Rocky rolls with the punches
HE might be one of the AFL's rising stars, but there was a time when clubs saw Tom Rockliff as too big a risk - or more to the point, too slow, with no endurance to boot.
They were the reasons that caused him to be overlooked in consecutive national drafts.
The Brisbane Lions' reigning best and fairest, and possibly even future captain, Rockliff was initially a victim of the phase clubs were going through of picking only "athletes" they thought they could mould into footballers.
He is certainly no athlete, but has something more important - the consummate football brain, much like Hawthorn skipper Luke Hodge.
Rockliff showed as much while playing for the dominant Murray Bushrangers outfit of 2008 in Victoria's elite under-18 TAC Cup, leading them to a flag, with 30 touches and four goals in the grand final, finishing with a league-high 59 majors for the season, and then winning the club best and fairest and being named in the TAC Cup Team of the Year.
AFL national talent manager Kevin Sheahan earmarked Rockliff as a first-round pick in the 2008 draft, noting how well he could use his body and read the play. Clubs did not share the same view and, as they did in 2007, bypassed him.
"It was a pretty rough time to go through as a 17, 18-year-old kid and trying to get an opportunity at a footy club," the 22-year-old said.
"I think I definitely didn't have the endurance and was never going to be a quick player."
Rockliff pointed out, however, he had broken his leg while being tackled during the 2006 national under-16 championships and it was always going to take time to fully recover.
"What it came back to, for me, was I'd never been given an opportunity to do a pre-season because I had multiple operations on my leg. I never had the opportunity to train before Christmas," he explained.
"It was frustrating when they were saying that (too slow, no endurance) at the time. To be honest, I don't think a lot of them did a good history check on me.
"When I did get a chance to do a full pre-season it had massive benefits and really improved my 3km and beep-test times."
Rockliff spent two weeks training with Melbourne in December 2008, prior to the "second chance" pre-season and rookie drafts.
"They said they'd give me an opportunity as a rookie if I didn't get picked up before that," he said.
He did, by the Lions in the pre-season draft, meaning he went straight on to their senior list.
"It was a big shock. I'd only spoken to them for five minutes at draft camp. They've must've done their homework," he said.
Though Rockliff had lived in the country Victorian town of Benalla for most of his life, he was born in Casino, New South Wales, and happy to head north.
He made his Lions debut midway through 2009, but it would be his only game for the season.
"It was intense, (Simon) Black's 250th, against Collingwood down there in front of 70-odd thousand," he recalled.
"I was a little bit disappointed (in my own game), but I knew what I had to work on coming away from that game and that was definitely to work on my endurance."
During the following off-season, Rockliff headed back to Victoria and on the advice of assistant coach Craig Lambert worked out in the gym of Melbourne boxing trainer Ray Giles, where he really earned the nickname "Rocky" - and not just because of his surname.
"I went and saw him about three days a week for eight weeks," Rockliff said.
"It was a lot of hard work, but it's the investment you have to make to become an elite footballer."
It is also the sort of attitude that has impressed the Lions, with the playing group and coaching staff voting him on to the leadership group for 2011 - after just 20 games.
Fighting fit, Rockliff had made a big impact in 2010, playing a further 19 games and showing his creativeness in both the midfield and attack, and by finishing third in the NAB Rising Star award, clubs would see him as one that got away.
He followed up by averaging 27 disposals a game to sit among the elite ball-winners and claim the Merrett-Murray Medal as the Lions' champion of 2011, proving the doubters wrong once and for all.
"You don't get out there to prove people wrong, but it is a good feeling if it does work out that way," he said.
FUTURE LIONS CAPTAIN?
"IT'S not something you go out there and say you want to do but if the opportunity arose and I was given that chance, I would love to do it and grab it with both hands.
But we've got a really good captain at the moment and he's got a few good years left in him" - Rockliff.