AFL Draft

Weight of Grief and Expectation Can’t Slow Stephenson

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The 2015 TAC Cup Grand Final between Oakleigh and the Eastern Ranges produced a quality contest that saw the Chargers ultimately bring home the silverware in a tight tussle, but is equally remembered for the emergence of a lively, fresh faced 16 year old. While recruiters had their immediate mindset on draft eligible names like Ryan Clarke, Tom Phillips, Blake Hardwick and Ben Crocker, a kid by the name of Jaidyn Stephenson stole the limelight with his electrifying pace, x-factor and goal sense.

It is now almost two years since that eye-catching three goal performance and his opportunity of finding an AFL club is now less than three months away. Having seen two lots of teammates get drafted and now become regular AFL players, the wait has appeared an eternity. “It has been a long time coming though, like I’ve seen Ryan Clarke and Sam Weideman all training for the combine and then Gallucci and Begley last year, its finally my turn,” Stephenson said with excitement.

After an impressive bottom age season at Eastern that saw the dynamic forward kick 23 goals in 11 games, he entered the 2017 season as a genuine contender for the No.1 pick and justified the hype with a five goal, best on ground performance in Round 1. Although with that tag comes expectation, and ultimately greater attention from the opposition as he got more opportunities up the ground.
“It was hard at the start of the year. The last few years it’s been pretty easy, especially playing as that deep forward. This year I’ve been getting a lot more attention early on and you have a bloke on your shoulder every time you come out there.You get two or three quick touches and the (opposition) runner would come out (and say) ‘don’t let him get a touch and stay on him’“, he explained.

Stephenson described his pre-championships form as “average”. He wasn’t playing bad football, but wasn’t meeting his own lofty standards in the new found wing role. Finding the ball up the ground didn’t come as instinctively as playing in the forward arc at first, while constant opposition attention meant rapid development in the position was difficult.

 “I think he’d beat me over 20 (metres), but 50 plus I’ve probably got him”

Although a turning point wasn’t far away and a return to the output we all knew existed came in a big way. The championships provided freedom and a greater opportunity to learn the role, before it all came together at Etihad Stadium against South Australia. He would produce arguably the most impressive individual performance of the tournament, gathering 28 disposals and a remarkable five goals. You could see the confidence build with every possession, as he showcased his athletic attributes and destroyed the Crow-eaters on the offensive side of the contest.

Stephenson was quick to acknowledge the contribution of his teammates too. “It’s the best team game I’ve played in for a long time. Everyone was out there playing for each other and I guess that’s why we won by so much,”

Since returning to Eastern, the wing role is now coming more naturally and he is far more involved, but most importantly has created the opportunity to showcase his vicious turn of speed. Describing the willingness to take the game on with his pace as a key strength, it begged the question as to who is the fastest between he and Vic Metro teammate Jack Petruccelle.

“I think he’d beat me over 20 (metres), but 50 plus I’ve probably got him,” Stephenson stated with a respectful confidence. “Most 100 metre races I do at school I’m always a slow starter and once I start moving I can hit that top speed,”

It would be a fascinating race. Petruccelle recorded an electrifying 2.82 second 20 metre sprint earlier in the year to Jaidyn’s also impressive 2.91 seconds, but the latter has a remarkable 10.97 second 100 metre time up his sleeve. Hopefully, there is a finals one on one match-up to see the score settled!

While Stephenson’s athletic profile indicates he could become one of the most dangerous players available on the outside, in recent weeks he has been given the opportunity to develop his inside game and the results have been noteworthy. In Round 15 against Sandringham, he gathered 39 disposals which included 22 contested possessions and five clearances. “It was actually 40, they robbed me of one. It was a kick off the ground at goal that they didn’t get, which I was shattered with,” he described jokingly, a character trait that makes him immediately likeable.

“It was good (playing as an inside midfielder), I didn’t really know what I was doing in there to be honest, so I just ran around, chased the ball and tried to get to every contest. I thought I did alright on the day, then I looked at the footage and I was a bit too stationary at stages when I was hit too. I think I need to learn to get on the move a bit more at those stoppages,” he described with honesty.

It is a quality that stands out as soon as you speak to Jaidyn, he understands where he is at with his football and is open to what improvements need to be made. Field kicking is an area of scope that has presented itself since moving up the ground and he has already implemented plans to get on top of it.

“It’s not more the kick, it’s the consistency I need to find. I’ve been working at training on that and spending more time watching the ball onto my foot. Sometimes I forget to take two or three slow down steps to get your balance and kick at goal, so I’ve missed a few there as well,” he explains.

On face value, Stephenson comes across as your everyday talented young footballer with the world at his feet, but there is a sad chapter to his story.

He, Sam Hayes and Riley Nicholas are all from the Ferntree Gully Football Club, a sporting community that is still grieving from the tragic deaths of Niall Hargreaves and Jack Fitzsimmons last November. Jaidyn was particularly close to Niall, who was a very talented footballer in his own right. They first met at under 12 trials and developed a friendship from there. The two both ended up at St Joseph’s College, where Jaidyn was able to talk Niall into switching from his original club of South Wantirna to Ferntree Gully and they became great mates.

“The morning after he passed, I was supposed to be playing golf with him. Mum woke me up and said ‘Jaidyn, Jaidyn’. I thought I was late for golf and she said Niall has passed away. It was a pretty tough time,”

“I tried to get on with it, he is still always in your memories. I don’t know what I was doing early season, I couldn’t get into it.

A tough time would be an understatement, as Jaidyn would be assigned the task of the eulogy at his mate’s funeral. When dealing with such grief, the expectation of anyone would be to shut down and switch off from usual duties. Although that was hard for Jaidyn and he found himself back at training within a week, not knowing exactly how much of a toll the situation had taken.

“I did struggle for a little bit. That Friday we had the 2km time trial at Eastern. I’m usually about a 6.30ish (minutes) sort of time trial at that time of the season. My legs could not go and all these people are passing me. My legs just couldn’t do it and I ran like a 7.37 or something. I guess I didn’t realise how much it had actually taken out of me,”

Footy would end up playing an important role in the grieving process though, as it has done in similar cases involving Ollie Florent, Phil Walsh, Jarrad McVeigh and John McCarthy in recent years.

“Going to Darwin, training at North Melbourne and then off to America, I think they were all pretty good distractions. Apart from Mick Ablett and Nicky Couston (the National Talent Wellbeing Manager), none of the boys really knew what had happened, so it didn’t get talked about. It was a good escape to get my mind off it,” he described.

It is easy to associate the effects of such a tragic event being a key factor of Stephenson’s minor early season blip on the radar form wise, but he refuses to make such excuses.

“I tried to get on with it, he is still always in your memories. I don’t know what I was doing early season, I couldn’t get into it. I guess the tag, I didn’t really know how to deal with it. It could have played a part, but I’m certainly not blaming it on that,”

The fact he has been able to carry on with minimal fuss and determination to succeed, proves the character and mental strength that he possesses.
After being viewed as one of the most sought after juniors in the country for a long period of time, Stephenson has to be admired for the way he has dealt with expectation and life’s challenges. The return to form has been pleasing for many in the industry as he is one of those people that you just don’t hear a bad word about.

While he is currently fulfilling his potential in the midfield and taking inspiration from the way Josh Kelly plays, his elite forward traits just can’t be forgotten. With word circulating of Brisbane’s keen interest recently, don’t expect him to be falling too far down the order come November.

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