THE FIRST kick holds up in the breeze, landing in the goalsquare. The next hits the post, and the one after that, kicked from the boundary line at Greythorn Park in Balwyn in Melbourne's eastern suburbs, dribbles through for a goal.
It is a Sunday morning during Victoria's sixth lockdown, but families and friends are exercising on a sunny but windy August day. A man, booting his own footy back to his young son, glances over. "Is that Nick Daicos?" he asks while watching the youngster peppering the goals with shots from a range of angles.
As Daicos strolls from one side of his junior footy oval to the other, alongside his cousin Ajay Nicolosi, the father grabs his ball. "Your dad used to kick every one of them!" Daicos simply chuckles and smiles, before heading to the other pocket to slot three straight shots. Just like that. And just like his dad would.
Such interactions have long been a regular thing for Nick Daicos, the 18-year-old son of Collingwood legend Peter, and brother of current Magpies midfielder Josh. Nick will officially join the club as a father-son selection at next week's NAB AFL Draft, ending a long wait and lengthy decision-making process to nominate the Pies.
In the age of social media and heightened interest in the talent pathway, Daicos is possibly the most well-known would-be draftee in football history. Potentially the earliest father-son selection ever, Daicos has already signed a four-year contract (longer deals are permitted for father-son and Academy players to commit to their clubs), has an endorsement deal with shoe and apparel giant Nike, has nearly 50,000 followers on Instagram, is known by a nickname 'Whisper' (his social media account username), gets stopped for photos on the street, and regularly drew hordes of supporters to his NAB League games. That's hardly a set of usual circumstances.
Throw in the fact he is headed to one of the biggest clubs in the country, which just endured its worst season in more than two decades, and the focus on Daicos has understandably been immense. But, as AFL.com.au discovered this year while closely tracking Daicos through his draft season, he has managed to balance the abnormal with the normal.
Meet Nick Daicos, a basketball-obsessed Fortnite-playing kid navigating COVID-19 challenges during a rite-of-passage year. All the while being Collingwood's (black and) white hope, a classy midfielder with pinpoint skills, an enormous work-rate, an appetite for the ball, a star mentality and a knack around goal that is, well, in the genes.
NICK Daicos' path to the top level was like that of so many other footy-mad juniors who had a ball in their hands everywhere they went. Except it wasn't. His father is one of Collingwood's greatest ever players, a cult hero still adored nearly 30 years after his retirement.
Peter's significance dawned on Nick at the 2010 Grand Final, when Peter commentated that day's famous drawn clash between the Magpies and Saints. Peter, having been stopped by countless fans outside the MCG, only got to the commentary booth five minutes before the first bounce. "That was the first time I realised the enormity of who dad was in Collingwood people's eyes. Before that I didn't really have much of an idea," Nick said.
Daicos senior remains a hero of the Pies faithful: a 250-game superstar who booted 549 goals and helped steer the Pies to their drought-breaking 1990 premiership. Known as the 'Macedonian Marvel', Daicos was renowned for his astonishing exploits around goal and football brilliance. Now, the 60-year-old, who works in property development, acts as a proud dad. Cameras caught him celebrating Josh's crucial goal against Brisbane in round three this season by high-fiving fans in the crowd alongside Nick, and weeks later Peter manned the scoreboard at one of Nick's Oakleigh Chargers games. At home, Peter's feats are not spoken of and the walls are void of memorabilia.
"When I was younger, I'd search him up on YouTube and have a look at a few of his goals," Nick said. "He's the last person who would say, 'Hey, look at this clip of me!', but we are all so proud of dad."
Peter recognised Nick's affinity with a footy early. Around the Daicos family house, open doors quickly became goals. "We had a lot of things broken: vases, picture frames, and glass cupboards," said mum Colleen Daicos. "I just learned not to put anything out." When it rained, Peter would ask his sons if they wanted to go to the park for a kick, keen for them to learn to handle and touch a wet, heavy ball. Nick would watch endless games on TV, occasionally rewinding a bit of play he liked to show his dad.
As an AFL life member, Peter had access to two tickets to every game, with Nick eyeing multiple matches each week. At Grand Finals, Peter used to get two tickets – for himself and Josh – and would carry Nick in and sit him on his lap. Aged under three, it worked fine. But as Nick got older, his parents got creative. "We made him rehearse it. 'If anyone asks you Nick, you're three'," Colleen said. "It got to one stage where he was six and the attendant asked him how he was feeling ahead of the game and he just said, 'I'm three!'"
