Three years ago a young Cardiff Hawks junior stepped out onto the Sydney Cricket Ground in the red and white of the Sydney Swans, and became one of the youngest debutantes in AFL history.
Despite living in a rugby league town, Isaac Heeney had forged on with his love for the football code more popular in the south of Australia, and after years of training, preparing and watching his idols from afar, his chance came and he never looked back.
Although Heeney made his first round debut against the Essendon Bombers at ANZ Stadium, Hawks juniors Rose Williams, Lucas Gray and Taj Williams had their first chance at footy fame on the SCG.
As well as getting a chance to have a kick on the hallowed turf, Heeney took the three aspiring footy players on a tour of the behind-the-scenes area of the Swans’ home stadium, including the team change rooms and training drills.
For Heeney, it was a chance to give back to the club that had “given [him] everything”.
“It’s extremely exciting, [the Hawks] were like a second family to me when I was growing up and have been such an amazing and supportive club still to these days,” he said. “If I can give back in any way I definitely want to.”
As well as just giving back to the club, Heeney believes growing the engagement of young juniors is crucial to the growing life of AFL in New South Wales and especially Newcastle.
The northern region has seen a participation boom in the junior ranks, with club numbers skyrocketing at a 35 per cent growth rate since 2013.
Even more spectacularly, the Hunter and Central Coast areas have seen a 247 per cent growth in junior female registrations, as the popularity of the AFL Women’s and other female codes continues to rise.
“If I can be a role-model in any way to these young players, I will be,” he said. “When I was growing up there were people I looked up to and that kind of pushed me on my path.”
“I had no idea how far [footy] would come in Newcastle and the Hunter, when I was growing up with was just ‘rugby, rugby, rugby’ in the town and at every school I went to I was the only one that played AFL.
“To see it now, even being played in school now and to see so many women getting involved is just exciting. I never expected to see it grow so fast like this, it’s amazing.”
Heeney also believes the “family” nature of clubs in Newcastle are crucial to the growth that the region is currently seeing, and admits if the Cardiff outfit hadn’t been so welcoming he likely could have joined the city’s trend of rugby league.
“I played every sport you could imagine, from AFL to rugby league, soccer, tennis and anything I could, but it wasn’t until I started getting into a few footy rep teams that things started to become clear,” he explained.
“If it wasn’t for the [Swans academy] and the people pushing me at the clubs I probably would have ended up playing rugby league … at Cardiff I had some extremely supportive coaches and I think the staff really helped me. They got me into the seniors really early, training at 14 or 15 years old.”
“I don’t think I would be where I am if it wasn’t for that opportunity.”
The Swans superstar, who travels to The Gabba this weekend for the tenth round clash with the Brisbane Lions, makes sure he keeps up with all the news from his old grassroots club, including their weekly ‘Eyes on Heeney’ performance updates on social media.
For him, giving back to the grassroots systems that he came from is the greatest thing he can do as he continues to grow as a top-level player in the AFL.
“For these kids it’s a matter of loving your sport, and it really comes down to enjoyment,” Heeney said. “If any of the juniors in the Hunter see a chance to have a crack and take it to that next level, I hope they can see it and take it with both hands.”
Heeney’s match against the Lions will kick-off at 4:35pm on Saturday afternoon, while the Cardiff Hawks welcome Maitland to Hillsborough Oval the same day in the Black Diamond AFL.