Zac Smith hangs up his boots

Submitted by Peter Blucher.

A small but very significant moment in Gold Coast Suns history will leave the club this week with the retirement of veteran ruckman Zac Smith.

It was a moment eight minutes and five seconds into the Suns first AFL game against Carlton at the Gabba on Saturday 2 April 2011 Smith grabbed the ball from a boundary throw-in and snapped at goal on his left foot.

The 206cm 21-year-old, one of 12 AFL debutants in the Suns first side, sliced it left. He insists it “just missed”. But it registered a behind. The Suns first score in the AFL.

For more than 10 years it has been a subject of much light-hearted banter between Smith and ex-teammate Charlie Dixon, now at Port Adelaide, after Dixon kicked the Suns’ first goal seven minutes later. Which was more historic, they’ve argued.

Now it will be part of the legacy of one of the founding pillars of the AFL’s 17th club.

Smith, 31, told teammates before training at the MCG last Friday morning of his retirement, and it was announced by the club tonight (Monday).

He’s decided it’s time to devote more time to wife Aimie, daughter Eden, who turned three last week and son Oscar, who will be one in October.

A professional athlete for almost as long as he’s been able to drink, Smith is uncertain on exactly what the future holds after a career that reached 123 games against Essendon last weekend, but he is hoping to maintain an involvement with the club.

Smith, who has played 73 games in two stints with the Suns split by a 50-game stint at Geelong, will go into the history books as player #18 on the Suns all-time playing list of 130. Why 18? Because his surname starts with ‘S’. Gary Ablett is #1 and Josh Toy, alphabetically the last player in the first side, is #22.

This week’s Round 23 clash with Sydney at a time and place still to be confirmed will represent the last chapter of a trailblazing career that began 13 years and 10 days ago on 6 August 2008.

Smith was the fourth young Queenslander signed by ‘GC17’, the bid team that later became the second AFL team in Queensland and the 17th in the AFL.

He signed seven days after the inaugural trio of Dixon, a basketball convert from Cairns, and highly-rated Gold Coast football pair Jesse Haberfield and Jack Stanlake, brother of Australian cricketer Billy Stanlake.

Smith has been a pin-up boy for AFL Queensland’s Rookie Search program. Born in Biloela, he moved with his family to Rockhampton as a 10-year-old and was a Queensland junior soccer player. And not a goalkeeper as might be expected – he was a field player.

Not until October 2006 did he even contemplate AFL. And only then at the suggestion of some friends at North Rockhampton High School.

In 2007 he joined the Glenmore Bulls Under 17s and in his first season was runner-up in the team B&F and was recruited by the Rookie Search Program.

In 2008 he moved to Brisbane to play with the Zillmere Eagles in the QAFL, hoping to further his football, and midway through his first season in the city he was invited to join the Suns.

He had a choice to commit to the Suns’ journey, which would include the TAC Cup U18 competition in 2009 and the VFL in 2010 before the club joined the AFL. Or put himself into the 2008 AFL draft, as fellow Gold Coaster Dayne Beams did.

Despite playing less than 20 games of football at any level, Smith received letters of interest from Collingwood, Hawthorn, Geelong, North Melbourne and Port Adelaide, and had a visit from then Richmond recruiting boss Craig Cameron, now the Suns list manager.

It was a big decision to put his football dream on hold for two years but given his lack of experience and fundamental football knowledge limitations he chose the conservative route. The Suns.

So began an apprenticeship which saw him named as first ruck in the TAC Cup Team of the Year in 2009 and play against men for the first time in the VFL in 2010, when he was the only non-AFL player chosen in the 2009 Queensland Team of the Year.

By the time the club’s official AFL debut came around he was an automatic pick, sharing the ruck duties with former #1 draft pick Josh Fraser from Collingwood.

Smith was a strong contributor throughout the club’s first season and finished 6th in the 2011 Suns B&F with 93 votes. Ahead of him were Ablett (196), Nathan Bock (138), Michael Rischitelli (100), David Swallow (98) and Danny Stanley (95). Completing the top 10 were Jared Brennan (83), Jarrod Harbrow (72), Sam Iles (49), Harley Bennell and Trent McKenzie (45).

