Submitted by Peter Blucher.
Remember exactly what you were doing on Friday 27 November 2015? Paul Hunter does. And he’ll never forget it.
The then Redland NEAFL ruckman, inaugural winner of the NEAFL Rising Star Award in 2014 and one of the competition’s most promising big men, had gone to work expecting it to be just like any other out-of-season Friday.
But it wasn’t. Shortly after 11am he was drafted by the Adelaide Crows as a rookie.
Having just completed his electrical apprenticeship, he quit a part-time job he’d been doing on the side and in a whirlwind 48 hours packed up just enough to get him through a four-week pre-Christmas training block in the South Australian capital.
Little did he know then that it was the beginning of football fairytale that would take 1914 days to reach fruition.
Drafted at age 22, Hunter fulfilled his dream to play AFL football last Sunday at 28 long after it seemed his AFL dream was gone. And not with the Crows but with StKilda after he answered an SOS from coach Brett Ratten on 8 February this year.
Hunter had just about accepted that perhaps it wasn’t going to happen when out of nowhere it did.
With the Saints struggling for ruck options as Rowan Marshall battled injury and Paddy Ryder took time off for personal reasons, the Saints invited Hunter to trial for a list vacancy.
It was November 2015 all over again. Drop everything, throw a few things together and get on a plane. But this time the story had a happy ending.
Hunter became the 187thth Queensland product to play in the AFL, making an important contribution to a miraculous win by a savagely depleted Saints side over the GWS Giants in Sydney.
So quickly did it happen in the end that for the first few days after his debut Hunter was like the anonymous man. On the club website there was a photo of him in his hurriedly assigned #41 jumper and nothing else. The link from the players page to the Hunter page went nowhere.
It is a story of wonderful self-belief, hard work and perseverance that began at Warners Bay on Lake Macquarie, 15km from the heart of Newcastle, where he played from age 11-18, making one senior appearance.
He moved to Redland to further his football in 2013 and after spending his first season in the Reserves played 40 senior games. On top of his Rising Star Award in 2014 he won the Redland senior best and fairest award and NEAFL Team of the Year selection and debuted for the NEAFL representative side against Tasmania.
He was claimed by the Crows with pick #13 in a 2016 rookie draft with a strong Queensland flavor.
Josh Wagner was taken by Melbourne from Aspley at pick #6, ex-Nambour junior Lachy Keeffe was re-drafted by Collingwood at #7 after a two-year stint out of the game and Sunshine Coaster Sam Reid re-drafted by GWS at #8 two years after he had retired.
Redland’s Matt Uebergang went to Fremantle at #16, Zillmere’s Reuben William to Brisbane at #20 and Josh Smith, yet another Redland product, was claimed by Collingwood at #25.
Mabior Chol went from Aspley to Richmond at #30, Redland junior Josh Thomas was re-drafted by Collingwood at #42 and Jesse Joyce went from Palm Beach-Currumbin to the Gold Coast at #67.
There were some significant other selections, too.
Immediately after Hunter went to Adelaide at #13 Sydney drafted Tom Papley at #14, and at #22 Essendon picked up Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti, who six years on heads the games list for the entire 2015 draft pool.
Majak Daw, now at Melbourne, joined North Melbourne at pick #33 and Dan Houston, now a key player at Port Adelaide, was drafted at #4 before Adelaide made two significant choices from other sports. They took Perth Wildcats basketballer Hugh Greenwood, now with the Suns, at #48, and Victorian cricketer Alex Keath, an original Gold Coast listee now with the Western Bulldogs, at #58.
The 2016 AFL Guide wrote of Hunter: “He is a strong mark with a great vertical leap and is quick for a player standing 200cm … endurance is also a highlight of his game.”
But Hunter’s path to a game with Adelaide was blocked at the time by #1 ruckman Sam Jacobs, an aspiring young Riley O’Brien, Adelaide’s 2020 club champion, a pinch-hitting Josh Jenkins and untried youngster Luke Lowden.
Well-regarded by the club for his work ethic, Hunter played 63 SANFL games with the Crows Reserves in four years without a chance at the senior level and, after being de-listed and re-drafted in 2018, was de-listed again at the end of 2019.
He was intending to play with Williamstown in the VFL in 2020 until Covid struck him a double blow. Not only did he lose his football team but he lost his new job as an electrician.
But after a frustrating time in quarantine he joined South Adelaide in the SANFL in a bid to play at the highest level possible, and in nine games he did enough to win SANFL Team of the Year selection and help South Adelaide to the preliminary final. And finally an AFL game.
Hunter had nine possessions and 19 hit-outs on debut on Sunday as StKilda, without captain Jarryn Geary, boom recruit Brad Crouch, Dan Hannebery, Zak Jones, James Frawley, Max King, Marshall and Ryder, hung on to win by eight points.
Of his debut, Hunter said it was “very special” to finally step into the AFL stage after “at a lot of sacrifice” and “a lot of effort”.
Coach Ratten said: “He had patches where he did really well and he will get better. When you think five weeks ago he wasn’t even at our footy club … he’s only going to improve and keep conditioning himself to the AFL way. For him this was just a stepping stone … he’ll keep improving and will learn a fair bit about it.”
In other Queensland highlights from Round 1 of the Toyota AFL season:-
- Jack Bowes had a career-best 30 possessions for the Gold Coast Suns in his 60th game against West Coast in Perth, with 28 kicks and two handballs, and went at a remarkable 100% disposal efficiency. He earned two votes in the annual Coach’s Player of the Year Award, rated the Suns’ equal best with skipper David Swallow.
- Tom Hickey became the first player in AFL history to play for four clubs in four states when he debuted for the Sydney Swans against Brisbane at the Gabba. And he did it in style, collecting 23 possessions, 24 hit-outs and a game-high nine clearances in the ruck to pick up seven coaches votes as the equal second-best player on the ground according to the coaches. Skipper Dayne Zorko was the only Brisbane player to feature in the coach’s votes, collecting two for his 22 possessions and a goal.
- Ben Keays, coming off a sixth-place finish in the Adelaide B&F last year, earned three coaches votes for his 23 possessions in the Crows’ shock win over Geelong in Adelaide.