The AFLW’s number one draft pick and most prized young Richmond footballer, Ellie McKenzie, uses her brother’s roller coaster AFL experience as a motivator and reality check.
In the fourth episode of The Originals podcast the top 2020 draft pick who has arrived sensationally in her debut season has also recalled how her schoolgirl sporting dreams were crushed when she discovered that elite AFL pathways existed for men exclusively.
McKenzie, recently turned 18, says she was about 11 years old when her Mum broke the news that while her older sibling, Tom, was pursuing an elite AFL career there was no such opportunity for her.
McKenzie remembers how a photograph she saw in a newspaper led her to believe women could play for AFL clubs until her Mum explained the reality of the day.
“Mum kind of had to had to tell me: ‘look there’s not really a path for you. You can’t really play in the men’s league’... that was a bit disheartening and I didn’t really know what to do with myself from there,” McKenzie said.
“It was definitely a feeling of being crushed and all my dreams going out the window pretty much.”
The second woman ever to register for Fitzroy Football Club continued to play alongside boys her age because she loved the game so deeply, but while her team was steadfastly supportive McKenzie says some opponents inflicted particularly hard days on-field through highlighting her difference.
McKenzie says she harnessed her anger positively.
“Those little comments, I mean, they did hurt me a little bit,” the 176-midfielder-forward says.
“But I thought ‘I’m really enjoying playing footy, it’s probably my most favourite thing to do in the whole world’, so I thought I’d just keep going keep playing and my coaches were always really supportive of me, giving me game time and not really disadvantaging me because I was a girl.
“Maybe if my team had been really nasty to me it would have been a different story, but I’m really thankful that they supported me.
“I didn’t really feel different in my team so I think that really helped me keep playing.”
No one has been more supportive of McKenzie’s football pursuits than her mum Sue, dad Rob and her brother Tom – a North Melbourne rookie taken with pick 10 of the 2018 AFL Rookie draft but cut less than 12 months later. McKenzie was the Roos’ first pick of that year’s rookie draft.
“I’ve been able to pick his brain and ask how it was at North,” McKenzie says.
“It made me even more hungry to reach that goal for me, seeing him coming in and out of the house, from training and telling us about his day really drove me to try to get to that position as well.
“People think once you get to AFL you’re there, and ... you’re there for 15 years and you have a big, long career and it’s great.
“But it’s not the reality and I guess we kind of got to experience the ruthlessness of the AFL system through Tom.”
After being diagnosed with a stress fracture in his back, Tom McKenzie was delisted by North Melbourne after playing just one half of a VFL match. In his 11 months at the club he was scarcely able to train.
“Obviously he was pretty heartbroken,” his little sister says.
“He was pretty crushed, but having said that he’s bounced back really quickly and he’s even more motivated to get to that level again.
“He’s really fit now and he’s ready to go.”
Tom McKenzie, now 20, is set to play in the midfield for Coburg in the VFL this year.
“He hasn’t played footy for two years now so I think he just can’t wait to get on the field now, maybe prove some people wrong and also just have that experience again - have some fun playing footy,” the Tigers top AFLW draft pick says in The Originals.
“He’s been a great example of resilience for me.”
Ellie McKenzie also discusses in the podcast what became an overwhelming sense of pressure as she awaited national AFLW draft day on 6 October 2020, her deep admiration for Richmond captain, Katie Brennan, and vice-captain, Sarah Hosking. She looks to both - and retired Hawthorn champions Luke Hodge and Sam Mitchell, footballers McKenzie idolised as a young Hawks’ supporter - as examples of the package she’d like to be.
McKenzie has played all three games for Richmond this season and has been outstanding in each.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been that nervous before a game,” she recalls of her AFLW debut in the Tigers’ 2021 season-opener and Richmond’s first match at Punt Road Oval for AFL/VFL premiership points in 56 years.
“It was a great experience; one I’ll never forget ... one of the best days of my life.”
The Originals is sponsored by WISE Employment, helping people who have employment barriers, including mental illness and disability, find meaningful work.
Find out more at wiseemployment.com.au or call 1800 685 105.