He also finished 3rd overall in voting for the AFL Rising Star Award, won by Dyson Heppell, now the Essendon captain. It was Heppell (44) from Luke Shuey (37), now West Coast captain (37), Smith (21), teammate Swallow (18), West Coast’s Jack Darling (6), Sydney’s Sam Reid (5), teammate McKenzie (1), West Coast’s Andrew Gaff (1), Geelong’s Daniel Menzel (1) and St.Kilda’s Jack Steven (1).

Geelong’s Mitch Duncan, Western Bulldogs’ Luke Dahlhaus (now at Geelong) and Hawthorn’s Luke Breust, all 200-game premiership players, were among other Rising Star nominees who did not poll in the overall vote.

Over five years at Metricon from 2011-15 Smith played 20-16-8-10-11 games, surviving a knee reconstruction and an ankle reconstruction, but at the end of 2015, having spent half of the season in the NEAFL, he decided on a fresh start.

After approaches from several clubs he opted for Geelong, and in 2016-17 was a fixture in the top side. He played 44 games including five finals and two preliminary finals. He was 10th in the Cats B&F in 2016 and 8th in 2017.

Injury and later a lack of opportunity kept him to six games at Geelong in 2018-19 and when given a chance to return ‘home’ to the Suns in 2020 it was an opportunity too good to refuse.

The 2020 Covid season was a wipe, and, after being a serious knee injury on the eve of the 2021 season it wasn’t until Round 10 this year that he played his 66th Suns game – 2086 days after his 65th.

Between his last game at Geelong and his return game at the Gold Coast it was 657 days – long enough for two birthdays, a move interstate and a second child.

After a belated start to his 2021 campaign he struggled for confidence at times while filling in for co-captain Jarrod Witts, and after an outstanding Round 21 showing against Carlton earned lavish praise from coach Stuart Dew he was content to go out on his own terms.

It was a bonus coincidence that he got to play one last time in Sunday at Geelong, his second football ‘home’ and a place where he has a lot of good friends.

Quietly-spoken and always measured in his thinking but highly regarded at both clubs, Smith has enjoyed untold ‘firsts’ during a Suns career in which he has worn #2 and #32.

In three especially significant moments, he was a member of the Suns’ first winning team against Port Adelaide at Football Park in Round 5 2011, a member of the Suns’ first Q-Clash side against Brisbane at the Gabba in Round 7 2011, and a member of the first Suns side to play against Geelong at the ‘new’ Metricon in Round 10 2011.

The unforgettable Q-Clash win was extra special – he had 22 disposals and 17 hit-outs to get the better of Brisbane ruck pair Matthew Leuenberger and Mitch Clark, both top 10 draft picks, and earn two Brownlow Medal votes and his Rising Star nomination.

Overall, Smith played in the Suns first game against every opposition team except Hawthorn – he missed the 2011 visit to Launceston – and in their first game at the Gabba, Marvel Stadium, Football Park, Metricon, Subiaco, Cazaly’s Stadium in Cairns, Kardinia Park at Geelong, the MCG, Canberra, Darwin, the SCG and Adelaide Oval.

He is also the only Suns player to have left the club and returned to play again at AFL level.

When Smith left the Suns the club’s all-time playing list numbered 77. While he was away it swelled by 51, including 21 who came and went during his absence. And since his return a further 14 have been added, including all-time player #130 Jacob Townsend, an original GWS Giants player.

Of the inaugural Suns playing list in 2011 only five are on the 2021 list – player #18 Smith, #8 Jarrod Harbrow, #20 Swallow, #32 Sam Day and #40 Rory Thompson.

Despite his four years away and his number change this year Smith, who was 65 games in #2 for the Suns, has played almost twice as many games in #2 for the club as every other #2 combined – Jarrad Grant (14), Jack Scrimshaw (0), Anthony Miles (17) and Rory Atkins (6).

He is also the only player on the 2021 Suns list who has had a win against every opposition club.

Confused? It’s a trick question. Smith’s time at Geelong gave him the five clubs he has not beaten in red and yellow – Adelaide, Fremantle, North, Sydney and West Coast – while Harbrow has never beaten Gold Coast (because he’s never played against Gold Coast) and Witts has never beaten his former club Collingwood.

Peter Blucher is a Consultant with Vivid Sport. 

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