfielders, picking the brains of Lachie Neale and Jarryd Lyons. When they were done, he had more questions at home, where he was staying with Lions star Hugh McCluggage.
His last two years have been ruined by COVID-19 but his game for Vic Metro at under-17s level last year showed his quality – 33 disposals, two goals and 12 clearances. It has set up big expectations on the driven youngster, who has worked on proving his outside game this season.
As well as readying himself for an AFL career, Ashcroft is keeping busy this season by studying a business and sports management course at university. He will coach a year seven footy team at Brighton Grammar, having also done some cricket coaching over summer, and is piecing together a business project called 'W.Ash performance and wellbeing'.
His season just beginning, the sharp-skilled, quick-handed, fast-thinking prospect knows he has a call to make later whether he nominates as a father-son to Brisbane, who have first call on him, or enters the open draft. He wants to go as high in the draft as possible but says that isn't a big factor in his decision.
"It's every kid's dream to be the No.1 draft pick, every kid aspires to be that, but with the position Brisbane are in, they're in a really good window to win premierships and be successful for a long time. If I can play well, it's obviously going to be a really good option if I do end up going down that path," he said.
"It is a tough thing to think about but it probably doesn't matter as much what pick you were when you get there, so it will be sitting there in the background and I'll make those decisions as they come.
"My main priority is to play, keep working on my leadership and hopefully help people get drafted through Sandy as well. Hopefully wherever I land in the draft is where I deserve to be but it's not a big deal in my opinion. It's just getting on a list.
"Obviously the Lions will be there and it will be weighed up when the decision time comes. I love Melbourne as well and it's home now probably as much as Queensland is so it's going to be interesting for sure. But we haven’t played any footy yet so I want to make sure I re-establish myself and grow my game and play some good footy this year then deal with that stuff as it comes."
The decision will be reached via the same planning and process that has already come to mark Ashcroft's diligent approach. Although Ashcroft won't let allegiances get in the way – he's a Geelong supporter.
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"It's probably mum and dad's fault for having me after dad retired. When I was old enough to understand footy Nigel Lappin had just started working for Geelong and I loved Joel Selwood so he sent me a Joel Selwood jersey," Ashcroft said. "I've been a Geelong [fan] ever since and Selwood's been my favourite player ever since."