Peter and Colleen watched as their youngest child – Nick is five years younger than Josh and 10 than sister Maddie – played his first game in 18 months in March this year, when he lined up for Collingwood's VFL team in a practice match against the Western Bulldogs. Like all Victorian players, Daicos' 2020 campaign was wiped out by COVID-19. His most recent game before the practice match was in August, 2019, when he won a school premiership with Carey Grammar alongside that year's top-two AFL picks, Matt Rowell and Noah Anderson.
"I was really, really nervous. I was thinking, 'I don't know if I can do what they expect me to do', 'Am I too slow? Am I unfit?' I had everything racing through my head," Daicos said. "There was a bit of expectation. But I stepped out there and I felt really confident. It got back to gratitude for me. If I got one disposal or 15, I was back playing again."
He got one disposal in the opening seconds, and then another and another. Daicos went on to be one of the best afield from half-back, before heading to the MCG to watch Josh face the Bulldogs in round one of the AFL season. In between being approached by excited Pies fans, Daicos had one eye closely fixed on Josh and the other looking at where he might fit in. "I'd be lying if I wasn't thinking about being out there in 12 months," he said.
Some had already pencilled him in. After training with the Pies twice a week in February as part of the club's father-son program, Collingwood coach Nathan Buckley (one of the modern game's biggest stars and a former club captain) indicated Daicos probably would have been selected for round one had he been on the list.
"There's no disputing his absolute talent. He already looks strong, quick, low to the ground – the Daicos trait. Very powerful. Left foot, right foot. Talent-wise there's no question. Effort, attitude-wise he looks really good," Buckley said. "But a definitive yes or no would [Nick] get a game [in round one]? He wouldn't be far away because he's got attributes and underneath all of that he loves the game and Peter deserves a lot of credit for that. His boys love the game of footy and they've got a footy in their hands more than anyone else that I've seen in recent memory. So there's no surprise why they're so skillful."
Those skills were on show in a phenomenal official start to his season that included a 28-disposal and three-goal game in his first appearance in the NAB League for the Oakleigh Chargers, followed by 30 disposals and three goals the next week.
In a matter of weeks his style had shone through; he is clean at ground-level, he kicks short and long with precision, he moves with his back upright, enabling him to curl past opponents, often with his tongue out or his mouthguard hanging outside of his mouth as he evades traffic. It's a trick his dad taught him: don't worry about anything other than the next tackler. There could be three there, but get past them one at a time.
His hot beginning continued when he was named skipper of the NAB AFL Academy for its game against Geelong's VFL side in April. The Academy was thumped, but Daicos was its best player. "I loved his investment in all the players and staff," said Academy coach and former Magpie Tarkyn Lockyer, who first worked with Daicos at the Collingwood father-son program (named, coincidentally, after Peter Daicos) when Nick was 12. "He's very friendly, he's open. He's incredibly driven."
THINK of any obscure AFL player from the past 15 years. Chances are Nick and Josh Daicos impersonated them as kids. "Cyril Rioli, Chad Wingard and Andrew McLeod were big ones. But I think we went through every single player in the AFL," Josh said. "There were days where I'd pretend to be Matt Priddis and Nick would be Steven Salopek from Port Adelaide. Whoever was in our fantasy team we'd pump up." "Paul Duffield from Freo got a good run," Nick added.
The pair are inseparable. Josh, who had a breakout 2020 season and just completed his fifth year at Collingwood, still lives at home and often during the week they will head down to their local park, plant two poles in the ground and take shots. Two years ago, instead of heading to the beach for New Year's Eve, they went to the 'Tan' track in Melbourne and ran 20 kilometres.
It was during Josh's draft year of 2016 that a 13-year-old Nick set his sights on an AFL career. Nick was waterboy for the Vic Metro side that featured Tim Taranto and Andrew McGrath and would watch everything they did. "Nick's always been super-confident and he loved talking to the boys. He wasn't shy at all. Going on Docklands as water boy was unbelievable for Nick, I still remember the high he got from it," Josh said.
