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Why is the footy world fascinated by Petracca?

Petracca's debut locked in No.2 draft pick finally gets the good news from his coach

THE FASCINATION surrounding Christian Petracca's long-awaited AFL debut would likely unsettle most players in his position. However, for Petracca, being in the limelight isn't new. Before he was drafted, he'd had a racehorse named after him. And that’s only part of his curious story.

Petracca will have plenty of eyes on him on Saturday when he runs out for Melbourne against St Kilda in his first game since joining the Demons 18 months ago as their prized pick No.2 pick. There's something unique about his passage to this point, primarily because of the attention he has attracted without having played a game.

It's easy to understand why, considering his form in the latter part of 2014, his draft year. He exploded playing for Vic Metro in the NAB AFL Under-18 Championships, won the Larke Medal as the best player in the carnival and dominated nearly every game he played. Recruiters and under-18 followers enjoyed the way he played; he showed enormous natural talent, and topped that off with plenty of passion and aggression. He was also big on theatrics.

Christian Petracca will play this Saturday against the Saints. Picture: AFL Media

Petracca was easy to like. He was confident, brash and boisterous, and displayed a sense of humour. He oozed ‘follow me’ charisma. He talked to anyone and spoke honestly. One scout compared him to Hawthorn great Robert 'Dipper' DiPierdomenico, a larger-than-life figure who can dominate a room. Not surprisingly, it wasn't long before he was being touted as a possible No.1 pick.

At the draft combine in October, Petracca was the first of 30 players to do be interviewed in AFL Media's studios. Where most of the other boys had their chat and moved on, Petracca hung around, watched others and offered to make coffee for late-working staff he had only just met.

His exuberance in interviews and on the field was at times interpreted as arrogance, and he knew that. When he told he wanted to be the No.1 pick, some observers raised eyebrows. But understanding Petracca's interests and background provides an insight into the way he carries himself.

Petracca grew up a massive basketball fan, idolising the super-skilled playmaker Allen Iverson and wanting to play in the NBA. He wasn't that far away, either, making the AIS squad as a teenager and starring at state level. He followed basketball more than his footy team Collingwood as a kid, and would play in the backyard in Melbourne’s outer north-east most nights with his two older brothers.

It's why his recent mishap – when he broke a toe pre-season while playing basketball, an injury that delayed his return from a knee reconstruction – should be put into perspective. He was simply doing what he's always done. Before every game of footy during his youth Petracca would shoot hoops (a habit he only stopped when AFL Academy assistant coach Matthew Lloyd told him he shouldn't have a pre-game routine that relied on a basketball ring being available).

'The Terminator' shares a laugh with teammates. Picture: AFL Media

As a basketballer, Petracca was a point-guard who often took – and made – match-winning shots. When the game was there to be won, he wanted to be the one who decided it. He was the local star at 12, and rose through the ranks with the likes of Dante Exum and Ben Simmons. Exum was a top-five NBA draftee two years ago and Simmons is expected to be an early pick at this year's draft.

Because Petracca follows American sports so closely (just ask him about another star basketballer, Russell Westbrook), he carries himself a little like some American athletes. That is, confidently, with a spark and always with his exuberant personality on show. Football should hope for more players to come through with his openness.

He is also driven by doubts – his own and those of others. During his under-18 season, the main question mark on Petracca was his running ability. So he ran a very solid 14.12 in the beep test at the combine (placing him in the top-12 that year) and was proud of his improvement in this facet.

Petracca likes to be busy, and buzzes from one conversation to another, from one activity to the next. As a kid, he was nicknamed 'The Terminator' by his family, for he would run into one room, cause a scene of mayhem and move to the next room.

Petracca playing for Vic Metro during NAB AFL Under-18 Championships. Picture: AFL Media

His desire to be active was a reason some wondered how he would handle a year on the sidelines when he went down with a torn anterior cruciate ligament just weeks before he was set for a NAB Challenge debut for the Demons last year. He, too, thought about how he would pass the time watching others from his draft class step into the AFL while he was taking small steps in his long rehabilitation program.

But within days of being told he would miss all of 2015, Petracca was feeling more positive. The Demons had already identified a chance for him to go to the United States to train with renowned knee specialist Bill Knowles, a trip that eventuated in September.

The Demons noticed a more mature person when he returned, finding he had picked up important lessons about professionalism, attention to detail and the way to apply himself to every session. The fact he tagged on some holidays while in America and travelled solo for a little while was also evidence of his growing independence. That Petracca also received praise from Knowles for being one of the most impressive AFL players he had worked with also resonated with the Demons.

Despite all this, Petracca has still had his challenges, admitting last year he'd had to work through concerns about the strength of his knee and how it would react to different stages of his recovery.

Former co-captain Jack Trengove and Petracca in 2015. Picture: AFL Media

Petracca has developed a close friendship with fellow recovery partner Jack Trengove. And he regularly asks himself the 'What would Jack Viney do?' question as a day-to-day guide for going about his recovery and maximising his understanding of preparation, leadership and effort, and everything in between.

In some ways he comes into Melbourne's team at an ideal time. With a batch of early draft picks and young stars emerging at the club, Petracca doesn't have to carry huge hopes. He is one of many youngsters determined to help the improving Melbourne up the ladder. 

He will know that might not happen immediately, for time on the sidelines has taught Petracca more about patience, but he'll always be a player and person in a hurry. As his AFL debut edged closer, the wait to pull on the No.5 blue and red jumper intensified. Now he's in, he knows people are watching, keen to see exactly what he can do. That won't be a concern.

Angus Brayshaw and Petracca at Sea World ahead of the 2014 NAB AFL Draft. Picture: AFL Media