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A boy called Ellis

Richmond's first-round draft selection Brandon Ellis

IT IS hard to imagine there was a more interesting, likeable character at the NAB AFL Draft Combine than Brandon Ellis.

Ellis was selected in November's NAB AFL Draft by the Tigers with pick 15, after a stunning 2011 season with the Calder Cannons in the TAC Cup.

When we caught up with Ellis, prior to the draft, he carried the wide grin of a boy on the cusp of achieving something he had been working towards for much of his life.

Ellis is 18, has just finished year 12 at Princes Hill Secondary in North Carlton and lives with his parents, Nancy and Dale, brother Sean and sister Kate in a small apartment in a housing estate close to the school, in Melbourne's inner north.

He has a strong handshake, an up-right - almost mechanical - gait, and parts his blond hair to the left, all part of the strong body of a fair dinkum, old-fashioned footballer.

In conversation, Ellis lets out an occasional teenager's laugh - short, sharp and fading - but he is often far wiser and more heartfelt than first impressions suggest.

He is very conscious of where his life sits - prior to the draft he was finishing his English, Psychology, Physical Education and Media exams to complete his VCE. Then, three days later, it was the 2011 NAB AFL Draft. But Ellis didn't let that affect his studies, although his footballing fate was never far from his mind.

"I have thought about it, a lot," he said with smile that indicated it was too hard not to think about. "I think every kid would have."

Ellis' draft chances catapulted after a superb season. After 13 games for the Cannons as a bottom-age player in 2010 - including their TAC Cup premiership win - Ellis played 16 games in 2011.

A tough and skillful medium-sized defender, he had a standout NAB AFL Under-18 Championships with Vic Metro and was named in the All Australian Under-18 team. At the NAB AFL Draft Combine, Ellis only strengthened his claims with some brilliant testing.

His results reflected a player confident and comfortable. His standing vertical jump of 70cm put him in the top 11 per cent of those tested, and his running vertical jump (83cm) rocketed him into the top 4 per cent. He ran 3.05 seconds over 20m, 8.14 seconds for the agility test, and scored 15.4 in the shuttle run, placing him in the top 4 per cent.

He's not particularly big - he stands 181 cm (about the size of Geelong's Joel Selwood) - but he's strong and well-built and seems ready to play senior football in 2012.

However, it was not just his football and his athleticism that impressed many recruiters. His character was just as impressive.

In the back room of the community house across the road from Ellis' home, he and his father sat answering questions from

To Brandon, in our second interview in a week before the draft, it still seemed a novelty - that it was all actually happening, that the media was interested in him.

To Dale, who works part-time with Nancy cleaning houses in local areas, he was excited and cautious in equal doses about his son's future.

Brandon Ellis describes his father Dale as a 'fighter' after he came through radiation and chemotherapy to treat a cancer doctors said was inoperable

He knew nobody was drafted until their name was read out... but he was clearly pleased by the hard work Brandon had put in to get to this point.

"We can't explain how proud we are," he said, his weathered face and greying hair suggesting a life lived tough. "He's had a dream and he's getting closer and closer to it."

Brandon's progression would not have got to this point without Dale, who coerced him into returning to football after he quit in December, 2008.

Dale, two years after having his right kidney removed due to cancer, had been having trouble swallowing his food. He let it be, but then weeks later found a lump on his neck. He had cancer in his esophagus, and was told it couldn't be operated on.

He left Melbourne's Peter McCallum Cancer hospital in tears with Nancy, and returned home, where Sean, now 12, Kate, now 16, and Brandon, then 15, were waiting. Brandon could see something was up.

"I just went in the bedroom and Brandon looked at me and we both started crying," Dale said, his voice trembling at the recollection. "It was pretty hard."

The doctors told Dale nobody had ever survived such a delicate, inoperable cancer. But, when they called two weeks later to say he was eligible for some radiation and chemotherapy, he jumped at the chance. "He's a fighter," Brandon said.

Ellis, then in the Barry Davis development squad at Calder, gave up on football. To him, in such tough times, it meant little.

Dale and Nancy, and Andrew Johnston (Calder Cannons president), spoke to Brandon about reconsidering. They knew his talent - he had already shown enough to suggest he would be a regular TAC Cup player at least - and they knew he was struggling. "But he didn't want a bar of it," Dale said.

So Dale, at one of his chemotherapy appointments, brought Brandon with him to talk to a counsellor at the hospital. It worked.

"I had everything bottled up," Brandon said. "I didn't want to speak to Mum or Dad about it because it was just too hard.

"We spoke for about two hours and I came out and everything was off my chest. I saw everything clearer and thought, 'What the hell am I doing quitting football?'"

