Ryan Lester greets Brisbane fans after the team's preliminary final win over Carlton at the Gabba on September 23, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

IT'S easy to see why Ryan Lester is universally the most loved Lion running out on Saturday.

You only have to watch the reaction of teammates to his preliminary final goal against Carlton to know 'Froggy' is the heart and soul of Brisbane.

He's been dropped 17 times in his 13 seasons. 

When the 'Go Home Five' left at the end of 2013, Lester stayed.

And for five of the past six seasons, the 192cm defender has played on the edge of the football cliff, enduring one-year contract after one-year contract.

And despite it all, Lester has not only survived in 2023, but he's thrived, playing arguably the best football of his 179-game career.

Ryan Lester marks over Mitchito Owens during Brisbane's clash against St Kilda in round 14, 2023. Picture: Getty Images

His rollercoaster ride since being drafted with pick No.28 in 2010 can best be summed up by this quote.

"I didn't realise how bad losing was every week compared to winning every week," Lester told AFL.com.au. "When you haven't been exposed to it, it's just what you know.

"Our biggest games were always against the other bottom four or five teams, whereas this year we've played eight or nine Thursday or Friday night games, two finals and now we're going into the biggest game of them all."

Behind Daniel Rich he is the longest-serving Lion remaining on the list, arriving at the club 12 months before future brother-in-law Dayne Zorko, who will run out for his 250th game against Collingwood.

Lester has seen it all, and along with the above-mentioned duo, is the connective tissue from Brisbane's premiership era to its current Grand Final team.

He was coached by Michael Voss and Justin Leppitsch before Chris Fagan came on board, and played alongside Simon Black, Jonathan Brown, Luke Power and Ash McGrath.

"We weren't horrific, but it didn't work out," he said.

"They were great role models for me, not just great players, but great people."

Ryan Lester (L) celebrates a goal with Jesse O'Brien, Daniel Rich, Simon Black and Jonathan Brown in R1, 2011. Picture: AFL Photos

It's something Lester learned and carried with him through the toughest of times at the Gabba.

Jared Polec, Patrick Karnezis, Billy Longer, Sam Docherty and Elliot Yeo were all drafted either with, or a year after, Lester, and all were gone in the same horrific trade period for the Lions following Voss' 2013 departure.

"I wasn't a big-name player, so in some ways I was fighting for my spot, so I didn't think I was going to go to a club and necessarily the grass was going to be greener," he said.

"Loyalty is a personal value of mine. When I get somewhere I tend to like sticking around.

"I've always felt really comfortable at the club. I've probably always brought into the friendships and the mateship that football clubs bring."

Playing as a forward, midfielder and ultimately in defence, Lester has rarely been a pick-and-stick player.

He played 38 games in three seasons under Voss and 42 in three under Leppitsch. Saturday will be his 100th game under Fagan.

Lester admitted the club "lost its way a bit" through the middle of his career, but lays no blame at the feet of Leppitsch, saying in a full rebuild mode the coach was caught between playing youngsters and keeping the middle tier happy despite not always giving them a game.

Fagan came and things changed. In his first season in charge in 2017, where Lester played all 22 games for the only time in his career, Brisbane conceded 115 points a game, which was still dead last in the AFL, but had come down from 132 the previous year.

Ryan Lester hugs Harris Andrews after the R15 match between Brisbane and Essendon at Marvel Stadium on July 2, 2017. Picture: AFL Photos

"He sold us the message of improvement and you could see it and buy into it," Lester said.

This was also the time he started playing on year-to-year contracts, as Brisbane went into another re-build, piling in the high-end draft talent with Hugh McCluggage, Jarrod Berry, Cam Rayner, Zac Bailey and Jack Payne in successive years.

He was always mature beyond his years and smart enough to stare his football mortality in the eye.

"In 2018 I was getting to that 26, 27-year-old stage and the club was probably thinking they weren't sure if I was going to help take them anywhere, not sure if I'd be in the next premiership," he said.

"You often see guys get moved on at that stage.

"At the start of that year, and the past five years, I've written something down like this: 'Football ends at the end of this season, this is what I want to do to be ready, and this is what I'm looking forward to in the next phase of my life'. 

"It's actually paid big dividends because now whenever I transition out of the game, I'm more than ready because I've just kept adding blocks to it."

He played just three games last year and was put on the rookie list ahead of this season. Throughout it all, Lester has been incredibly popular in the changeroom and a long-time member of the leadership group.

Ryan Lester and Eric Hipwood celebrate a goal during the preliminary final between Brisbane and Carlton at the Gabba on September 23, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

With Darcy Gardiner battling injury early in the season, Lester was given a crack at the third tall defender's role in round seven and has not looked back.

He's been more assertive than ever, often leading his opponent to the ball, and comfortable backing his skills to help the Lions move it swiftly from the back half.

"I've always thought when I go out there, I feel comfortable playing AFL, I don't feel out of my depth," he said.

"Gary O'Donnell (who re-joined the Lions as assistant coach from 2010 to 2016) told me in the early days I was here for a career, not a game.

"When I was not getting picked, it wasn't so much about the games I was missing, but more about how I can improve by the end of the year to show I'm a better player than I was at the start of the year, and I might get another contract."

He's already signed on for 2024 – a one-year deal - and if Brisbane salutes against the Magpies, you won't see a more popular recipient of a premiership medal from his teammates.