PART 2Thursday, April 17, 2014 – IT IS the final afternoon of the AIS-AFL Academy's two-week European tour, and Christian Petracca is playing soccer with teammates. They're in the yard of the Australian Institute of Sport's European base in Gavirate, a small town in Italy's north.
Petracca is busy yelling, laughing and competing. His teammates say Petracca thinks he is soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo, and he plays up to that, mimicking a professional by clapping to an imaginary crowd as he's replaced on the ground.
Tomorrow the squad will head back to Melbourne after a busy camp that started with a game at the MCG against Collingwood's VFL team. They then travelled to London for a week, and played against the European Legion, before the recovery phase of the trip in Italy.
Petracca is the only member of the squad not going home straight away; he will spend an extra four days in Italy with his parents Elvira and Tony, who joined the tour with 10 other families.
Petracca 'The Terminator' (second from right) hangs out with AIS-AFL Academy teammates in the Swiss Alps. Picture: AFL Media
The extra leg wasn't initially approved, but Academy officials eventually allowed it. The Petraccas, a close-knit Italian family, stressed the importance allowing the extra days so they could visit relatives following Tony's health scare at the end of last year, when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer and underwent surgery to remove it. Petracca hasn't seen his relatives since he was four, when they called him 'The Terminator' for running around rooms, causing scenes of destruction, and then moving on.
The joker gets a clipThe trip has taught him a few things, mainly off the field. In London the team met after some players had forgotten to complete their daily wellbeing and urine checks. Each player was encouraged to say whatever was bothering him, and Petracca asked for more consistency from the group. "If we all say we're going to do something, we should all do it," he says.
His teammates asked Petracca to be mindful of when to play loud music from the back of the tour bus. "They said it's fine, just not before games. I've had talks with a few coaches, and they said there's a time to joke around and a time not to," Petracca says.
"That's about maturing a bit. My maturity level definitely needs to improve a bit. I'm always loud and like to have fun.
"I've definitely improved since last year, when Tom Boyd gave me a little clip. It was more in a friendly way, but he said 'Mate, you just need to relax'. He said I can get a bit annoying, but other than that it was good.
Petracca takes on AIS-AFL Academy teammates in a snowball fight. Picture: AFL Media
"With the recruiters on the trip I just try to be myself. They're going to get mixed messages if I'm acting differently here than I do back home," he says.
'You'd go to war with him'His big personality and influence on the group are hard to ignore. Petracca is upbeat, all the time. One recruiter compared him to Hawthorn great Robert DiPierdomenico for his approach.
"He's cheeky and fun-loving. His teammates next year are going to enjoy being around him. He reminds me of a young 'Dipper'. He's happy, he's fun, he's excitable and he'll do anything for his teammates. You'd go to war with him," the recruiter says.
"He's a very likeable young bloke. He's popular. He comes from a really good, loving, solid family who are just really nice people. They're a close Italian family."
Petracca started the tour playing well. His aim of reaching a higher standard of running was achieved at the TAC Cup testing day four weeks ago, when he recorded a level 14.3 beep test, a personal best. Only two days before, Vic Metro talent manager Anton Grbac had told Petracca he had not yet proven his running capabilities. When Petracca finished his test, he walked past Grbac and smiled.
The marathon beginsElvira, who used to run marathons, played a part in helping him improve his endurance. The pair ran many times over summer around the 10-kilometre Beasley's Nursery track near their Warrandyte home in Melbourne's north-east. "She beats me in the longer distance but she's lost her sprint," Petracca says.
"It's frustrating because everyone says the same things about me… half-forward, 96 kilos, no endurance. It's good to show them I do have something else to my game."
Petracca started the TAC Cup season with a one-on-one mark, kick for goal and a loud 'Woo-hoo' after the opening goal of the Ranges' first game. He was most pleased with what happened after that; he collected 18 disposals to half-time and finished with 27. You can watch his highlights below. But he didn't toss the coin before the start of the match.
In the off-season, Anthony Parkin had taken a recruiting job with Port Adelaide, leaving Eastern's regional manager position vacant. In late January, former Melbourne coach Mark Neeld was appointed to the role. He told Petracca the likelihood of him missing so much footy because of his AIS and state duties meant Luke Hannon would be a better option as captain. Although initially disappointed, Petracca was quick to congratulate Hannon.
Petracca is learning to deal with advice coming from different angles. Every Monday after a game, Petracca brings home a DVD with his match edits, and sits around the dinner table with his brothers and studies the vision. Julian and Rob play for Mitcham in the Eastern Football League but are midfielders, which Christian also wants to be. "Mum cracks it because we're not helping with the dishes," Petracca says. His managers, Paul Connors and Robbie D'Orazio, are also on hand if required.
The information overload is at times frustrating for Petracca, who occasionally gets to the point he doesn't want to talk, think or hear about football. He has found it harder to take his mind off things this year with no full-time study, having finished year 12 at Whitefriars College last year.
Everyone asks: 'When are you getting drafted?'He was accepted into a commerce/marketing course at Swinburne University, which takes up a couple of days each week, but there is still plenty of time to think about the draft, where he could end up, and what it all means. To keep busy, he set up an online business selling yoga foam rollers and gym equipment, emailing TAC Cup clubs to gauge their interest.
The interest in his football future isn't confined to his home. Petracca likes socialising, but whenever he heads out he gets the same questions. "Everyone asks 'How's footy? When are you getting drafted?' You don't want to answer because you don't know anything yourself," he says.
Dealing with the spotlight isn't new for Petracca. It started when he was 12, when he featured in a local newspaper article. The story, accompanied by the photo below (supplied), focused on which sport he'd pursue.
He found the attention last year – from media, bloggers, friends, and everyone in between – exciting as his footy progressed. But this season he is trying to steer clear from acknowledging it.
A fine line between arrogant and confidentHe has started attracting more comments on Twitter and social media about his footy, but doesn't want too get carried away, a trap he knows he could fall into if not careful.
"You've just got to take it all on board, but try not to be arrogant about it," Petracca says. "I think I'm perceived by people a little bit that way. But for me there's a fine line between being arrogant and confident, and you could say I was flirting with that line."
Another recruiter sums up what many think. "He doesn't lack confidence and has a bit of bravado, but that's not a bad thing at all. It comes through in his footy," he says.
"I'm a big fan of his. He's a high-impact player. He can really turn a game in 10-15 minutes, and he does it regularly. He can bring people with him. He's a likeable rogue."
For now, Petracca is just another draft hopeful. The next couple of months, when he plays for Vic Metro at the NAB AFL Under-18 Championships, will largely define what happens next.
"I'm happy with how it's all going so far. I really hope it continues," he says.
READ PART 1 – Why Petracca said yes to footy and no to an NBA dream
NEXT: Part 3 – 'In the draft, I want to go high'