All that glamour and money can be bad for young players

A HOMELESS man apparently spotted Cleveland Browns’ owner Jimmy Haslam in the streets of the city, looked up at him and said “draft Manziel”.

The story goes that it was enough to convince Haslam how much Browns fans wanted the controversial but decorated Texan college quarterback Johnny Manziel, and his fate was sealed in the United States’ National Football League draft.

Browns fans have already been quick to declare the 21-year-old top college quarterback as the player to take them from the darkness to their first taste of Superbowl glory – and he was only drafted on Friday, Australian time.

Some were at the draft wearing t-shirt branded with his college nickname, “Johnny Football”, ready to pull on.

That is an awful lot of pressure even for a guy who, from all reports, oozes confidence, is hungry for fame and has led an off-field party-boy lifestyle to suggest he is there already (gossip sites say he is even friends with LeBron James).

Back in Australia, as the AFL looks to major US sporting codes for guidance, this is one element of the game that has cause for concern.

Do we really want to go down the path of making superstars out of players before they even get to top ranks?

Getting drafted is only the start – there is of a lot of gruelling work to keep a spot on a team list, let alone to become a marquee player.

Each season, there is increasing pressure and intense scrutiny on the AFL’s top draft picks and they start out relatively unknown to AFL fans, with many never having seen them play live.

Expert phantom drafts seem to grow in prominence and the whole process is an anxious experience for draft candidates, most of whom are in under-18 programs.

The AFL broadcasts its November national draft in prime time on pay television and has its top 10 kitted out and ready to go for press calls.

It is a process that mimics American models – even to the extent that AFL draft camp has been rebranded a combine – and you only have to turn on ESPN this weekend to see where the AFL process could be going.

Since 2010, the NFL draft has been a three-day affair – the first two stanzas are prime time spectacles – and this year was complete with a red carpet and fashion commentary at New York’s Radio City Music Hall.

Top pick prospects and their families are kept in a greenroom to sweat it out. Fans can scramble for tickets to watch inside. 

The build-up is exciting, especially for watching club officials in suits simply read a name from an envelope.

Sure, the scale between the NFL and Australian rules is massive – the United States is a far bigger country with far bigger budgets for its national code.

Fundamentally, pathway systems for talented prospects are completely different.

Most notably, our draftees are on average far younger than NFL counterparts, with Victoria’s TAC Cup under-18 competition, featuring North Ballarat Rebels, still the leading recruiting source.

They are young and take time to develop, especially physically, into the game.

Those vying for coveted spots on NFL rosters must have been out of high school for at least three years. The majority of candidates spend time in the US college system, where those at major football schools, like Manziel at Texas A&M, are playing before crowd sizes the AFL would envy, not to mention the huge television coverage.

Our state leagues, such as the Victorian Football League, are becoming more valuable recruiting grounds to unearth ready-made mature AFL footballers.

But the VFL has nowhere near the same fan bases or supporter attention.

Even with the trend toward AFL clubs sporting their own VFL brands, most AFL fans still turn their attention to grassroots competition if they need a footy fix when their team is out of town.

In some US states, college team popularity can rival the home-state NFL franchise.

It is fantastic for Australia’s promising talent to get more exposure via television and media for the national under-18 carnival.

If you want to see western Victoria’s best you need only watch North Ballarat Rebels, who boast 14 recruits to AFL lists in the past three years. They play their first home game at Eureka Stadium this weekend.

As for touting any Rebels as ready-to-go AFL superstars already? It is unfair to make the early call. AFL is a whole other ball game.

Drafts will always draw interest and intrigue for the average sports fan wanting to know who and what sorts of players their club has picked up.

It is nice that in Australian football ranks, you generally find out more about these players, their hard work and sacrifices, as their AFL journey unfolds.

There would be nothing worse than watching an AFL draftee, from a holistic program like the Rebels, rub his fingers together in a money-making gesture when his name was called on draft day.

That is what Manziel did- and the Heisman Trophy winner, as the best college footballer last season, was overlooked until pick 22 overall.

melanie.whelan@fairfaxmedia.com.au

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