IT MIGHT feel like the Sam Draper story has happened in a flash.
He was drafted after only playing football for nine months, was offered a lucrative long-term deal by a rival before he had played a game, was ushered into the Bombers' line-up as its leading ruckman on debut, took a huge hanger in his third quarter of AFL football, scrapped with West Coast star and All-Australian Nic Naitanui in his fifth outing and has already developed a cult following as the Bombers' next (literal) big thing.
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But for the burly and talented 22-year-old it has been an inch-by-inch process that, although set back by an untimely knee reconstruction two years ago, is due for its next instalment.
"I do feel a little bit of the hype but that sits all right with me, it doesn't faze me too much. I feel like I've been ready to go and this has always been part of my plan. It hasn't been unexpected for me," Draper told AFL.com.au this week.
"It might seem like I've come onto the scene pretty quickly but I've been grinding away and this is my fifth pre-season at the club so I feel like I'm where I need to be and I'm keen for what's next."
What's next has plenty of Essendon people – inside and outside of Tullamarine – very excited.
Draper starts 2021 as Essendon's No.1 ruckman.
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After playing eight games in the second half of last season, and immediately showing his aggression, competitiveness, follow-up work at ground level and physical presence in hitout contests, Draper set himself for his best pre-season. There has been some injury niggles, most recently a foot issue that was picked up, but he has focused on building his aerobic base and improving his contested marking so that he can assist when forward.
"Those games that I played last year I put myself in good stead and learning from 'T-Bell' (Tom Bellchambers) and playing together and then playing by myself as No.1 ruck was great. I feel like I've had a good pre-season and I'm ready to go," he said.
It has been built on a strong 18 months of work. When Draper went down with his torn anterior cruciate ligament in a VFL game in early 2019, he used the time on the sidelines to lift his training diligence. The three-month COVID-19 shutdown last year also afforded him more time to get ready for the start of his AFL career, with Draper's debut coming against Brisbane in round eight.
Draper, a close studier of Collingwood star Brodie Grundy, went on to face the likes of Max Gawn, Ivan Soldo and Paddy Ryder.
"I felt I really found my feet as I got going. My attitude has been to have a crack regardless of what happens and I started to get some confidence from there. Just not being afraid to fail, really," he said.
"I learned off all the ones I played against – I played against some quality ruckmen and it was more so about learning for me last year and hopefully I can start beating those guys this year."
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His encounter with Naitanui is memorable for the pair's off-the-play scrap and draws a laugh from Draper as he recalled going toe-to-toe with the Eagles star.
"It was obviously a bit heated, but regardless of what happened I think my teammates and the people at the club were happy with what I did then and it was standing up for my teammates and standing up for myself. It's an area of my game I've tried to excel in and put some time into and I like to make my teammates stand taller and if I keep doing that then that's great," he said.
It has always been the way, although not always with the oval ball.
"Even when I used to play soccer back in the day I was getting in trouble for dangerous slide tackles and what have you, but it's a trait I like to have on the field and my teammates like it when I'm playing aggressive and looking after my teammates," he said.
"It does come semi-natural, but I think if you got to know me you wouldn't really think I'm like that. I'm a bit of a big friendly giant off the field."
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So, how many red cards?
"I think one straight red … but a lot of yellows," he said.
Draper's soccer background emanates from the six years he spent growing up in the UK, with his family living near Hastings, a small town in West Sussex, when he was aged three to nine. His parents and immediate family are in South Australia now, but his extended family remain in the UK, where the Drapers have been regular visitors.
It is why when he returned to Australia soccer remained his ambition. He was on an ascent, starting as a goalkeeper and then a centre back, and playing with South Adelaide's under-18 representative side. But ahead of 2016, he switched codes after some gentle encouragement from friends.
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"I ended up just getting too big and soccer became way too hard for me. I was watching my mates play footy and they'd say 'Why aren't you out here?' and it got to a point where I got a bit sick of soccer. I was starting year 12 and thought I'd give footy a crack and I kept growing and started playing good footy and here I am," he said, with South Adelaide's football program quickly getting wind of the 203cm prospect.
"I started playing centre half-back and played a couple of games there and was a bit of a headless chook, and then they threw me into the ruck after three games.
"My attitude from the start, and it still is now, is it doesn't matter if you mess up, just go out there and have a crack. I think that's what helped me develop quite quickly because I wasn't afraid to make mistakes along the way. That's still in my game."
Several clubs lined up for chats in his draft year, but most wanted to see him play as an overager the following season before deciding. But Essendon, with No.1 pick in the rookie draft that season after their wooden-spoon finish, snapped him up. But another came knocking in 2019, when St Kilda presented a four-year deal worth $1.8 million to the uncapped Draper. He accepted less to stay on a four-year contract with the Bombers, but it was a big decision.
"Ultimately it came down to the friendships I've got with the guys at this club and to show the loyalty to Essendon because they picked me when I didn't think I was going to get picked up at all. For them to pick me and put time into me and my development I thought I [should] repay the faith with them," he said.
Just as he won't be going anywhere, neither will Draper's wild mullet-and-moustache combo – "Just the sides will be getting cut short, that's about it," he said – as he prepares to lead Essendon's midfield into Saturday's AAMI Community Series clash with Geelong, which will also launch the 2021 Powercor Country Festival. It will be the Bombers' first official outing under new coach Ben Rutten.
"As we know they've got a good team so it will be good for us to test out what we've been working on across the summer and overall we're all just really excited," Draper said.
"Having the fresh start with 'Truck' (Rutten) completely in charge has been great, everything in the football program is going through him and he has a real presence amongst the group. We've had a good, sharp pre-season and everything we do has been built with purpose."
Essendon and Geelong will officially launch the 2021 Powercor Country Festival this Saturday night at GMHBA Stadium. The Powercor Country Festival, first launched in 2016, aims to highlight the role regional and rural Victorians play in the fabric of Australian life. In 2021, the program will celebrate the return of grassroots football and the importance of community football in Victoria.