He called Ian Kyte, Calder's regional manager, and asked if he could rejoin the program. The answer was an emphatic yes. It was the kick-start to a period of continual improvement for Ellis.

"I used it as motivation," he says. "I just never take things for granted. That's why everything I do I do it at my best because I know it can get taken away at any time."

It also reignited a passion for the game that had begun when he was four, when he started NAB AFL Auskick. His uncle, Shane, was running the program and was able to sneak his nephew - who was yet to start school - into the local clinic early. "We cheated a bit," Dale said, smiling broadly.

Immediately, Brandon showed a natural ability. He could read where the ball was going, and how it would bounce, and knew where to go to get a kick. "We just knew he had something then," Dale said.

It was when he was six, though, that Brandon decided playing footy at the highest level he could achieve was what he wanted to do. His cousin's nanna was Judy Francis, a long-time cook at North Melbourne renowned as almost a de facto mother to the Kangaroo players.

Francis took Brandon, then a Collingwood supporter like his Dad, into the North Melbourne rooms to meet the players. Wayne Carey and Glenn Archer said hello and Mick Martyn was there, and Brandon was consumed. Not only did he switch allegiances - "It broke my heart," Dale said, with a laugh - but he turned his undivided attention to football.

From then on, it was what he wanted to do.

However, it was his fitness more than his application that caused him, more than 10 years later, to sit out the start of Calder's 2010 campaign.

After being initially frustrated not to be getting picked - "He was pretty annoyed," Calder coach Martin Allison said - Ellis joined the team in round seven when it took on Gippsland Power. He didn't miss another game, and was one of Calder's best players in its successful finals series last year.

But he wanted to get better. His parents, at his request, got him a heart-rate monitor for Christmas 2010, so he could check if he was actually going his hardest at training. His maximum heart rate is 202 beats per minute, so, at training, he aims to push it above 185 on a consistent basis.

He worked on his diet. At home every night, Nancy, and occasionally, Kate, would make dinner. Each night, they asked Brandon what he would like. It's always pasta or risotto, something good for his football.

He did extra recovery sessions before and after pre-season training sessions, and would spend 20 minutes before training stretching and then another 20 minutes on a foam roller, designed to improve flexibility.

After he'd finish school - he got up at 8am on school days for an 8.40 start because Princes Hill is only minutes away - he'd go for a kick with friends at Visy Park (they have a secret entrance to the ground). While they'd kick torpedoes, Ellis would be kicking one on his left foot and the next on his right and he'd make sure he hit the target each time.

At one point, Kyte even had to call him into his office and tell him to slow down.

"You'll burn yourself out before the year even starts," he told Ellis, who cut back his training load accordingly.

If nothing else, football has harnessed Ellis' idea of karma or, as he describes it, "giving a little and taking a little." Because he worked hard at the Cannons, he was rewarded.

It's a lesson he's taken outside of football, too. Ellis used to tell his parents, when he was growing up, that he wanted to be a policeman. That he wanted the right thing to happen to the right people.

One of football's guiding principles - you get back what you put in - had taught Ellis that gains could be made from sacrifices.

It's why his All Australian selection this year signalled to him that his draft hopes were more realistic than he had previously believed. "To be honest, I didn't even know what All Australian was until about a week before it was announced. I never looked too much into it because I never thought it would happen to me," he said.

"My jaw dropped when I got the call saying I was in the team. I was nearly in tears, that's how happy I was. Not because I made the team, but just because of how hard I'd worked."

Ellis is a sharp player. He cuts angles, he's efficient with his ball use, and he's courageous when a ball needs to be won. He's smart with his body - often using his balance and a nudge to push off an opponent in a one-on-one - and he's competitive. He's also a playmaker, equally as capable shutting down a dangerous opponent as setting up the Cannons' attack.

He was made a member of Calder's leadership group in 2011, and enjoyed the extra responsibility, in trying to set a good example for the bottom-age players coming behind him.

Allison said: "He's gone from being a guy who wasn't too sure of himself - but wasn't going to die wondering - to a point where he's a leader and had a great year."

The change was clear at home too: Dale noticed his son mature rapidly with the responsibility.

When we first met at the NAB AFL Combine at Etihad Stadium, Ellis impressed with his bounce and life.

He's grown into himself, sure of his abilities and sure of the people around him, although he is well prepared for whatever happens. "I'd be the happiest man alive if I get taken," he said.

They were prophetic words for right now, Ellis is indeed the happiest man alive, proud to be in the yellow and black.

Follow Callum Twomey on Twitter at @Cal_Twomey

The views in this story are those of the author and not necessarily those of the clubs or the AFL