SEB ROSS arrived home shortly after 3am on Saturday morning, more than four hours after St Kilda beat Greater Western Sydney in Canberra.
But unlike the rest of his teammates who collapsed into bed after accomplishing the taxing fly-in, fly-out mission to the nation's capital, Ross was up for a couple more hours, looking after his twin sons.
Life has changed dramatically for the 28-year-old in the past 12 months. The star midfielder and his wife Marnie have made the seismic jump from one daughter to three kids under four following the arrival of Vinny and Henley, while navigating some of the biggest decisions of his 166-game career.
Ross found himself in the spotlight for reasons he never envisaged midway through last season. The clean-cut Saint hasn't put a foot wrong in his time in the AFL, but was suddenly a key talking point in the media when St Kilda's season was in freefall in June.
With five-week-old twins and a two-year-old daughter at home at the time, Ross made the decision to put family before football, leaving the Saints' mini-hub in Sydney to support his wife, Marnie. Tim Membrey made the same decision to ensure he was in Melbourne for the birth of his son.
The pair missed St Kilda's important clash against Adelaide in Cairns due to border restrictions and found themselves in the eye of a media storm after it was reported key figures at the club were privately critical of their decision.
Plenty has changed since then. St Kilda has won five games on the trot for the first time since 2011 and look poised for a deep September run. Ross is back to his 2017-19 best, but he hasn’t forgotten the challenges he faced last year.
"On reflection, it was actually pretty tough. Life was pretty tough as it was, having Charlotte and the twins and the twins had bad colic, so it was full on all the time," Ross told AFL.com.au after the win over Greater Western Sydney.
"I knew in my heart of hearts I had to come home; I had to support my wife, Marnie, because there was no way that she would have got through the 11 days without me. She would have fallen in an absolute pit and probably never forgiven me.
"It was certainly difficult, particularly because it was our bye week and I was actually trying to take a break from footy. I found it a bit strange to be in the spotlight for the decision, because when I made the decision, there was no way in my mind that I thought it would ever be a talking point."
Ross missed only one game and returned for the final nine games of the year, finishing seventh in the Trevor Barker Award. The Horsham product put pen to paper on a two-year extension at the end of the Trade Period, despite attracting more lucrative offers from rival clubs for the second year in a row, putting an end to the most chaotic period in his football career.
"I think I knew last year wasn’t us. I've been here for a long time and this group has gone through so much change in the last three years. Really since Richo [Alan Richardson] left most of the coaching staff have changed, even my teammates there aren’t too many that I've played a real good amount of footy with," he said.
"I knew if we just got it together, got our systems going and all got on the same page, we could be doing what we're doing now, play team-first footy. I love the Saints and it was a pretty easy decision in the end."
It has been 11 years since the Saints read out Ross' name with the 25th selection in the 2011 NAB AFL Draft. Ross has lived through a barren period at the club, winning only 39 per cent of the games he has played.
He has only played in two finals – both in 2020 – but at 5-1, St Kilda's second premiership no longer feels as out of reach as it did two months ago. The left-footer isn't daring to dream just yet. Not that the twins would let him sleep deep enough, even if he wanted to dream.
"I'm No.6 and Nasiah [Wanganeen-Milera] wears No.7. We sit next to each other, and I tapped him on the shoulder on Friday night and said: make sure you enjoy these moments, it’s the best half an hour we get in footy terms, I've been on the end a lot of times, so you just don’t know when it's going to come and go," he said.
"We're just enjoying our time at the moment, it's a great place to be right now. We're not really focused on finals. We know with the list we've got we've got, we can be there come the end of the season. But right now it's really process focused for us; each guy is happy putting their ego aside to contribute to the team. We're getting 22 contributors each week. We've won five on the trot, but there are no guarantees each week."
While Jack Steele and Jade Gresham have attracted most of the praise externally in 2022, the rise of Jack Sinclair the midfielder and the return of Brad Crouch to his ball-winning best have also generated plenty of attention. But many inside RSEA Park believe Ross' return to his Trevor Barker Award winning best has also been a key reason why St Kilda's midfield is humming right now.
Ross won his first best and fairest in 2017, finished second 12 months later, before winning a second Trevor Barker in 2019. After struggling with a calf issue across 2020, Ross has rediscovered his zip and drive this year, thriving back on the inside after spending most of 2021 on a wing and across half-forward.
"I've always been pretty fit, but I think this year my body is really healthy and I'm back up on top of the ground. I think I'm honestly just enjoying my role at the moment, being back playing on the inside as a midfield, as opposed to last year having to play a lot of outside. I think I'm just enjoying being back in the middle," he said.
"We've got some real clarity around the roles we need to play. 'Gresh' can be a pinch hitter and a great clearance player. 'Crouchy' and 'Steeley' are natural ball hunters and high-pressure tackling players. I'm balancing my role between winning the footy and getting back and helping defence and trying to support them that way. We are all nailing our roles at the moment."
St Kilda is taking it day-by-day right now, and so is Ross. He is either at the football club in Moorabbin or at home with Marnie and the kids. There isn’t time for anything else. Life is a blur, but he wouldn’t change anything.