CHRISTIAN Petracca has known hype since he was a teenager. He had a racehorse named after him before he had been drafted and had set his sights on brilliance long before others. He is one of few, however, whose ambition matched his talent.
Next week, Petracca can etch himself into football history. Already a best and fairest winner and two-time Therabody All-Australian, the Melbourne midfield gun finished equal third in last year's Brownlow Medal and is among the favourites for Sunday night's count, too.
But greatness awaits. The 25-year-old will be central to the Demons' hopes next week of breaking a 57-year premiership drought in the Grand Final at Optus Stadium. AFL.com.au this week traced the inner workings of a superstar, and how he arrived there.
'He started training like a mad man'
Jay Kennedy-Harris remembers it well. Just days into Melbourne's pre-season campaign at the end of 2014, Petracca had started training with the club after being its prized pick No.2 at that year's NAB AFL Draft.
Kennedy-Harris, the small forward who joined the Dees the previous year, had already known Petracca's ability having trained with him at Vic Metro the previous year. Others, however, were just starting to get to understand his talent.
"Within the first two or three training sessions he had people turning their heads. I can vividly remember Nathan Jones turning to me and saying 'Jeez, this bloke is a monster'. He just looked a cut above the rest. He looked like he could almost be our best player the next season he was that sharp," Kennedy-Harris said this week.
Just a couple of months later, Petracca's debut season was over before it had begun after tearing his anterior cruciate ligament in a training incident at Gosch's Paddock and undergoing a knee reconstruction. He sat out all of 2015 before making his debut in 2016 in the No.5 jumper.
His rise started as an explosive half-forward with bursts in the midfield, before his breakout 2019 season which was somewhat lost in the mess of Melbourne's campaign that year.
"Early that year he started training like a mad man and doing extras all the time," said Kennedy-Harris, who also lived with Petracca for two years.
"Every Saturday or day off he was at the club doing an extra swim or more weights. He's always been that fun-loving guy but he has that ability to go from cracking jokes in the warm-up to running through you like you're not there in the first drill.
"By the end of the season he was close to our best player and that was the beginning of what we're seeing now."
Kennedy-Harris saw the impact Petracca had on people – and pets. Walking down Swan Street in Richmond, he would see the hype that surrounded him, stopping for photos and chats with fans, friends…and dogs. "As friendly as he is with people, he's even friendlier with dogs. I don't think he's ever walked past a dog without stopping to give it a pat," Kennedy-Harris said.
He also saw Petracca's personality come to life – over countless hours of NBA 2K, Fortnite or FIFA battles, streetwear clothes or in his expansive shoe collection.
"Nearly every person who ever came over would always walk past his door then stop, take a double check and walk back and see his whole wall of sneakers," Kennedy-Harris said. "There'd be at least 100 there."
Petracca at that stage was also into his DJing, but has since sold his mixing decks and left that to current housemate Charlie Spargo, who like, fellow teammates Kysaiah Pickett and Toby Bedford, live at Petracca's place.
"'Trac' probably gets a bit sick of the doof hitting his walls every now and then but he does enjoy just coming in when he's doing his uni and laying on my bed while I'm having a bit of a mix," Spargo said. "It's an incredibly fun house to live in."
'What you see is what you get'
The Petracca family home in Victoria's eastern suburbs this week got a makeover. Unable to get across to Western Australia for the Grand Final, Christian's proud parents Elvira and Tony have emblazoned their garage with huge red and blue decals and an image of Petracca celebrating.
Petracca's loyalty to his family is strong. Last year, his oldest brother Rob built his new house in the inner eastern suburbs, with Tony landscaping. "Dad ended up being the project manager of the whole build," said brother Julian.
Julian was watching his younger sibling dominate as a 17-year-old when he realised he was going to play AFL. He has been his biggest supporter, pushing Petracca to get the most out of himself and seen that growth first-hand.
"He understands what he wants, he works hard, he's become the ultimate professional. He's got the right balance between his footy, his partner, family, friends, the marketing uni course he's doing," Julian said.
Part of that has been knowing when to zone out and not overdoing it. Though he goes for goalkicking practice with assistant coach Adem Yze every day off most weeks, and sometimes even on gameday at the local park with girlfriend Bella, Petracca has hit the right mix.
The family enjoy quality food and have passed on that interest to Petracca, who learned how to cook meatballs in the right sauce from Elvira and enjoys finding new restaurants to try in Melbourne. They have family in Perth who sent Petracca a care package while in quarantine of meats and Italian delicacies which was shared among teammates.
While his ascent to football stardom has been borne out of maturity, Petracca's family have seen him remain who he is, even down to the little things.
"He's got a Casio watch that he wears to training and it's got a stop watch. He just loves it. Mum's even said to him 'Why don't you invest in a Garmin?' 'Nah, nah, I've got this little watch'. That's Christian, he's no fuss. If he likes it, he'll wear it," Julian said.
"What you see is what you get. He has a really charismatic personality that helps him in the way he plays. He very much thinks on his feet, even when he talks to you. It's all spur of the moment and instinctive and he's had that from early on."
Julian is also in football landscape as a player agent at Hemisphere Management Group, although he's kept things separate with his brother.
"Family and business sometimes don't always work and we're happy to forge our own pathways and then come together just as brothers," he said.
