STEPHEN Milne's story is one of survival.
As he prepares for his 250th game for St Kilda, against Essendon at Etihad Stadium on Saturday night, Milne reflected yesterday on a few ironies, one of which is that he started at Windy Hill in 1999. He played as a rover and small forward in the 1999 reserves grand final - against St Kilda - at the MCG under Terry Daniher's coaching, but he would not cut it at Essendon, which was in the midst of one of its most powerful eras.
That might have been the end of it, for at 176 centimetres he was scarcely blessed with the kind of athletic qualities that make league footballers. Milne recalled Mark Mercuri and Gary Moorcroft as the two forwards who were keeping him out of Essendon's team. ''I was only a skinny guy from Hampton Park trying to find my way. Obviously they were in front of me. I was just lucky that Johnny Beveridge picked me up and now I'm sitting here 12 years later.''
Beveridge was the St Kilda head recruiter at the time and still works on the recruiting staff. ''We were looking for a small forward,'' Beveridge said. ''Tim Watson [then coach] was keen to do it. He was the perfect choice as a rookie.''
St Kilda chose him with pick 23 in the 2000 rookie draft and Beveridge witnessed his first contract, worth $12,500. ''Even when he was down at the [Dandenong] Stingrays, the reason he was overlooked was that he was playing midfield, and people felt he wasn't quite quick enough. Then we were asking: could he play small forward? But we hadn't really seen that. So he was hard to judge. Most people just felt he was smallish and not overly quick.''
There is one of the myths about Milne, that he is quick. By the standards of modern AFL athletes, he is not. But he did have rat cunning and goal sense and a few other strengths. Competitiveness for one. ''He could kick around the corner on both sides,'' said Beveridge. ''He was a good ball-handler and while he didn't have sheer pace, he made up for it with his step, his evasiveness and he could get to top speed quickly.''
St Kilda had a winner. By 2002 Milne had enjoyed his first 50-goal season. He has had five of those and in 2012 he is right on his average of two goals a game, a number that puts him in the top echelon of small forwards in the game's history.
Yet St Kilda was going to trade him out under Grant Thomas' coaching at the end of 2006. Thomas felt that Milne was freezing in big games and finals. Fortunately for the player, Thomas was cut by the club before he had the chance to move Milne on; it is instructive that Milne took it on board and thrived. When he was asked yesterday to name the most important influences on his football, he named his father Brian and former coach Ross Lyon.
Lyon's name causes wincing at St Kilda these days, but Milne uttered it half a dozen times in his media conference. ''When Ross came in, I was going to get traded. It was up in the air to stay at the Saints and Ross put the faith in me.
''He came in and my defensive game wasn't good enough. He said, 'I'll back you in if you do all these; you'll play week-in, week-out'. From the moment he walked in he gave me that faith. He said, 'I'll back you in if you back me in'. It was a two-way street. Over the five years I suppose I did lift my game to a different level under Ross and it's something I'm pretty proud of.''
Milne might have played in one or two flags under Lyon. In the first 2010 grand final against Collingwood, deep in the last quarter when he pulled his trademark move on Ben Johnson, worked him under the ball and headed back towards goal, he might have been the hero of the day. But the Sherrin bounced on an end and veered right as he propped, trickling through for a behind. How often does it enter his head? ''Probably every night before I go to sleep. But that's the way it is.
''If it was close enough I would have dived on it and kicked it as hard as I could over the Collingwood cheer squad and celebrated. But I didn't and we've moved on.''
Milne will have his son Tyson, 11, and two-year-old daughter Lylah with him as he breaks the banner on Saturday. He hopes it is not the final chapter; that he can play on in 2013. At 32, he acknowledges the warning of an old teammate. ''Robert Harvey always said it does get harder when you get older, and I didn't used to believe him.''
It is his resilience that he is most proud of. ''I suppose to play one game, let alone 250 … I was proud to play one game. To be sitting here talking about my 250 is a dream come true, something I'd have never imagined.''