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LEADING player-manager Alex McDonald is as well placed as any to talk about how the NAB AFL Draft has grown in size and importance.

Back in 1988 he was the No.1 pick, selected by Hawthorn out of Ballarat YCW.

The Hawks were coming off a then-record 96-point thrashing of Melbourne in the Grand Final and they traded three senior players – popular clubman Peter Russo, as well as Paul Harding and Robert Handley – to bottom-placed St Kilda to secure the first pick in the draft.

But here is how low-key the draft was was at that time. When McDonald first learned from a friend that the Hawks had picked him at No. 1, he had no idea the trade itself had been made several weeks before.

"I said that couldn't be right because St Kilda had the first pick because they finished bottom of the ladder," he told

"I didn't really understand the system back then. Part of it was ignorance but (the draft) just didn't get the publicity it does now."

McDonald was a skinny half-forward when he joined the Hawks. He had been scouted by six clubs and had played a practice match with North Melbourne’s under-19s but had never played in the Teal Cup, the forerunner of the NAB AFL Under-18 Championships.

McDonald was home by himself on the farm in Ballarat, kicking a footy on a nearby paddock when the draft took place in Melbourne, behind closed doors, as was the norm back then. 

His first call from the Hawks came several hours after it was over and a handful of journalists, mainly from local newspapers, interviewed him over the phone.

It was a far cry from the much-hyped event the draft is now. 

Today, the 44-year-old McDonald is the principal of his own Melbourne-based sports management firm and will be at the Gold Coast Convention Centre on November 27 representing several soon-to-be AFL players. He will have empathy for the player whose name is called out first and who will follow in his footsteps.

"The most important thing is this wonderful opportunity you have been given," he said when asked what advice he would offer. 

"(Football at AFL level) is very structured and process-driven but if you can live with that, keep pushing yourself and become used to repeat behaviours, it's the most wonderful career."

McDonald played 46 games for Hawthorn from 1990-95 and 61 games for Collingwood from 1996-99.