After finding ways around the conventional pathway to the AFL, Jack Buckley tells us how by thinking he had “no chance of making it”, turned out for the best.
Sitting in the comfort of the 20-year-old’s new shared apartment in Breakfast Point, it is hard not to notice Buckley’s laid-back attitude, gaming in his lounge room, on his first weekend off.
With the gruelling pre-season now over, and the start of the regular season approaching, the recently recruited Greater Western Sydney Giants rookie opens up about his new-found mentality that comes with playing at the highest level of AFL.
“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have a sort of chip on my shoulder, but in a sense that a lot of people look at me and say ‘how has he gotten here’ when other players have been putting in the work through programs over the years,” he says, as he attacks another zombie on his TV screen.
The 20-year-old’s unconventional journey to the top was filled with self-doubt, unlikelihood, and a certain aloofness towards the rigid system that up and coming Aussie Rules players almost always take.
In Sydney, this system starts and ends in the Swans Academy. The Academy reported that they aim to “build and maintain a strong AFL culture in NSW” running for 22 weeks every year, involving intense training for around 600 young players.
However, Buckley at such a young age never enjoyed the intense nature of the Academy and quit after three years, when he turned 15.
“I wasn’t taking it as seriously as you needed to in the Academy at the time,” he says. “I love playing the game in its simplest form without all the seriousness. Whether it was immaturity — I just wasn’t ready for the standards they set.”
It was players like current Sydney Swans backman and AFL Rising Star Callum Mills, who’s attitude reinforced the idea to Buckley that to make it to the highest level, involved unwavering commitment and dedication.
“Mills was just as driven as a 15-year-old as he is now. You just knew he was going to make it because he was there to train hard and do all the right things and I would just look at someone like that who’s destined to become an AFL footballer and I just thought I can’t give that right now.”
When we asked just how bad his experience was with the Swans Academy he recounted: “I would spend the whole day, dreading training and would find any excuse to get out of it, towards the end,” he says. “There was a time where I got concussed and probably used it for an extra week, the symptoms, to get out of academy training”.
This anxiety Buckley experienced was what lead to his decision to quit the Academy, along with the help and support of his father.
“Probably the main thing that got me out of the academy was how supportive my Dad was. He was always like ‘do what you want to do’. I’m a pretty indecisive human so you know, if he didn’t say it like that I would have ‘ummed’ and ‘ahhed’ for another six months or so”.
His dad, Ben Buckley, was himself a successful AFL player and now Chairman of the North MelbourneFootball Club. Growing up in Albury and Melbourne, with a lot of friends also pursuing footy, Buckley had no shortage of inspiration.
Proudly walking us out to his small suburban backyard, Buckley instinctively picks up a footy and handballs it to himself: “I loved the game and loved watching it, and it was always dream at the back of my mind. It just seemed unattainable at the time”.
Leaving the Academy meant leaving behind his chance of being drafted by the time he reached his early twenties, but for Buckley this turned to be a blessing in disguise.
Following his father’s advice of “Do what you want, do what you enjoy”, Buckley played AFL at a lower level locally, excelled in his studies, and even captained his high school basketball team with the extra time he had.
It wasn’t until six months ago, playing for the University of New South Wales Eastern Suburbs Bulldogs, while mainly focusing on his university degree in Arts and Business, that Buckley’s forgotten dream started to look a little more likely.
With a refreshed outlook Buckley led the Bulldogs, a notoriously underperforming team to second on the ladder — from here, a path to the Giants opened up. “It was one of the most sudden things that’s ever happened to me,” he says.
“My coach signalled to me probably three weeks prior to it happening, in a real kind of throw away conversation, like ‘they’re looking for extra players because they have injuries and I know someone there and I’ve told them about you.’” He shook his head — still in disbelief: “It literally passed my mind after a few days and then two weeks later I got a call”.
“I was actually in the library in the middle of Uni exams studying and the next morning I was on a flight to Brisbane to play for the Giants”.
Six GWS reserve games later, standing before us with a football in hand, Buckley, on the surface would seem like your average first year draftee. But, as he’s told us, he has an added incentive: proving that a footballer can reach their potential without taking the prescribed pathway.
“This year is about consistently developing to get me to that goal. I want to prove them wrong. And I obviously want to play an AFL game,” he says.
Interview of Jack Buckley by Ned Reinhard and Claire Keenan