Gary Ablett Jnr's U18 ruckman now with Eagles
BEFORE stepping away from the sport in 2017, Nick Barling had played 27 consecutive seasons of Aussie rules.
Western Magpies, Surfers Paradise, Mt Gravatt and Southport all benefited from the ruckman's tap work between 2008 and 2016.
But it was his time at home with the Geelong Falcons in the TAC Cup which Barling recalls with the most fondness.
The born and raised Victorian was part of the 2001 Falcons team which most pundits will claim underperformed a year after claiming the TAC premiership.
And with a playing list boasting the likes of Gary Ablett Jnr, Luke Hodge, Jimmy Bartel, Nick Maxwell and Matt Maguire - and Barling of course - you can understand why.
"We had such a good side that year, we really should have taken it out," Barling recalled of the 2001 side stacked with eventual Brownlow and Norm Smith Medallists.
"They won the 2000 TAC Cup with a lot of bottom aged kids, and Murray Bushrangers had come through the whole season undefeated but come finals we had a better team and smashed them.
"Then in the preliminary final we played Calder (Cannons) on the MCG, who would go on to win the premiership.
"We just played to their strengths that day. At half time Bartel and Maxwell took us into a room without any of the coaches and said we couldn't keep doing what (Calder) wanted us to do out there.
"We came back and nearly won it, but (former Richmond and Port Adelaide star) David Rodan kicked this freakish goal to put the icing on the game in the last few minutes."
Barling said he felt "lucky" to play alongside players who will likely enter the AFL Hall of Fame in the future.
But in hindsight, if not for some bad advice from a player manager he may well have joined his Falcons teammates on an AFL list.
"I just felt really lucky being in that draft year, with quality players and all quality guys as well," Barling said.
"I should have put my name in (to enter the AFL draft), but I was told not to do it because there was such a good crop of players I would have a better chance as a top-age player," Barling said
"Obviously losing all those blokes meant the team didn't perform as well in 2002, and when that happens the top age players begin to make way for the bottom age ones in readiness for the next year.
"So I had to fight my way back into the team."
But even after missing out in the 2002 draft, the opportunity was still there for Barling.
"I was told (by a player manager) that North Melbourne, West Coast and the Western Bulldogs were all looking (at me), but the professionalism of agents from 2001 and now has changed dramatically," Barling said.
"I was lucky enough to train at Essendon during the pre-season; I got a call on the morning of the draft, saying it'll be either me or another guy.
"They got me to come down and work with (former Essendon ruckman) John Barnes, and to see what would happen after that.
"The draft came and they didn't pick up anyone; still to this day I haven't heard anything from them."
Although admittedly disappointed his AFL dreams did not eventuate, Barling took a glass half-full outlook to what came next.
"Coming up here and playing with Southport and winning a (QAFL) premiership there; I was lucky to be able to travel and be involved with some really good clubs," he said.
Born and raised in Geelong, Barling grew up just a drop punt away from the Cats' home ground of Kardinia Park (now Skilled Stadium).
"It was a fantastic place to grow up, Geelong," he said.
"I was down there (at Kardinia Park) for every game, and we'd travel to Melbourne as well.
"Being able to see Gary Ablett Senior every weekend in the flesh - again, it was just a great time."
With the news on Thursday of his former Falcons teammate and two-time Brownlow Medallist Gary Ablett Junior returning to the Cats, Barling was understandably upbeat.
"Mum and Dad still live down there, and the local radio was going nuts about it," Barling said of Ablett's return home.
"On the corner of a main street in Geelong, a big digital sign read 'The Return'.
"He's the 'Son of God', that family is revered down there.
"Geelong is mad about its football, and they'll absolutely love him coming home - I'm definitely excited."