THE news didn't amount to more than a few paragraphs. Not, at least, in this eastern state, on the day in late January when Michael Walters, fringe player at Fremantle, was banished to his local club and told to get fit. Walters knew, before he was summoned to a meeting with his coaches, that a recent skinfold test hadn't turned out well, and that he would be sent away to train. Still, it came as a shock. For everyone around him it was an average day in the middle of another pre-season. For Walters, an 11-game career was suddenly on the line.
It's nine weeks now since Walters got to add a 12th game to his tally. Then a 13th, then a 14th and, last Saturday night, a 20th. If the 21-year-old's banishment barely made the news back in the middle of summer, he was impossible not to notice against Geelong and, to be truthful, long before then. Since he, in the words of coach Ross Lyon, ''acted his way back in'' to the Fremantle side in July, Walters has played nine games, kicked 19 goals and set up many more. Against the Cats he did both those things, one of the best players in an elimination final his side was not expected to win.
If Walters was shocked when sent back to Swan Districts, not everyone who has known him was. The small forward with the sharp mind, skilful feet, competitive nature but questionable self-discipline needed to change some long-entrenched habits before earning another chance. Walters grew up playing kick-to-kick with Nic Naitanui and Chris Yarran, on the street in Perth's outer-eastern suburbs where all three grew up, and was an accomplished junior.
He didn't have things laid out for him as a kid and dealt with some turmoil late in his draft year when his father moved to Adelaide, but there were other reasons clubs let him slide through to pick 53. ''He has excellent foot skills and a really lovely sidestep,'' said Alan McConnell, his AIS-AFL Academy coach, before the 2008 draft, with one qualification. ''He still has some issues with regards to his attention to detail. When he's in camp with us and when he's with his club I'm sure he's fabulous, but he's got to learn to apply those processes to his entire life. That's his challenge, but I'd be surprised if he doesn't thrive in an AFL environment, provided he keeps his head down and works hard.''
Walters had new things going on in his life when he was sent back to Swans. His first baby was on the way, which gave him a fresh determination. ''The main thing was my eating,'' he told the Dockers' website on the cusp of his return match. ''They said I was training real hard and doing everything right except for the things away from the club. Everything at the club I was doing perfect, to a tee, and the main things were away from the club. To be honest, I had to stop going out with my mates. There were a lot of sacrifices that I had to make, and I felt like I did it.''
Not everyone was sure he would. ''What he was doing in his behaviours and his actions with his training and his work ethic was certainly not up to AFL standard and we know that's absolutely elite and has to be every waking moment and he wasn't meeting those standards,'' said his captain, Matthew Pavlich. ''To be frank, a lot of people at the club thought that might be the last we'd see of him.'' But he did it inside two months, in the end, losing 10 kilograms and finding some fresh love for the game.
Phil Smart, Swan Districts' football manager, was the Dockers' head recruiter when Walters was drafted and has always known him as a competitor, not only while chasing balls around. As soon as he arrived back at the club, Smart told The Age, he simultaneously wanted to make the most of his time there - working as hard as he possibly could and reimmersing himself in his old club.
''He came down as a more confident young man, I think. He was a quiet kid when he first got to Fremantle, but he'd grown into a determined young man and you could see that straight away,'' Smart said. ''He trained hard, he did a lot of extra sessions with all our coaches, he was in the gym all the time and he'd be out doing extra running. He was really clear on what Fremantle wanted him to do, he wanted to do it himself and this is all while he was living an hour away from us, and that's not factoring in peak-hour traffic. You see a lot of young guys get last chances and not realise it. He definitely realised it and was hard nosed enough to do something about it. And he was great for us. We've got a lot of young players at our club that are susceptible to a lot of things outside footy and to have someone like Michael Walters back around was great for those guys, to see how hard he was working just to get back into the club.''
The pending birth of his baby - daughter Layla is seven months old - motivated Walters. The death of his grandfather felt like another powerful reason not to let his last chance slip and the support of his partner, Marnie, his parents and brothers helped him do what he needed to do.
Walters has been buoyed by the support of his teammates, too. He's been involved in more scores than every Docker bar Pavlich in the past two months. ''What we've seen is someone with a really strong character come out, play really well in the WAFL, get into action and work his absolute butt off,'' said the skipper.