Submitted by Peter Blucher.
Ben Keays will play his 50th AFL game this weekend two years after it was a milestone that seemed impossible.
The now 24-year-old Morningside junior has become a poster boy for the League’s “second-chance club”, turning himself into a key player with the Adelaide Crows after being de-listed by the Brisbane Lions 18 months ago.
He will post his half-century against North Melbourne at Marvel Stadium on Sunday as one of the form players in the competition after finishing fifth in the Crows’ Best and Fairest last year.
He is one of just four players to have polled in the AFL Coach’s Player of the Year Award in each of the first three years of the 2021 season, alongside Adelaide teammate Taylor Walker, the Bulldogs’ Jackson Macrae and Hawthorn youngster Changkuoth Jiath.
With consecutive hauls of 23 possessions, a career-best 28 possessions and 26 possessions he is Adelaide’s No.2 ball-winner behind dual All-Australian Rory Laird and the second-ranked Queenslander in the AFL behind emerging Gold Coast star Jack Bowes and ahead of Lions skipper Dayne Zorko.
He is equal first in the League for inside 50 entries, level with Zorko and one ahead of Richmond megastar Dustin Martin, and is 12th in the League for clearances, one ahead of Brisbane’s reigning Brownlow Medallist Lachie Neale.
Yet in November 2019, after being delisted by the Lions with Nick Robertson, Josh Walker and Ryan Bastinac, Keays was wondering where his next AFL game might come from.
He had played just two games in 2018 and two games in 2019 and found himself at the AFL crossroads.
On top of 30 games in four years with the Lions he’d been dropped seven times, was an emergency 26 times and had topped 20 possessions just twice.
It wasn’t quite the glittering career many had expected after a standout junior career in which he’d captained the 2015 Queensland Under-18 side that won the national division two championships.
He’d won the Hunter Harrison Medal as the division two player of the carnival – an award instituted in 1992 and won by Lions legend and fellow Morningside product Michael Voss, and also counts among its recipients Melbourne 250-gamer Brad Green (1999), Hawthorn premiership ace turned Brisbane defender Grant Birchall (2005), Lions 200-gamer Mitch Robinson (2008) and Richmond premiership ruckman Toby Nankervis (2013).
Sydney’s Isaac Heeney won the Harrison Medal 12 months before Keays, and since then it has gone to Bowes, Sydney’s Nick Blakey, North’s Tarryn Thomas and Gold Coast’s Connor Budarick.
Other Queensland winners have been Shane Young (1998), Jake Furfaro (2003), Ricky Petterd (2006), Liam Dawson (2013).
Keays was touted as a star in the making. A member of the Lions Academy from age 14, he was one of three players in the country to win All-Australian Under-18 selection as a bottom-ager in 2014 and again in 2015, alongside Essendon’s Darcy Parish and Brisbane’s Rhys Mathieson.
After claiming fellow Queenslander Eric Hipwood with selection #14 in the 2015 National Draft, the Lions quickly matched a bid from the Western Bulldogs to add Keays to their playing list at #24.
So highly rated was he that he was drafted ahead of the Bulldogs’ Josh Dunkley (#25), Collingwood’s Brayden Sier (#32), West Coast’s Tom Cole (#36), Hawthorn’s Blake Hardwick (#44), Gold Coast’s Sam Collins (#55), Sydney’s Jordan Dawson (#56), Hawthorn’s Tom Phillips (#58) and Richmond’s Nathan Broad (#67).
Born in Melbourne, he moved to Queensland with his family at age five and is a product of GPS school Gregory Terrace which also counts among its alumni current Lions player Connor Ballenden.
After his great grandfather Fred played with Fitzroy in 1919-20 Keays was always an AFL man. He grew up a massive Lions fan and idolised Brownlow Medallist Simon Black.
Wearing the #1 jumper, he debuted for Brisbane at the Gabba in Round 6 2016 in the same game as fellow Queensland draftee Aliir, then with Sydney and now at Port Adelaide, and played 16 games in his first season and 10 in his second season.
It was a dream come true for the cheeky left-footer, who had seen the Lions win their first premiership at the MCG in 2001 and was back at the MCG in the hope of seeing a four-peat in 2004, when the Lions’ hat-trick ended at the hands of Port Adelaide.
But in a stark reminder of the competitiveness of League football, the Keays dream turned into a nightmare until he was thrown a lifeline by the Crows via selection #7 in the rookie draft of November 2019.
He was one player who thrived on the Covid environment of his first season in Adelaide. After missing selection for Round 1 he made the most of the 11-week competition hiatus and played every game from Round 2.
Wearing jumper #28, he finished fifth in the club B&F behind Riley O’Brien, Laird, Luke Brown and Matt Crouch, and won the Players’ Trademark Award as the player who best “epitomises the warrior spirit”.
Significantly, it is an award decided by a player vote that had been won a record four times by skipper Rory Sloane.
This year, slipping into the #2 jumper worn previously by Brad Crouch before his defection to StKilda, Keays has shown that he hasn’t forgotten the dark times of two years ago.
He said pre-season how his outstanding exploits of 2020 guaranteed nothing in 2021, and he’s been true to his word, winning lavish praise across the competition for his hard-at-it approach in a young and developing Adelaide side.
Last week he played his 49th game in a side in which only eight teammates had more experience, and he’s become the leader at AFL level that he was in the junior ranks.
He will be the 34th player from the 2015 draft to reach 50 games – a list headed by Essendon’s Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti (109), Sydney’s Tom Papley (102), Melbourne’s Clayton Oliver (102), Richmond’s Daniel Rioli (98) and Hipwood (97). But there are plenty of good judges who say Keays will end up playing more football than many ahead of him.
It will be a sense of pride for Keays to reach 50 games after his uncle Terry, who played with Collingwood from 1987-90 and Richmond in 1991-92, finished at 45 games.
But if there was thing Ben could change it might just be the timing of his milestone. Ideally he might have liked it to be in the Anzac Day round so he could honour his great grandfather Fred.
History tells of a great man who grew up on the streets of inner Melbourne not knowing his biological father before serving in both World Wars after twice lying about this age.
He was twice wounded in World War 1 fighting in France and Gallipoli, lost a son in World War 2, was a finalist in the 1927 Stawell Gift and a long-time trainer at committee man at Fitzroy.
Having played five games with Fitzroy in 1919-20 and three games with Collingwood in 1922, he died in 1983 long before Ben was born. But still it will be a special family moment on Sunday.