"Making it" in the AFL is a tough gig. Ours is easily one of the most rigorous games in the world that demands strength, endurance and skill. While they're all physical traits, none is as important as what is above the shoulders.
My old coach Denis Pagan said on numerous occasions that football doesn't build character, it just eliminates the weak ones. Mental strength is the defining ingredient that separates footy's elite from the also-rans and, right now, has some footballers at the crossroads of their careers.
Every club will know the guys I'm talking about. They're the ones who "have it all", yet often fail to deliver. I'm not expecting any of these footballers to be superstars of the competition, but you can't sugarcoat their output over their careers.
Tyrone Vickery (Richmond): Drafted at No. 8 in 2008. 200cm. 98kg
After a couple of years of promise, Vickery's career statistics tell the story. He is averaging just 10 disposal a game, is taking fewer than four marks, isn't averaging a single score assist, while averaging just one goal per game and less than two tackles. He just isn't showing the desire or passion to play. That's not to say he doesn't show it at times, it's just that he doesn't show it consistently enough for a guy who's been on a list for more than five years. Just imagine if he was tearing into a contest like Joe Daniher at Essendon? A young player like Daniher might not boast better stats, but it's his attack on the footy that deserves credit.
Liam Jones (Western Bulldogs): Drafted at No. 32 in 2008 197cm. 98kg
Like Vickery, Jones' stats are far from great. He's averaging just nine disposals per game and also a solitary goal. There isn't another player who I hear about more from the Bulldogs supporters. He has a distinct lack of endeavour. There are times he attacks the ball with gusto, but not as often as he should. He'd likely improve in certain situations if he bulked up, but size alone doesn't account for his form. He's also averaging fewer than two tackles per game. That shows he has a long way to go.
Rhys Stanley (St Kilda): Drafted at No. 47 in 2008. 200cm. 96kg
Another one with the lot who isn't delivering regularly. Stanley is averaging 10 disposals per game, four marks, less than a goal per game and less than one score assist. He is a bit different to some of the other guys I've mentioned in that he's been used at both ends of the ground. The Saints now seem to be persisting with him up forward, and while I think he's still learning his craft, I again have to question his competitive instinct.
Shaun McKernan (Adelaide): Drafted at No. 28 in 2008. 196cm. 99kg
Like Vickery, Jones and Stanley, McKernan has shown real glimpses of talent. Just like his older brother who I spent years playing alongside, he is a great mark, kicks the ball a country mile, has big hands and is as agile as any, but he just hasn't shown the consistency needed at this level. He's averaging 9.5 disposals per game and less than one goal. Even Gerard Healy has suggested that this guy could be anything. With Jenkins and Walker back in the Crows' side, he now faces a real battle to get back into the team, and while he's possibly the most talented of them all, if he doesn't get his head right, he's in real danger.
Majak Daw (North Melbourne): Drafted at No. 9 in the 2010 rookie draft. 195cm. 97kg
We all know that Daw is a work in progress, but how long should you persist with a guy who is returning poor numbers? Daw has averaged just seven possessions per game over his career, close to zero score assists and has an average of just 1.5 goals per game, which is a figure that was inflated by a six-goal haul in a single game. The lack of score assists tells me he's really not doing enough out on the field. Physically, Daw is above nearly any player in the competition, but again, what is the cut-off point for someone who isn't producing? Having listed those guys, it's important to reiterate that I don't expect any of them to be a Jonathan Brown or a Nick Riewoldt. What their clubs and fans are desperate to see is a certain level of competitiveness, hardness and willingness to hit a contest that is predictable to their onballers and teammates on a consistent basis.
Chris Dawes is the perfect example. He'd be the first to admit that he's not blessed with the greatest skills in the competition, but it's his endeavour and workrate that has helped turn Melbourne's season around. Dawes' form this year is probably better than anything I ever saw of him at Collingwood. It just shows what you can do when you put your mind to it. Since returning to the field for the Demons, he just seems to have been saying "come on boys, this is how it's done". He had eight tackles last week. It's that competitiveness, and willingness to have a go that also saved Jobe Watson's career. He too was at the crossroads as he battled weight and the way he prepared for footy. All of a sudden he went from a guy who might not make it, to a Brownlow medallist.
Shane Mumford is another who should be praised for the way he has turned his career around. He struggled to get a game at Geelong, but went to Sydney and turned himself into such a competitive beast that he played in a premiership. GWS look a far poorer team without him on the field.
What I’m getting back to is that the game is played in your head. It's all about attitude. Where some players might have a defeatist attitude if they're outnumbered, good footballers become even more determined just to make a contest. That's what prolongs, or ends, careers.
Consider this. The average career in the AFL is just 38 games. All the guys I've mentioned have the potential to be better than the average footballer. They just have to win the mind game.