Sport AFL The day that put the Hawks on course for four flags

The day that put the Hawks on course for four flags

Sam Mitchell chaired off
Sam Mitchell played his 300th AFL game during the 2016 season — his last with the Hawks. Photo: AAP
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The Hawthorn Football Club has celebrated four famous grand final wins since 2008, but it was draft day in November 2001 that made it all possible.

The Hawks drafted Luke Hodge and Sam Mitchell, among others, that year, with the arrival of the legendary duo laying the platform for the club to become the most dominant team of the 21st century.

“John Turnbull, the then-recruiting manager, should be given a knighthood for those picks – or life membership at the very least,” former Hawthorn captain and coach David Parkin told The New Daily.

The pair were at the heart of every Hawthorn success under Alastair Clarkson and fittingly will both retire at season’s end.

Hodge, still wearing the brown and gold, made the call last month, while Mitchell, in his first year at West Coast, retired on Wednesday.

It is a shame that Mitchell, who has played 323 AFL matches, does not end his career in Hawthorn colours but you can’t have everything in football and his roll call of honours suggests he hasn’t missed out.

While Turnbull used pick one of that famous draft to select Hodge, Mitchell, who was famously overlooked by every club in 2000, had a much tougher pathway to the top.

He eventually won a spot on Hawthorn’s list, at pick 36, after starring for the club’s VFL affiliate, Box Hill.

“Nothing was going to stop him achieving his dream,” Hawks legend Robert DiPierdomenico told The New Daily.

Gary Ayres, who like DiPierdomenico is in Hawthorn’s team of the century, said that Mitchell’s story is “all about perseverance, determination and persistence”.

“It’s a credit to Sam. He’s been able to prove people wrong with an unbelievable career,” he told The New Daily.

From day one at Hawthorn, Mitchell shadowed the famously fit Shane Crawford to improve his fitness. It was a brave move, given the latter’s running power.

“It was clear he was very driven,” Crawford told The New Daily.

“He had doubters along the way, regarding his speed and endurance, but he just wanted it more than anyone else.

“He was prepared to do everything possible and it really is a very inspirational story.”

Mitchell’s dedication quickly impressed his teammates and he soon endeared himself to the Hawthorn fans with his ball-winning ability, particularly in a contested situation, something Crawford describes as “incredible”.

“He has a phenomenal capacity to find the football. And his use by hand and foot is as good as we have ever seen in the game,” Parkin added.

Mitchell quickly became Hawthorn’s best midfielder and before too long, he was being tagged every week.

The challenges kept coming as he was made captain and then, as his pace, which was never a strong suit, began to fade, he had to develop a trusty left-foot kick that could get him out of trouble, and learn to play across half-back.

He became the definition of consistency, best displayed in 2015 when he won 35, 33, 35 and 34 disposals in four finals matches as Hawthorn claimed a historic three-peat.

Crawford, a premiership teammate of Mitchell’s and now a star on the Nine Network’s The Footy Show, said that consistency was what won him five club best-and-fairest awards.

“Only Leigh Matthews has won more at Hawthorn … Sam was an incredible footballer who is one of the club’s all-time greats,” Crawford said.

Like many of the game’s stars, Mitchell, who had footy smarts in spades, never seemed rushed.

“I would have loved to play with him,” DiPierdomenico said.

“He has that 360-degree view of the ground and brought so many guys into the game with his skill, like Darren Jarman did.”

Ayres added: “He has such great football intellect and such creative vision − on both sides of his body.”

Hodge has been rightly feted by the football industry in recent times but Mitchell deserves just as much praise, if not more.

He was Hawthorn’s best player in what was arguably the club’s greatest ever team.

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