THE AIRPORT is an apt place for a career to take off. And that's exactly where it launched for Ned Reeves.
The ruckman was sitting next to two mates in the departure lounge at Tullamarine, waiting to board a flight to Bali when the call arrived from Hawthorn.
Mark McKenzie – Hawthorn's then recruiting manager, now list manager – had been trying to reach Reeves for a few days when he finally got him on the phone. The Hawks wanted the 209cm project ruckman to train with the club during the Pre-Season Supplemental Selection Period (SSP) ahead of the start of the 2019 season, after the retirement of Will Langford opened a spot on the list.
While Reeves was on Box Hill's list at the time – and his dad was one year into his role as the chief executive of Hawthorn – the move was out of left-field. Reeves hadn't played a game in the VFL at that stage and spent 2018 playing amateur football for St Kevin's Old Boys in the VAFA Premier Division.
But Hawthorn saw enough during that audition to sign Reeves ahead of the SSP deadline. It has taken a little bit of time, but a few years on, that decision is paying dividends with Reeves showing enormous upside in 2022.
The 23-year-old made his debut against Carlton in round 10 last season and played five games in 2021. He played the first five games of this season before he dislocated his shoulder against Geelong, but has returned in fine form across the past two games to breathe life into his season at a time when Sam Mitchell desperately needed a ruckman.
Reeves was overlooked in his draft year and met with Fremantle at the end of his 19-year-old year with Oakleigh Chargers after being invited to the Draft Combine. The Dockers went with Lloyd Meek instead, but the boy from Aireys Inlet never stopped dreaming.
"I always believed that I could make it to the AFL and that it was possible," Reeves told AFL.com.au at Waverley Park this week ahead of tonight's clash against the Western Bulldogs at Marvel Stadium.
"When I was younger, I always said I wanted to play footy when asked at school. Footy has been pretty big in my family. My grandpa (former North and St Kilda backman John Reeves) played, my uncle (former North and Fitzroy utility Michael Reeves) played and my cousin (Josh Caddy) just retired. Footy has been massive in my family. I was always surrounded by it. No one assumed that I would, but my family all knew I wanted to and had some talent."
Reeves' season hung in the balance when he ran off the MCG on Easter Monday with his right shoulder hanging out of its socket following a blistering start against the Cats. The club had to wait and see if he needed surgery in the aftermath or whether they could strengthen his shoulder and get him to play out the year.
He missed six games but performed strongly in his return game against Collingwood – a week after the Hawks faced Jarrod Witts and Gold Coast without a recognised ruckman – and Fremantle before the mid-season bye. Surgery appears inevitable, at some point, but hopefully not until the end of the season.
"We thought it was probably going to be four weeks and it ended up being six, just because they wanted to be very cautious. Sam (Mitchell) was pretty big on taking the time to get it right, missing an extra two (weeks) so I can play the last 10, which was nice to have his backing," Reeves said.
"Yes, absolutely (I was worried). I did a couple of training sessions but it is never the same. The first quarter or so against Collingwood I was probably a little bit tentative but after that you kind of just forget."
Late last year was a time of change at Hawthorn. New coach, new assistants and a new ruckman. But even despite the arrival of Max Lynch from Collingwood, Reeves went from down the depth chart to the top over the summer months.
Ben McEvoy was slated for more time elsewhere this season before the veteran ruckman suffered a neck injury that has limited him to just one appearance in 2022, while Lynch has played only six of the first 14 rounds due to a luckless run on the injury front. Reeves has shown he can not only survive, but thrive, at AFL level.
"It has been really good. I've played against some pretty good ruckmen. I've been pretty proud of how I've held my own most of the time. Paddy Ryder was probably the toughest one so far; I can remember watching him when I was like 10, so I can’t believe he is still going. It was kind of cool to play against him," he said.
"Last year was a bit more like that, where you can’t believe you're playing against some of these guys. I played (Max) Gawn in my third game and he is literally who everyone tells me to be like; he is my idol. That was a little bit weird, but it has quickly become just part of the business."
While ruck coach Damian Monkhorst has been helpful in Reeves' development, McEvoy has been the most influential figure in his rise this year. The two-time premiership Hawk has taught him all the tricks of the trade, both on the track and in front of a laptop ahead of each game.
"'Big Boy' (McEvoy) has been amazing, even more so since he's been injured. Most of my vision is done with 'Big Boy' and he has been awesome, really taken me under his wing," he said.
"Because he is undersized, he has had to learn a lot more tricks than I've had to. Just body positions and certain angles where the weak spots are in their centre of gravity and little tricks with positioning and down to strength and aggression. It has really helped me this year."
Reeves shares a house in East Brighton with Jai Newcombe and Lachie Bramble. All three arrived at Waverley Park via Box Hill City Oval. All three weren't recruited conventionally, landing at Hawthorn via the mid-season draft or SSP. And all three are managed by Peter Lenton from Kapital Sports.
The ruckman also shares a workplace with his old man. Justin Reeves has been the Hawks' chief executive since the end of 2017 after holding senior commercial roles inside the front offices of Geelong and Collingwood. The pair rarely cross paths at the club, with Justin more than happy to let the football department take care of his son, which is just the way Ned likes it.
"I was always surrounded by footy through Dad's work. I would go into the rooms every now and then. He was there when Collingwood won the premiership in 2010. Some of the players would know you. We played Collingwood the other week and Scott Pendlebury said he remembered me when I was 10," he said.
"Dad went to Geelong and it was cool seeing the inner sanctum of the Cats. He started at Hawthorn and I signed at Box Hill a week apart. Sometimes it's funny at functions when I see Mum and Dad because Mum has to go as Dad's guest. Dad sometimes talks to the footy department and I just can't take him seriously because he has a different voice compared to when at home, but he is the boss."
Reeves has nearly completed a commerce degree majoring in economics, making the most of his first two years out of school while he wasn't a full-time footballer. Dylan Moore is doing the same course, while Josh Ward has just started a law degree. Reeves has an exam scheduled for tonight but has been forced to reschedule it due to obvious reasons.
When it comes to life after football, it is never too early to think about the future, especially for those who arrived on a one-year rookie deal and have played only a dozen games of league football. For Reeves, the family business appeals to him.
"I actually really do have an interest in what Dad does. When people ask me what I want to do after footy, I just say 'take over the family business'. It's a joke, but it's not really," he said.
"I’ve just done a sports economics subject. Dad has taught me little things along the way from his work and because I've been surrounded by sport my whole life, I feel like I'm in this bubble. I'd love to stay in sport. Doesn't have to be AFL, really. I'm a massive NFL fan. I would love to go to America and somehow work at an NFL club. But the family business definitely does interest me."
That is a future-Ned problem. Right now, present-Ned needs to focus on Friday night football at Marvel Stadium. Then he has to think about that economics exam.