Josh went into the draft as a recognised name but without the scrutiny that would later be placed on his younger brother. He was draft pick No.57 and played 17 games in his first three seasons, battling to win a permanent spot. "He's my best mate and I'd like to think I'm his best mate, so it would be heartbreaking watching him coming home on a Thursday and saying, 'I thought I was close, but I didn't get picked'," Nick said. "But then I'd say 'Alright, let's get in the team, let's do everything to prepare for this week's VFL match, let's reset and hopefully you're in'."
"There was one VFL game at Victoria Park where he played OK against Carlton and with 30 seconds to go he had a set shot and should have kicked it but missed and Carlton won by a few points. He was pretty tired afterwards and I said, 'Nup, let's go straight to the park'. It was getting dark, but we went down and said, 'Let's work out a routine for the clutch time when you're feeling the pressure'."
Coincidentally the next week Nick, playing for school side Carey, kicked a long goal after the siren to win his side the match, with vision of the thrilling finish going viral.
Leading player agent Robbie D'Orazio, a partner at Connors Sports Management, manages both brothers and has seen their bond first-hand. "I love how close Nick is to Josh. You can tell he's looked at the way his dad and Josh have handled things," D'Orazio said. "Josh is a bit more lowkey and happy to be 'off Broadway'. I think Nick's built for the big stage."
And the back page. All father-son prospects draw interest, but throw in Collingwood's woes and Daicos' form and he became a household name in 2021. But as he moved into the middle part of his year, Daicos hadn't decided whether he would nominate for the Pies or enter the open draft. He had a long Zoom chat with Pies recruiting manager Derek Hine in February and in June, Daicos, his parents and D'Orazio met with Collingwood's football boss Graham Wright, who formally detailed the club's interest in signing him.
"At the moment I'm up for grabs for anyone. I'm so driven by team success. I want to win two, three or four flags. That's my aim. I feel like I've got to make the decision that's right for me, I don't feel pressure to nominate as a father-son. I've worked hard to get into this position and hopefully it pans out that I do get to Collingwood and I'm really liking the club. But I'm stuck in the middle and not sure what I'll do or where I'll go," he said as he weighed up his decision.
"The pro is I'd love to play with Josh. To play with your brother at the highest level would be a dream come true. That's the main thing for me to go there. Against would probably be that I really want to be the No.1 draft pick. That's my aim but if I'm a father-son it could stop that. A lot of people will say, 'It's just a pick' which is definitely fair enough but it's also a really good representation of the hard work that's been put in."
At times the hype has been overwhelming. After every outstanding game, Daicos' statistics were plastered over social media, leading him to deactivate his Instagram account on Mondays and Tuesdays to avoid the comments. Josh joked that one big account was dedicated to Nick, such was the fascination with the youngster's performances. His parents knew the score but also worried about overexposure.
"I've always felt embarrassed about it because my view is there's Hugh McCluggage, Sam Walsh, these guys who are doing what they do in the AFL right now and then there's articles about me. I think they'd look at it like it's a bit undeserving," Daicos said. "Like, there's so many players doing unbelievable things, and there's this young kid getting written about who's playing OK in his local league."
The spotlight has led to other unusual things for someone his age. While running a lap of a local park some kids jogged alongside him, realising who he was. At an Oakleigh game where he was rested, a group of younger fans called him to the fence for a selfie. He was also offered money to have a kick with a fan as a birthday present.
His world spinning past, Daicos remained grounded. He is polite and inquisitive, extending a handshake and smile with every introduction. He is clearly confident but mindful how he comes across. The expectations from outside are nothing compared to his own within. His ambition is prodigious but not ludicrous. "He's always been mature," Peter said.
Former Port Adelaide and Geelong player Jason Davenport, who is Daicos' coach at Oakleigh and Vic Metro, is a close friend of Gary Ablett Jr and helped arrange a catch-up between Ablett and Daicos before Victoria's lockdown stopped it. Davenport recognised similarities in the pair's junior days.
"I've spoken to Gaz about Nick often. Gaz has been really encouraging with regards to what Nick is potentially going through from an external standpoint. I can't sit here and even imagine," Davenport said. "Nick's coped with the media and the pressure. We see it in his performance."
IT WOULD be hard to pick Nick Daicos out of a group of his mates. He dresses casually like most boys his age: often in baggy trackies, an oversized hoodie and a pair of black and white Nike Dunk shoes. The difference being that often brands have sent him gear to wear and promote, while the sneakers come as part of his deal with the global brand. He wears an earring and sports a mullet rivaling the one made famous by his father decades ago (and the haircut du jour of Nick's generation).
