Best and fairest: Tom Hawkins. Photo: Paul Rovere
EIGHTEEN months ago Tom Hawkins was struggling to get a senior game. He even began to doubt his abilities.
But last night the 24-year-old took out the Carji Greeves Medal for Geelong's best and fairest.
It has been a breakout year for the key forward, who finished runner-up in the Coleman Medal with 62 goals and earned his first All Australian guernsey.
Despite already having two premierships to his name, he grew into his role this season, taking Geelong at times to some exhilarating heights.
Who could forget that after-siren goal from outside 50 metres that sealed the Cats' ninth straight win against Hawthorn?
Hawkins was the Cats' best player five times this season, polling 1394 votes, six ahead of the runner-up, captain Joel Selwood. Corey Enright was third with 1380 votes.
Hawkins finished equal-first in the AFL with 83 marks inside 50, and second in contested marks with 54.
He was at his best against the top clubs, kicking 20 goals against the teams that finished in the top four.
It was a stunning turnaround from last season, where he spent rounds 11 and 12 then rounds 15 and 16 in the VFL.
Hawkins said he was shocked and humbled to be named the Cats' best player.
"It comes as a big surprise. I'm a bit shocked to be honest. It's obviously very humbling and I feel very lucky. It's good I was able to find a bit of form.
"I've probably frustrated a lot of people over the last five years. It's been a long hard journey."
Of the goal that sealed Geelong's win against Hawthorn, Hawkins said: "I'll enjoy that as time goes on looking at that goal.
"It's one of those things, as a forward, to kick goals.
"I learnt a lot from my teammates and (assistant coach) Blake Caracella helped me a lot. We learnt last Saturday that you need to capitalise on those (goal kicking) opportunities.
"I don't want to be just a goal kicker. I want to be the best goal kicker."
He attributed his performance to gaining self-confidence and learning from teammates, including ex-Cat Cam Mooney.
"Confidence is one thing but also the use of my body in a marking contest, that's going to be my strength against my opponents," Hawkins told The Age in August.
"Just identifying when a ball is kicked in where the space is and where the ball is going to drop is two things for me — Cam Mooney taught me a lot of that as well."
But Hawkins' improvement wasn't easy. He said at times he doubted whether he was good enough to play AFL football.
"I think I'd be silly if I [said I] didn't think that I was getting worried that football mightn't have been for me, as you do, as all players I'm sure would," he said.
"I didn't really dwell on it though; it's something that if you worry about it, it will rear its head in a more ugly form . . . it's amazing to think back, and I don't know what the rest of my career holds for me either, but you know, I just want to be more consistent and hopefully not have to go back there."
Selwood, the 2010 Carji medal winner, enjoyed a stellar first season as captain. He ranked fifth in the AFL in clearance average (6.7 per game) and 11th in contested possession average (13 per game).
Selwood also averaged 24.3 disposals per game.
In other awards, Steven Motlop was named best young player.
Motlop enjoyed a breakthrough season, kicking 25 goals.
Shannon Byrnes, who yesterday moved to Melbourne under the league's new free-agency rules, received the Tom Harley award, given to the player that demonstrates the values of the team and the club and is prepared to assist his teammates on and off the field.
Harry Taylor was named as the Cats' community champion and retiring defender Matthew Scarlett won the coach's award. Jonathan Simpkin took out the VFL best and fairest for the second time.