Tom Campbell presents Rowan Marshall with his jumper before his 100th match during St Kilda's clash against Brisbane in round 15, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

TOM CAMPBELL has never been able to plan beyond October. The middle of spring is the winter of some careers. It is the time of year when contracts expire. The end has been nigh for seven or eight years now, but the perennial back-up ruckman is still here.  

When he finally crosses that clear line of demarcation, Campbell is ready for the next phase. The next phase elucidates why AFL CEO Andrew Dillon was at Parliament House late last month and why the oldest player on St Kilda's list is frequently turning up in meetings inside the AFL's headquarters in Docklands. 

But we'll get to that. Right now, the 32-year-old is back playing in the AFL. 

Campbell was recalled after 663 days in the footy wilderness – and after 22 games at Sandringham – as a late inclusion for the clash against Brisbane before the Saints' mid-season bye. Then after the outside world thought he was dropped last week, Ross Lyon kept him in the 22 to face Port Adelaide on Sunday, partnering him with Rowan Marshall again. 

Two straight games after just two in his first two and a half seasons at RSEA Park. Campbell is always ready, even if he wasn't prepared for a Hawthorn premiership player to enter his hotel room in the early hours of his first game in nearly two years, after the concierge gave Campbell Brown the wrong replacement key card in Brisbane. 

"As an emergency, you prepare to play, so I was definitely in game mode. I have a young son who is a year old, so I have lots of interrupted sleep at home. I'm in a hotel thinking, 'Great, I can get a good night sleep. At 2am I am out to it, and suddenly I'm hearing someone rustling around in my room, I sit bolt upright and scream, a little more shrill than I'd like to admit and the light comes on and there at the end of my bed is Campbell Brown," Campbell told  

Oscar McInerney and Tom Campbell compete during Brisbane's clash against St Kilda in round 14, 2024. Picture: Getty Images

"He was just like, 'Oh mate, you here for the footy?' Then he walked out into the night. It is a funny story, all the boys loved it in the team meeting the next morning, Ross less so, but then he said, 'By the way, you're playing'. So, I had the call-up after a couple of years. It was a great addition to a great weekend for me."

Campbell has fought for every chance, every step of his footy journey. He honed his ruck craft with Old Scotch in the VAFA after finishing school at Wesley College, then developed with the Bendigo Bombers in the VFL, where he was picked by the Western Bulldogs in the Rookie Draft at the end of 2011. 

Most would have given up by now. But despite being delisted twice, Campbell is now in his 13th season at the highest level and has 58 games next to his name. He played 42 across six seasons at the Whitten Oval before being delisted at the end of 2018. 

North Melbourne then signed him via the pre-season supplemental selection period two months later and he added 12 appearances in four seasons behind Todd Goldstein at Arden Street. 

Tom Campbell celebrates during North Melbourne's clash against Essendon in round 10, 2021. Picture: AFL Photos

St Kilda then made him a three-club player by signing him as a delisted free agent in November 2021. Despite not playing a senior game in 2023, Campbell won the Robert Harvey Award for best clubman at Moorabbin, highlighting how valuable he is Monday to Friday.  

"To stick on the list and be around without a lot of opportunity, you have to have a strong drive and a strong reason for doing it. The reason for me is to play AFL footy. I love it, it is the pinnacle of our game, there is nothing quite like running out there in front of thousands of people," Campbell said. 

"I think people go, 'As a fringe player you must be frustrated or disappointed or upset all the time, how do you do it?' I view it as I'm incredibly privileged to be an AFL player and be a part of an AFL environment and have been now for 13 years. I don't see it as a disappointment or a slight that I'm not picked. I know what my role is in the club and I'm there as part of a group of rucks that are there to perform. 

"I have also been recognised for the support I've been able to give my teammates and the development that I've led for a lot of our young talls and key-position players. I bring a lot more than just AFL on-field performance, I'm also there to be a part of the club and support the on-field performance. That has made me feel valued at the footy club.

Tom Campbell in action at a St Kilda training session on November 21, 2022. Picture: AFL Photos/Getty Images

"It is a team game and I've been brought up with the value of playing your role. I think it has certainly extended my career, my willingness to use a Ross Lyon phrase: submit to the team. That has definitely given me opportunity where I might have wrapped up much earlier."

Campbell is prepared for life after football, but not ready to relinquish the privilege just yet. The dearth of readymade ruckmen during this year's AFL Mid-Season Rookie Draft highlighted his value. It is the reason why clubs asked the AFL to provide Andrew Phillips with an exemption. That value has become more evident in the past fortnight. 

