IT'S DIFFICULT to fathom that Andrew McLeod may never have played Australian Football.
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Growing up, it was the pull of the NRL that fixated him while he watched his cousin play for the Manly Sea Eagles.
Sitting back and reflecting now, it seems hard to imagine the Wardaman (Katherine) and Wargamaygan (Torres Strait) man playing anything other than Australian Football but, for the man they call Bunji, 'footy just kind of happened'.
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As a kid, McLeod followed the Bombers and kicking rolled-up socks around the loungeroom in Darwin while pretending to be Paul Vander Haar, Alan Ezard and Michael Long may have helped in his decision-making process.
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It was also the conversations that he had as an impressionable teenager with Darwin local Michael 'Magic' McLean (Western Bulldogs/Brisbane Bears) that helped him make the choice.
Andrew McLeod: My idol was Michael Mclean, number 51. I loved watching him play. He always gave me time when he came home. Seeing him on TV on the Winners and then when he came home you got to sit down with him and have a chat. He'd talk about what training you needed to do and the big league. I still keep in touch with him.
The transition into the game is something that McLeod reflects upon as being relatively seamless when progressing through the ranks of the famous Buffalos Football Club.
McLeod, by his own description, was a hard trainer that was coupled in his belief in his skills and his confidence as a junior footballer. This potent combination was fostered by his brother, Jonathon, Peter Atkinson and Wally Galleo.
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As a gifted junior, McLeod was selected to play for the Northern Territory in the Teal Cup competition. This helped whet McLeod's appetite for a higher standard of competition and being exposed to better players enabled him to get better with each game.
Andrew McLeod: I was invited down to Adelaide after the Teal Cup and I played in the 1994 premiership side for the Port Adelaide. Then I was drafted by Freo. It happened really quickly. I was oblivious to the whole process. But after 1994 it all started to happen.
The infamous meeting with the Fremantle coach Gerard Neesham did not go as well as expected for McLeod ... 'flying to Perth business class and back home to Adelaide at the back of the plane' is how he describes it. This saw him head to Adelaide where he would play all of his 340 AFL games.
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It was here in the initial stages of his career that he gained the nickname 'Hamburger' for being a 'chubby kid'.
Despite his senior debut not exactly playing out the way that he wanted, it did not take too long for McLeod to show what he was capable of.
Andrew McLeod: In my debut against Melbourne I spent a lot of time on the bench and hardly got a touch. I was dropped and got recalled to play against Hawthorn at home. I got some good touches and kicked the winning goal from a tight angle in front of 45,000.
Swooping on a loose ball and kicking the goal McLeod reflects upon his bush hunting skills to explain.
Clean hands are crucial, especially at ground level. You have to practice running flat out and taking the ball with one grab. It's a bit like chasing geese in the bush: either you grab them by the neck with one grab, or they bite you. (Collins 2006).
Having a decorated career over a long period of time, it was the big games and finals that McLeod became known for. The testament to this was winning two back-to-back Norm Smith Medals in his Grand Final appearances in 1997 and 1998.
Andrew McLeod: Blight came in at the end of 1996 and we were running so much it was like the Adelaide athletics club. In 1997 we got beaten in the first Showdown so we needed to focus and we played good footy at the right time. Climbing that mountain was incredible. I just wanted to get better playing against the best like the Careys and the Crawfords and the Hirds.
It was dealing with injury that McLeod learned more about himself and the importance of preparation. He spent a great deal of time on the exercise bike setting himself the task of commencing his rehabilitations sessions 30 minutes before training started and not completing the task until 30 minutes after training had stopped. This torturous process helped build his fitness but also helped to fast track his chances of playing once he was able to resume full training.
Looking back at his significant achievements, McLeod knows exactly what advice he would say to his 17-year-old self.
Andrew McLeod: Don't be in a rush. My footy career went really quick. So enjoy and appreciate the chance. Don't waste your chances. I wish I had of learnt my recovery process a bit earlier. But for me stepping up when I needed to for my team and giving my team something and inspire those around me was really important.
So how does McLeod see his selection in the Deadliest?
Andrew McLeod: Football does not define me. Having a life outside of football is important to me. But being part of the Deadliest for me it is a great honour. The players in it bring so much not just as footballers but as different people. Like Goodsey, he won a Brownlow in two different positions but he is also a great player and a friend. Doug Nicholls is in another league. It's a bit embarrassing but it is fantastic. Very humbling.