Daicos is part of a cohort that has lost plenty of irretrievable moments through the pandemic. He barely went to school in year 12 last year, completing his studies at home. Similarly, any hopes those missed times could be made up this year were dashed by further restrictions.
Instead, he binged on countless Netflix series (Animal Kingdom, Suits and You among the favourites), surfed YouTube for clips of inspiring sportspeople and spent many nights locked in online battles on his PlayStation, with gaming Daicos' social outlet during lockdowns. "He lays in his bed just playing Fortnite," Josh said. "We all come past with meals for him. It's like room service." Sometimes, his family members walk past and hear him roaring. "I said to him the other day, 'Nick, are all your friends as loud as you when they're playing that game?'" Colleen, said.
"Sometimes people can have a perception that I'm an athlete, I must be on the go all the time. But I'm just a normal 18-year-old," Nick said. "I play footy and I have a lot of abnormal stuff happening so I know how people might want to perceive me, but every chance I get I make sure their perception is as good as possible."
Colleen and Peter were concerned at the impact 2020 would have on Nick this year, including his football. But by mid-season Daicos had shown it not to be an impediment. In six games in the NAB League, he averaged 36 disposals and two goals, proving himself to be a level above. COVID-19 disruptions meant initial plans for the NAB AFL Under-19 Championships were changed, with Daicos' Vic Metro and Vic Country facing off in early July. The teenager dazzled: he gathered 41 disposals, had six clearances and kicked two goals in a dominant display.
"I had never played for Vic Metro before, so there was a bit of the unknown. I was definitely aware going into the game how important it would be in the grand scheme of my year," he said. "I'd proven myself at NAB League level but I knew people would look at how I'd go in the carnival, so it was satisfying. I had to perform."
These are the times when Daicos sounds like every other kid in the draft which, of course, he is: anxious about his performance, keen to impress, quick to check the bests after a game, and competitive against others in his pick range. But he also goes searching for more, challenging his coaches on tactics, hitting up Melbourne superstar Christian Petracca for advice and studying star athletes including LeBrong James for their habits.
"I hate to say it, but the stuff he can do is Daicos-like," said Jy Bond, Oakleigh's talent manager. "Before training he'll nail goals from the boundary line post-high just for fun. He'll say, 'If I kick it, do I have to get it?' I'll say 'Yep, of course', and then he goes and kicks eight of 10. He's special, but he also works hard."
Recruiters, speaking through the year, saw that. "His year has just been exceptional," said Brisbane recruiting manager Steve Conole. "His ability to see the game … he's probably playing at AFL intensity already. He's a step ahead."
Melbourne recruiting manager Jason Taylor praised his influence. "He's a pure footballer: elite skills and decision-making and his output speaks for itself. Every game he's played has been at an enormously high level. He's an accumulator of the ball, a creator and he hits the scoreboard."
But only one club is getting him. After some deliberation, Daicos officially signed with Collingwood as a father-son pick in late July on a four-year deal. The Magpies, who traded out their first pick last year in preparation for an early bid for Daicos, have committed to matching it whenever a rival calls his name.
"I'm relieved. 'Wrighty' (Pies football boss Graham Wright) was very transparent and it made me feel very appreciated. They make Josh feel the same way, so once I saw that first-hand it was a bit of a no-brainer for me," Daicos said.
He had considered nominating for the open draft, with Gold Coast showing real interest in selecting him. The Suns, via Rowell and Anderson, guided him through their facilities in May and he met coach Stuart Dew. "I hadn't spoken to any other clubs and it made me feel really good. Gold Coast is a club I'll always have a lot of respect for and I appreciated its interest, but overall the opportunity to play with Josh at a club so rich in history with such an exciting list was something I couldn't pass," he said.
The four-year agreement had been weeks in the making and when finally confirmed, Daicos sent black and white dots with a handshake emoji to his family's group chat.
"My sister caught on and said 'OMG congratulations!!' and my dad wrote, 'What does that mean?'," Daicos said. "She explained it meant it must have been confirmed and I gave a wink. When I got home everyone was in the living room and we had a big hug. I've always visualised playing for Collingwood and it was kind of weird, once that happened it was another step closer."