The Victorian wants to play on in 2025 if the opportunity presents. Every club needs a back-up ruck, especially one as durable as Campbell. He has played 141 senior VFL games for Sandringham, North Melbourne, Footscray, Williamstown and Bendigo. After winning the Zebras' best and fairest in 2022, Campbell finished runner-up last year and is one of the best ruckmen in the state leagues.  

"This has been a conversation that I've had to have every single year. My approach has been play well enough to be given the opportunity to have the ball in my court. I've lived in a lot of uncertainty with my footy now for seven or eight years. I've never been able to plan beyond October," he said.

Tom Campbell and Kalin Lane engage in a ruck contest during the round 14 VFL match between Sandringham and Brisbane Lions at Trevor Barker Beach Oval. Picture: Darrian Traynor/AFL Photos

"I've worked hard on my off field so if I don't get the opportunity I'm prepared to move on, but you're a long time retired. I love competing, I love training and I love the connection with my teammates. I'm not the kind of player that has list conversations in season, that often happens post season and post trade period. I very much focus on footy while it's happening and I then mentally push the other stuff to the end of the season."

Campbell has been working on plan B for years. It is part of the reason why the 201cm ruckman spends a day of every week doing an internship inside the League's headquarters. He became tight with AFL executive general manager of football Laura Kane during their time at the Kangaroos and she implored him to make the most of his day off. Campbell has spent time shadowing GM of Operations Tristan Salter, fixture boss Josh Bowler and head of sustainability Jo Gilbert, observing the football department, commercial operations and strategy team up close. 

Along with former North Melbourne teammate Jasper Pittard, Campbell launched Footy for Climate in response to the 2019-20 Black Summer fires, using sport to inspire climate action across the football community, from grassroots to the elite level. In 2021, a survey run by the Players' Association found that 92 per cent of players were concerned about climate change. Their organisation is driving an agenda that has the support of the AFL. Dillon showed his support in parliament, while the AFL's executive general manager of corporate affairs, government and communications, Brian Walsh, has played an integral role behind the scenes. 

"Footy for Climate started when I was a player at North Melbourne. In 2020 we saw the Black Summer bushfires and how that impacted communities right around Australia. It has a small impact on North Melbourne training, we were forced to train indoors. It was the first time I'd seen or heard a conversation around climate change. It is often a pretty jovial environment but suddenly players were asking if this was climate change," he said.

Tom Campbell and Rowan Marshall compete during St Kilda's training session at RSEA Park on April 6, 2023. Picture: Getty Images

"Jasper Pittard had more conversations and we thought as AFL players we had a platform to support the community. That's where the idea came from and with a survey from the AFLPA we found that 92 per cent of players were concerned about climate change and then from there we have worked on a range of different projects to talk about the impacts on grassroots footy, connect players with local clubs and come up with a solution for supporting the future of footy clubs."

This is not what's next, but what is right now for Campbell. Footy for Climate has raised enough support that it is ready to make more sustainable impact on the wider football community. 

"We started out project by project as we rustled up the funds but we are ready to launch in a more meaningful way. We did that last week with a three-day exhibition of Victorian Parliament. It is my absolute passion and something I'm committed to being a director of long-term. I really want to see the organisation connect with players right around the AFL and AFLW and help them support communities in grassroots footy that are feeling the effects of climate change right now," he said. 

"The AFL have been incredibly supportive. They really got behind our exhibition of Victorian Parliament, Andrew Dillon spoke at our reception and we had both the premiership cups there for photos with MPs. It is great to see the AFL get behind a player-led initiative, 535 clubs around Australia have required financial assistance due to extreme weather since the Black Summer bushfires. I think it just highlights the scale of impact and the need for the AFL as the governing body and players as the games lead ambassadors to be doing whatever we can to support."


Campbell owes a debt of gratitude to the game. He has lived the full gamut of life as a footballer, from suburban football to part-time VFL to a full-time athlete for 13 years. 

"Footy has been central to my life since I was a little kid," he said. "I loved the game. The game has given me so much. It is why staying on and supporting the younger players, being on the list as an older player that maybe doesn't get as many opportunities as I would like is still so appealing for me. I'm grateful for everything the game has given me. I don't think there is ever enough that I could give back to the game to repay it for what it's given me."

The 2011 draft class has produced Brownlow medallists, premiership players, an All-Australian captain and 16 players who have reached 200 games. Most have come and gone, but Campbell is still battling daily traffic from home in Kensington to Moorabbin. He can't plan beyond October just yet.