TO BE told he was not quick enough was "a real kick in the guts" for Dale Morris - a potential AFL career seemingly squashed before it had even started.
Not quick enough was the reason Morris was given for not making the final cut of a then-TAC Cup under-18 talent program. As a junior Morris had been led to believe TAC Cup, now known as the NAB League, was the only real way into the AFL.
This is a timely reminder for our Greater Western Victoria Rebels' AFLW hopefuls one week out from the Victorian draft combine: there was always more than one pathway, even when this might seem most unlikely.
But this is also an important message for all young athletes trying to push their game to the elite levels - even those not considered junior stars.
We know how Morris' story unfurled - a Western Bulldogs AFL premiership player in 2016, an AFL all-Australian in 2008 and 253 AFL matches spanning 15 years to 2019.
Morris kept an unwavering belief and focus.
The Bulldogs' premiership defender shared his journey, so far, with Ballarat Sportsmen's Club this week. This story includes finding a way to work back from horrific injuries such a a broken leg, three knee ruptures within 18 months and playing the Bulldogs' flag-winning finals campaign with a fractured vertebrae.
Twice he had been denied a spot in a TAC Cup squad. The first time told his kicking was not good enough, after spending hours sharpening his kick came the blow about his lack of pace.
But he got back out on the field and kept trying to step up his game and see where football might take him. Even though it hurt.
Morris went back to his junior club and earned a spot playing seniors, admitting luck was a little on his side when former Bulldog forward Simon Connell joined Essendon Doutta Stars. Morris, then full-back, seized a golden chance to learn.
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With Connell's encouragement, he joined the Bulldogs' then-aligned Victorian Football League club Werribee and tried out four consecutive years to earn an AFL rookie spot at Whitten Oval. He was knocked back each time until his last chance, a 21-year-old facing what was then a 22-year-old age cut-off for AFL rookies.
For all the promising talent in our region, there is no doubting the chances of reaching elite sporting ranks is small. The chances of longevity in top ranks, such as an AFL list, are even tougher.
But it is not impossible.
Our region boasts the incredible story of Orren Stephenson, the three-time Victorian Football League premiership ruckman with North Ballarat Roosters, who became the AFL's oldest draftee at age 29 in 2011.
It could have been easier for Morris to have increased hours in his supermarket job while juggling university studies in Bundoora while living in Westmeadows.
Morris gave his all to football, not wanting to be left wondering. He was ready for anything. The feeling to one day taste the ultimate glory many AFL players can only dream about - a premiership - remains hard for Morris to describe.
The sacrifices and hard work are lessons Morris says he will always carry in life.
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