By Josie Fielding, lions.com.au
In nine years Luke Curran has seen the Hyundai Help for Kids Lions Academy program go from a computer and a bag of footballs to producing some of the most exciting products of the game.
Stars like Harris Andrews, Eric Hipwood and Sophie Conway are all Academy alumni and Curran has seen them go from kids to athletes.
“Being able to give them a call on draft night and say ‘congratulations, well done’ and you can hear the excitement in their voice and they are genuinely thankful for their time in the program,” Curran told lions.com.au.
“That’s pretty special and that’s what keeps you motivated to keep working with the next generation of kids coming through.”
For Curran, he’s seen kids arrive at the Academy at 12 years old. They’re a little rough around the edges and can sometimes think they’re closer to being drafted than they really are.
“It is hard telling a 12-year-old they may not be drafted because they all have stars in their eyes and want to be an AFL player,” he said.
“You try and emphasise that it does take a lot of hard work, time and energy.
“They all would like to be an AFL player but don’t really understand what goes into it behind the scenes in terms of the training involved, the type of training, reviewing their performances and a lot of the off-field education around performance, diet and nutrition.
“You’ve got to break it down into simple terms for them. Keep it fun, first and foremost, you want them to enjoy their football and keep coming back.
“Then slowly build up their football development and personal development over those six years.”
The Academy was formed in 2010 with the intent of producing more Queensland-produced talent who would be good enough to be drafted.
Jonathan Freeman was the first player to be drafted in 2013 and since then the likes of Ben Keays, Hipwood, Andrews, Jacob Allison, Connor Ballenden, Jack Payne and recently Tom Fullarton have all come through the ranks.
Curran said some player’s stand out from day one, while others can catch the Academy staff by surprise.
“You get both ends of the spectrum,” he said.
“Some kids stand out really early. Connor Ballenden stood out early as a 12/13 year-old and then Eric was a late developer from a physical point of view.”
Hipwood was a wiry teenager from the Sunshine Coast and was not always the tallest in the group. He was motivated and competitive and into his cricket at the time as well.
“We thought he was a reasonable player and then at 15/16 his body changed dramatically,” Curran said.
“Once his body caught up with his development you thought this kid is going to be a really good player.”
While Ballenden shone right from day one through the entirety of the program.
“He maintained his athleticism the whole way through, never went through an unco stage,” Curran said.
The 19-year-old also boasts one of the best kicks. It was a proud moment for Lions Academy staff when a Queensland kid had a perfect kicking score at the 2017 AFL Combine.
“We knew it but it was good to get the external recognition of his kicking as well was great,” Curran said.
Payne was recruited the same year as Ballenden and came through the program with him. His road to being drafted was not as smooth.
Payne had a few options at the time. He was a talented discus thrower and played rugby union at high school. He did not start playing Aussie Rules until he was a teenager at Noosa Footy Club.
“We saw Jack playing in the Under 14s Queensland programs and it evolved from there,” Curran said.
“He’s obviously a good-sized kid but he didn’t dominate on the footy field in the early days.
“Once he sort of understood footy more and got more involved in the program you started to see his development in terms of being a really strong key defender.”
Watching Payne’s development over the years to then being rewarded with a spot on the Lions’ list is the most rewarding part for Curran.
“It’s really rewarding personally. You see them and hope you’ve had some sort of influence on their development,” he said.
It’s not just the players who come on the journey but their families, especially parents who dedicate so much time driving their kids to multiple training sessions a week.
Family played an important role in luring Tom Fullarton back to AFL and the Lions. He had been a promising Under 15 All Australian player and was part of the Lions Academy for years. Curran kept in touch with Fullarton and his family even when he decided to pursue a basketball career full time.
“Basketball Australia offered him a scholarship to go down there [AIS, Canberra],” Curran explained.
“We just couldn’t compete with that sort of offer for Tom from a sporting and educational point of view.”
But Curran kept the relationship going with the family. When Fullarton returned to Brisbane, they would catch up for a kick and chat. If he was in town for the weekend Curran would offer him and his family tickets to the game.
When asked why he invested so much into the relationship, Curran said players like Fullarton are hard to come by.
“A guy who is 200cm, very athletic, a good mark and very good below his knees at ground level,” he said.
“We thought that if he was serious enough, he could then transition back into football relatively quickly.”
The proof was in the pudding – Fullarton has transitioned into footy life again and is looking strong in the pre-season.
Not every story of players coming through the Academy ends with them being drafted – for both the men and women.
“We’re realistic, we know that they all can’t through and get drafted,” he said.
“I’d hope to think that most of the players who have come through our program have benefitted from a football point of view but also from an off-field point of view.”
Curran believes the program teaches kids resilience, dedication and effort, qualities that can only empower them in other aspects of their life.