Tom Hawkins thinks he has far to go in his football development.

Tom Hawkins thinks he has far to go in his football development. Photo: Pat Scala

RECENTLY, Tom Hawkins drew up a list of the best 10 centre half-forwards he has seen. He apologises that it does not include Carey, Brereton, Kernahan or Lyon; at 23, he is too young to have known their heydays. It does include Brownless and Stoneham: Geelong by birth and raising, their names were synonymous with football in his awareness.

Of course, it features Lance Franklin, who is everything Hawkins knows he cannot be. “That goal he kicked against Essendon,” he marvels. “How he kicked that, I really don't know. On the run, after a 100-metre effort .?.?.”

Travis Cloke is there: Hawkins admires how he has learnt to use his strength.

But at the top is the man who will be at the other end of the Gabba to him tonight. “I didn't idolise Jonathan Brown, but I just loved the way he went about his football,” Hawkins said. “I always saw myself as a little bit like him.”

As a teenager, his affection was purely visceral. Since, he has heard from Tom Lonergan and Matthew Scarlett how difficult Brown is to play on, and his admiration has deepened. “He'd run from one wing to the other, then back, then back up to the ball, then run back and take one [mark] running with the flight of the ball, and kick a goal,” he said. “He's inspirational. I love watching Browny.”

But Hawkins has trodden a decidedly different path to Brown. At 22, Brown had won three premierships and was a dominant, intimidating figure in the game. At 22, Hawkins had played an incidental part in one premiership, but was on the fringe of the Geelong team. Not quite a forward and not really a ruckman, he appeared lost in and almost to the game. Then, as now, he was a gentle giant, a compliment in life, a question mark in contact sport.

No one at Geelong said explicitly that he was on his last chance, but Hawkins felt it. “I'm sure they were thinking that,” he said. “It's something you get told [by outsiders] and it's hard to hear.”

Suddenly, in last year's finals, Hawkins exploded to life. In the grand final, he was the game-breaker. That form has spilled into this year: he is averaging career highs for marks — especially inside 50 — kicks and goals per game. For the first time, he is as formidable as he looks. Hawkins said there was no road to Damascus moment; rather, it was metamorphosis: boy-man becomes man, becomes behemoth.

“I can't put it down to any one thing,” he said. “But I think confidence is a big part of football. It's something I've struggled with a little bit. Growing up, I was always a big kid. You're confident because you're big. Then coming and playing against big men, who push you around, you can lose that confidence.

“Finding it again and playing with the confidence that you can take a mark, you can kick straight at goal: that's the biggest thing I've dealt with over the last 12 months.”

The salutary lesson he has drawn from it is that football is as much mental as physical. “Football's taught me a lot over the last 12 months,” he said. “You can't take anything for granted. You have a couple of bad games, and mentally, you start doubting yourself. It could be just around the corner again. I don't want it to be, but that's just the facts of football.”

Hawkins is an avid, five-handicapper at golf, with Steve Johnson, the best at the club. He sees parallels. “I marvel at how golfers can play the way they do, under the pressure they're under,” he said. “Tiger Woods is the best example. And it's exciting.” He cannot imagine which would be more frightening to face: a two-metre putt to win the US Masters, or a 40-metre, post-siren kick to win the grand final. In either instance, you know Johnson would be nearby.

Hawkins at Geelong is to the manor born. It is a distinctly Geelong tradition. His father, Jack, was long-serving, high-leaping and popular. Hawkins was not born until five years after his father retired, and so knows his football exploits only from scrapbooks, snippets and club lore.

A preceding name can be burden or bolster to a young footballer, but Hawkins has a simple take on it. “I barracked for Geelong. I love the Geelong Footy Club. And if it wasn't for dad, I wouldn't be playing for Geelong. It's a massive advantage when you look at it like that.”

Hawkins likes to think he has returned the favour by helping to deliver the success that eluded his father (who played in two losing preliminary finals), doubling the enjoyment for both. He says his father's chief virtue is his humility, and agrees that his role in his career has been pastoral rather than supervisory. He is a farmer, after all.

Hawkins grew up on the family farm at Finley and boarded at Melbourne Grammar. In all ways, he loomed large in recruiters' minds, but already was off limits. He admits now that he read his own pre-publicity and was not grounded when he arrived at Geelong. “I came into the game as a big kid,” he said. He was strong for his age, but not for open age. He was carrying puppy fat.

He felt inhibited. His role models were supposed now to be his mates; it was all too soon. One was Cam Mooney. “As a kid, I used to love watching him play; the 'big hairy Cat', running around,” he said. “But, no disrespect, I didn't think he was as good as he was until I got down here.”

There were so many others in this emerging champion team, leaving room on the edges. It shaped him. “2008, '09, even a bit of '10, I probably played more like an in-and-out player,” he said. “Waiting for the ball to be kicked. Moving out of space for someone else. Just waiting, really.

“That's a confidence thing. Then you want the ball kicked to you. You want to run to the right space. You want to be in the contest. You want to help your team win. Then you become a better player.”

The coach changed, but the message did not: Hawkins had to impose himself at the contest. He shed weight and added strength, and the effort continues: belying appearances. Trent West, Scarlett and Harry Taylor all are still stronger than him in the gym. But Hawkins began to play stronger, which is not the same thing. Cloke was his exemplar in how to throw his weight around.

Hawkins is pleased, but not deluded. He thinks he has far to go in his football development. But Geelong, still half-city, half-town, suits him. He is relishing football's simple joys. “I love training. You go home and you feel so good about yourself,” he said. “I love the couple of days leading up to games. I really get excited and nervous about every game. I love that feeling. I don't really like recovery. But it's part of football. I love winning games. I just love playing football on the weekend.”

As late as the eve of last year's finals, Geelong coach Chris Scott was in two minds whether to back Hawkins or Mooney. Ultimately, it was doubt about creaking Mooney rather than conviction in his faith in Hawkins that decided it. It proved serendipitous.

At half-time in the grand final, Mooney pep-talked Hawkins, saying that with James Podsiadly out of the game, it was up to him to be the big man. Minutes after the final siren, Mooney caught Hawkins in a bear hug and said he was at peace, because he knew that he could no longer do what Hawkins had just done.

That final siren remains powerful in Hawkins' memory. For 10 seconds or so, he was under a spell, until a teammate's embrace broke it. He cannot imagine a better feeling. “To now be part of this successful side,” he said, “to be privileged enough to come to Geelong when I did .?.?.” Words trailed off. Deeds, at last, had spoken.