MASSIMO D'Ambrosio walked into the Essendon Football Club for the first time two days before the NAB AFL Mid-Season Rookie Draft to sit down with list boss Adrian Dodoro and the rest of the recruiting team. He didn't realise it in the moment, but The Hangar was about to become his new home.
By that point of the season, clubs were circling the teenager from Point Cook who had slipped through the cracks following two seasons decimated by COVID-19. The Bombers had been keeping an eye on D'Ambrosio but hadn’t been in touch until the previous Friday, hours before he injured his shoulder in a VFL game for Richmond at Lakeside Oval in Sydney.
The 19-year-old was distraught at the time, thinking he had just ruined his best chance of being drafted. But he hadn't. Scans cleared D'Ambrosio of serious damage, before he walked past Jai Culley on his way into The Hangar to meet his future employers for the first time.
By the time Essendon used pick No.3 on D'Ambrosio – two picks after West Coast selected Culley – the Western Jets product had met with more than a handful of clubs, including Collingwood only hours before the draft. Greater Western Sydney was the keenest, Sydney had him do an extra medical, Gold Coast was hopeful he'd make it through to pick No.7, while Geelong met with him in the unlikely event he was still on the clock at pick No.12.
Now a month on from that night, D'Ambrosio has quickly emerged as the next gun to be plucked from the Mid-Season Rookie Draft, just like Jai Newcombe, Marlion Pickett, John Noble and Will Snelling in previous years.
D'Ambrosio made his debut against St Kilda in round 14 after only one game in the VFL and has now played three games under Ben Rutten, amassing 23 disposals against Sydney at the MCG on Saturday to earn the round 16 NAB AFL Rising Star nomination.
CLASS OF 2022 Check out who's been nominated
"It still hasn't sunk in," D'Ambrosio told AFL.com.au from inside a packed Essendon changerooms after the nine-point win over the Swans on Saturday.
"I didn't know what to expect. The boys have really got around me and really helped me settle in, so it's been really good to get a few wins on the board and be a part of this. It's been really awesome.
"They are backing me to play to my strengths. My strengths are my decision making and my kicking. The boys are really getting around me and it helps when all of them are really helping me go back to my strengths."
D’Ambrosio signed an 18-month contract when he was drafted on June 1 and has quickly transitioned from part-time football in front of a few hundred people in the NAB League and the VFL to life as a professional footballer in the AFL.
"It's just become a job for me, at the end of the day it's a full-time job. But I don't look at it like that. I'm looking at it to have fun, enjoy what it brings," D'Ambrosio said.
"A lot of people dream of being an AFL player, and that's what I was dreaming of for a long time, so I'm just grateful that's been able to happen and I'm part of this great club.
"This club is heading in the right direction. If I can be a part of it for a long period of time that would be great. I'm just focusing on what's coming."
After making such a seamless transition to the big time, many are wondering how this smooth mover with the silky left foot wasn't one of the 65 players taken in last year's NAB AFL Draft or one of the 26 via the Rookie Draft.
The teenager made recruiters get out of their fold out chairs across the Colgate Young Guns Series, collecting 24 disposals and nine rebound 50s against Vic Metro at Avalon Airport Stadium, before adding a 32-touch and nine-mark game against Vic Country at Ikon Park.
While he was a star at underage level in the Western Region Football League, winning four league best and fairest awards for Point Cook, he struggled to fully shine in the NAB League in 2021 after recovering from a stress fracture in his back.
"Last year was my first year back in a couple of years. I had a couple of stress fractures in my back, so it was my first year back and I was just getting into the rhythm of it. I was just starting to play some good footy. I was unlucky to not get drafted," he said.
"I did have a bit of a down period after the draft and was disappointed. But then I went to work, spoke to my coaches and worked out what I needed to do to get to this position, worked on that and just enjoyed playing footy again. I'm really happy with how it's worked out."
D'Ambrosio isn't the only one inside The Hangar who is thrilled. Dodoro has unearthed another diamond in the rough after landing Sam Durham from Richmond's VFL side last year, two years after signing Snelling from West Adelaide. And the Bombers are enjoying another win amid a season that hasn't produced many.
Six weeks after facing Essendon's VFL side in the curtain raiser to Dreamtime at the 'G, D'Ambrosio returned to the MCG on Saturday and produced a performance that still has people talking. Life can change that fast in this game.