"Mum and Dad were big on not talking business at the dinner table. It's really good he does his own thing and I do my own thing but I'm just his brother at the end of the day. Rob and I keep him grounded but we're really proud of what he's achieved so far."
'He's enjoying the responsibility of being the man'
Player agent Robbie D'Orazio signed Petracca as a 17-year-old in 2013. This year, he negotiated the seven-year, $7 million contract that rocketed the Demon into the top rungs of the competition's best paid players.
The Demon-for-life deal came after D'Orazio had signed Collingwood ruckman Brodie Grundy to a similar deal at the start of 2020, which caught Petracca's attention ahead of his own free agency year in 2022.
"He wanted to maximise his opportunities to get to that point. He knew he needed to be humming," said D'Orazio, a leading agent and partner at Connors Sports Management.
After a month of talks with Melbourne list manager Tim Lamb, the deal was ticked off swiftly by Melbourne's board, with the finer details sorted by D'Orazio while on an interstate trip to Adelaide. It means Petracca is locked in at the Demons until the end of 2029 – equal with Josh Kelly at GWS as the longest-signed current players in the AFL.
"They couldn't have signed it any quicker and vice versa. I thought it was a really fair and equitable deal," D'Orazio said.
D'Orazio saw Petracca's dedication across last summer when he trained every day in Sorrento, often linking up with Western Bulldogs young gun Bailey Smith. At a training day organised by Connors' Sports featuring current AFL players and upcoming draft hopefuls, Petracca got involved, stepping potential top-10 pick Josh Rachele through stoppage craft, when to hit the contest at speed and when to act as a sweeper.
"He was engaging and even brought the group in at one stage and spoke to them about what they were doing wrong in the drill. He's enjoying the responsibility of being the man," D'Orazio said.
Petracca and D'Orazio are close. He bought D'Orazio's young son Hunter a Melbourne jumper with Hunter's name on the back in an attempt to turn him from a Carlton fan. "He's very humble and gracious with his time with kids," he said.
Some players don't speak to their agent outside of contract discussions and marketing opportunities. It's unusual for Petracca and D'Orazio not to speak daily. Sometimes it is in the form of a quick Petracca text message, often by the time D'Orazio has responded Petracca has moved on to the next question. Other times the discussion is more rigorous, including the decision to take on a regular spot on AFL 360 this year.
Petracca's explosion as a player, combined with his effervescent, genuine appeal, has made him a marketable commodity, including a long-term partnership with Nike.
"Christian came to our attention through his explosiveness and craft in junior football, however once we got to know him and his family, we also discovered that he had a genuine and authentic connection to Nike," said Ashley Read, Nike's pacific vice-president and general manager.
"He has a healthy basketball and sneaker obsession, and we love that he shares our passion for equality and vision to create a fair and equal playing field for all. He is not afraid to show his true self and it's the joy that Christian plays with, along with pure athleticism, that means he really connects with athletes and fans alike."
This year he also signed on as a Red Bull ambassador, and D'Orazio is working on getting him endorsements with a pasta company to tie in with his love of cooking with Bella. But all of that is happening only because of his on-field performance.
"Simon Goodwin, Adem Yze, Darren Burgess and the team around at Melbourne challenged him. Last year he wanted to go into the midfield more and become a full-time mid and part-time forward and they said 'Yeah you can do that, but you need to be able to X, Y, Z in the pre-season' so he did," D'Orazio said.
'The bull is back'
Darren Bewick coached Petracca for the Eastern Ranges in Victoria's under-18 competition, seeing him tear apart sides a year before he was drafted. Then, after progressing more permanently into the midfield in his draft season, he was the most dynamic player his age in the country.
The two-time Essendon premiership player has seen the same qualities shine through Petracca in recent seasons.
"What I love seeing from him now is seeing him play like I remember him playing in an Eastern Ranges jumper, which is really good and really important for the young players coming through to believe they can do that," Bewick said.
"He has that swagger and cheekiness but there's not many more determined young people than Christian with wanting to get to where they want. I just said to someone the other day, 'The Bull is back'. He was a bull when he was a kid and he's a bull now with the way he plays."
Bewick has played his role in that. He remains a close confidante of Petracca.
"Any time where he's been under pressure or feeling as bit apprehensive about things he'll get in touch just I think to get a reminder of what makes him a good player and what made him a good player as a kid. Sometimes these days you can overthink things a little bit with the pressure that comes externally but I think he really enjoys getting back to what he knows he does really well," Bewick said.
What he does well has been on show all season. Dig deeper into Petracca's numbers and his influence at Melbourne is clear. He ranked No.1 in the AFL for score involvements and was involved in 32.2 per cent of Melbourne's scores (second in the AFL).
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When he is in his most attacking vein, the Demons benefit: when Petracca recorded six or more score involvements in a game this season, the Demons record was 17 wins, one loss and a draw. With five or fewer score involvements, they went two wins and three losses.
He also kicked 24 goals in the home and away season, second behind Bulldogs champion Marcus Bontempelli for all midfielders. At the Demons, he ranked first for inside-50s and metres gained, and second in disposals, contested disposals, ground ball gets, centre bounce clearances, clearances and first possessions.
This, Bewick said, has been a rise that was always on Petracca's radar.
"He's someone who, when he was younger, wanted to be there yesterday," he said. "It was always wanting to get there as soon as he could. His main development over his career now is that he's let things come to him a bit more rather than rush it."