When the Pies' dismal season finished – they placed second-last on the ladder – Daicos went into the club for promotional shots before the news was released, wearing Josh's No.7 jumper. It was a rare moment in a Collingwood guernsey.
As a kid, Daicos was a Carlton fan. He had a Carlton mouthguard. Club great Stephen Silvagni took him to games. He waved a Blues flag so hard after goals it nearly broke. His hero was Marc Murphy, even making his mum take him to Doncaster shopping centre because he knew Murphy had a job in a retail store there. "I'd walk past and be in awe of him," Daicos said. "Our family friend used to make lockers and he made a big Carlton locker with 'Nick Daicos No.3' on it." This year, Daicos wore No.3 for Oakleigh.
In latter years, Daicos' heroes have stretched beyond the AFL. A basketball nut, he adored Kevin Durant, the NBA superstar with a famous work ethic. More recently, Daicos has found inspiration in Giannis Antetokounmpo, the rising basketball champion who led the Milwaukee Bucks to this year's NBA championship. After his success, Antetokounmpo spoke openly about never resting on his laurels.
"When I heard Giannis talk about living in the past being your ego talking, it made sense," Daicos said. "If he can take that attitude, then everyone can."
"THIS is siiiiick." Nick Daicos had been to the MCG hundreds of times before, but never like this. Weeks out from the NAB AFL Draft, Daicos and Josh were at the empty, sun-bathed ground for a photoshoot. Nick took a FaceTime call from a friend while there, flipping the camera to pan the grandstands, then filmed a TikTok, all the while wowed by having sole access to the ground.
Like they do at Greythorn Park, the brothers skipped straight to the boundary line. When they got to the pocket where Dom Sheed slotted his last-ditch shot to hand West Coast the 2018 premiership over Collingwood, they kicked from elsewhere. "We don't like this spot," Nick said.
Since the end of Collingwood's season, Daicos has been using the Magpies' facilities. The first time he met new Pies coach Craig McRae, who was appointed in September after Buckley departed mid-season, was while in the gym. "He's super down-to-earth and a really nice person. He fired a little shot and told me I might need to get bigger biceps like Josh's," Daicos said.
Daicos had been straddling the line between full-time footballer and talented junior all year. He enrolled in a sports science course at Deakin University at the start of the year but stopped after several weeks. Instead, he started working at construction and property company Pellicano three days a week, taking notes in meetings, speaking to potential tenants and being his boss' assistant.
With a footy season again riddled by COVID pauses, D'Orazio had encouraged Daicos to dip his toe into other areas. "It was a really good grounding for him," D'Orazio.
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Daicos was like other youngsters in their first job out of school, finding their place in the workforce. There was a difference, though. Daicos knew his time at Pellicano would be short-term with his AFL career within reach. But despite his hopes, he is unlikely to go No.1. North Melbourne has the selection and in September held a 30-minute Zoom interview with Daicos, the first formal chat they have had with him all season. But the Roos are expected to draft South Australian Jason Horne-Francis and not bid for Daicos at No.1.
Daicos was only interviewed extensively by the Roos, Suns and Magpies all season. He understands that it is better for Collingwood if a bid comes later but has also aspired to be No.1. "It's something I've always kept from people and didn't really want to voice because it sounded ridiculous, but now I'm fortunate enough to be in the position where it's a possibility, so I want it," he said.
"I don't know if Collingwood's too happy for me to go as high as I want to go but I think they're understanding that I've worked really hard for the opportunity to try and get the recognition of being a high draft pick."
D'Orazio said he had spoken to Daicos about the draft positioning. "He wants to be the best kid in the country and I think he is," D'Orazio said. "He will make an impact next year and nobody will care whether he's pick 2, 3, 4 or 5. He'll make his own mark."
Suddenly, the draft Daicos has been hurtling towards is here. On Wednesday, Daicos' name will be one of the first called and will lock him in as a Magpie. As part of the club's tradition for its first draft pick each season, he will take on the No.35 jumper, which was worn by his father. It is yet another atypical scenario for the kid with the typical dream.
"I think I belong at the level. It's all I've ever wanted. I can't wait to run out with Collingwood, to hear the crowd, to play with Josh, to do it for my parents," Daicos said. "I haven't been drafted yet but I'm super excited. I feel like I'm a little boy again."