Broadbeach youngster Joel Wilkinson is set to complete one of the great AFL stories of all-time with his AFL debut for the Gold Coast Suns on Saturday night.

Thursday, 23 June, 2011

Broadbeach youngster Joel Wilkinson is set to complete one of the great AFL stories of all-time with his AFL debut for the Gold Coast Suns on Saturday night.

The 186cm 19-year-old utility player, of part Nigerian heritage, will step out onto the big stage against the Western Bulldogs at Metricon Stadium with barely 25-30 games of football behind him.

And that’s not 25-30 senior games. It is 25-30 games of AFL football in total.

According to Mark Browning, long-time AFLQ Talent Manager and now Manager of Academies & Talent in Queensland, NSW and ACT, Wilkinson’s meteoric rise is on a par with that of Bulldogs defender Tom Williams.

“I reckon Tommy had played about 25-30 games as well before he played at AFL level,” Browning said of the former Gregory Terrace rugby union player who played in a QAFL premiership with Morningside before being a surprise selection at No.6 in the 2004 Draft.

“That was a great football story and this is another great football story,” said Browning.

“He (Wilkinson) has had a few injuries along the way but I don’t think he would have played any more than 25-30 games of football in his life either.”

Indeed, Wilkinson has played only five games with the Suns Reserves in the NEAFL competition after two injury disruptions, and he played only four senior QAFL games with Broadbeach last year before a collarbone injury in the Australia Post Queensland U18 Scorpions program ended his season.

Despite his 2010 injury the Scorpions captain was claimed by the Gold Coast Suns on a Queensland zone recruiting priority ahead of last year’s NAB AFL National Draft after a standout performance at the AFL Draft Camp.

He clocked a scintillating 2.75 seconds to break a long-standing 20m sprint record set by Port Adelaide’s AFL Rising Star winner Danyle Pearce in 2004, and topped the field in the repeat sprint, in which each player was clocked six times over 30m in two minutes, with a 10-second recovery.

Wilkinson’s domination of the sprint events was a throw-back to a strong junior athletics background. He was a renowned 100m/200m sprinter, long jumper, high jumper and triple jumper in his junior days while also representing the Gold Coast in tennis, soccer and cricket.

Born in Sydney but a Gold Coaster from age four, Wilkinson had never played AFL until mid-2008. And but for a never give up streak and a strong level of self-confidence and commitment he may never have played the game which is now his primary sporting focus.

“I’d done athletics for a long time and was just over it in 2008,” he said at the time he was drafted.

“I wanted a change. My first thought was actually rugby league but when I looked at my schedule it didn’t fit so AFL was my other choice,” he explained, attending Palm Beach High School at the time.

“I’d always wanted to play AFL, too, so I went to the PE teacher at school and asked if I could join his program. He thought I was joking and told me to nick off.

“But a couple of days later I went back and told him ‘I really want to do this’ and when he realized I was serious he welcomed me into program.”

In fact, Neil Mackay, head of the PBC AFL School of Excellence, did much more. As soon as he saw the raw athletic potential of Wilkinson with an AFL football in hand he knew he had something special.

He telephoned Browning and suggested he take a look for himself. He did. And so began a meteoric rise of fairytale proportions.

In his first year in the game in late 2008 Wilkinson was invited to join the Australia Post Queensland U16 Young Scorpions as an over-age player. He finished up first emergency for the national carnival after a scheduled practice match against Victorian Metro was washed out, but was taken to the championships for experience.

He joined Broadbeach in 2009 and his first season in club football won the Cats U18 B&F. He also represented the Gold Coast Stingrays at U18 level, and made the Stingrays All-Star side.

In 2010 he was co-captain of the U18 Stingrays at the State Championships, along with Southport pair Regan Salter and Dalton Tucker, before captaining the State U18 side until he dislocated his collarbone, forcing him to miss the last few games.

He also made his senior QAFL debut with the Cats, and finished equal fourth in voting for the QAFL Rising Star Award, won by NT Thunder’s Zephi Skinner, subsequently drafted by the Western Bulldogs.

Wilkinson admitted he had been a closet AFL fan in a household dominated by other sports before he began playing, and listed Brownlow Medalist Jason Akermanis as his first AFL hero.

“I was always interested in AFL but my brothers gave me a bit of a hard time because they were into other sports,” he said. “I still used to watch the Lions on TV on a Saturday night, but whenever somebody would come along I’d quickly change channels so they wouldn’t know.”

Not for long. And not at all any more.

Wilkinsosn will be the 12th Queenslander to debut in the AFL this year, joining Suns teammates Zac Smith, Charlie Dixon, Karmichael Hunt, Marc Lock, Alik Magin, Joey Daye and Rex Liddy, plus the Brisbane Lions’ Claye Beams, Broc McCauley and Bryce Retzlaff, and the Bulldogs’ James Mulligan.

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