GEORGE Stevens can see the South Warrnambool Football Club from his house. It is literally 50 metres away.
The home of the Roosters has been his home away from home for as long as he can remember. Most Saturday afternoons and almost every Thursday night in winter are spent eating dinner down there, waiting for the teams to be picked, counting down the years and days until his name will be picked at the highest level.
That day is imminent.
Stevens put the finishing touches on a decorated underage career in September by playing in a Hampden Football League premiership for his beloved South Warrnambool alongside older brother Archie, who plays for Carlton's VFL program, after the stars somehow aligned.
George was only available after the Greater Western Victoria Rebels lost a Coates Talent League semi-final to the Geelong Falcons at GMHBA Stadium. Archie was only eligible to play due to a mid-season foot injury that ensured he was under the 13 VFL games threshold enforced by the League. It was meant to be.
The fairytale finish to his underage career arrived after Stevens missed all of 2022 due to a torn anterior cruciate ligament and then a separate meniscus repair that led to him spending last season as South Warrnambool's assistant coach and even saw the then 17-year-old coach a game mid-season.
Stevens' dad Sam has been involved at the club since he was a kid and performed almost every role possible. Juniors to seniors. Game day to behind the scenes. You name it, he has done it. It was what made the Grand Final win over crosstown rivals North Warrnambool extra special for the entire Stevens clan.
"We hadn't won a premiership for 12 years and we had had some really poor years. I remember being water boy and doing the scoreboard and we were bottom of the ladder for three or four years at one point," Stevens told AFL.com.au.
"Last year I didn't play at all with my ACL and spent the majority of my time down at the footy club. What they did for me throughout that time helping me get through was special."
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Stevens isn't sitting inside the MCG speaking to journalists at the Draft Combine because of his exploits with the Roosters in 2023. The Grand Final was his sole appearance of the year and just his fourth senior game for the club. He has been a force in that part of the world from the moment he started playing sport as a kid, representing his region, state and national program in multiple sports.
The powerfully built utility produced a phenomenal return from a knee reconstruction across winter. He captained the AFL Academy against the SANFL and VFL, then earned All-Australian selection after impressive performances for Vic Country during the national championships. Then he was named at half-back – and as captain – in the Coates Talent League team of the year after winning the Rebels' best and fairest, following a 13-game campaign where he averaged 28.8 disposals and five tackles.
Stevens can vividly recall the day he ruptured his ACL. It was the afternoon of Friday, November 18, 2021. The Hampden Football League had organised six rounds of games for under-23 teams to somewhat replace what the pandemic had stolen. And it happened late in one of the 2 x 20-minute fixtures against Koroit.
He can remember the excruciating pain that disappeared as fast as it arrived. He can remember the initial sense of relief after the GP diagnosed it as a medial strain. Then the devastation at home after the dreaded news was confirmed following a scan. Sam doesn't cry often, but there were tears that Monday night.
But instead of wallowing in self-pity and fretting about what a knee reconstruction would mean for his draft chances, Stevens headed down to the football club and became South Warrnambool's assistant coach working alongside senior coach Mat Battistello last season. As expected by those who know him best, it didn't take Stevens long to find a silver lining.
"It is a cliché, but everyone always says you gain so much through adversity," Stevens said. "That is definitely true. I had the surgery within six days which was fortunate and once you tick that off and you're over that hump it gets better from there.
"I was basically an assistant coach for my local footy club. Mat let me coach a game one day in the middle of the year. He was so good to me. I couldn't be more grateful for what he has done for me.
"I learnt so much about the game in that year. I probably learnt more about the game not playing it than I would have playing it. I just learnt so much. I felt like my footy IQ was already a strength, but this helped advance me even further. I think coming back from a long-term injury holds me in really good stead. I've got an even greater level of gratitude."
When Stevens tore his ACL, the Emmanuel College student was still juggling footy and basketball. He had always excelled at both sports, debuting for Greater Western Victoria Rebels at just 16. But earlier in the year he had been invited to join the under-17 national program at the Australian Institute of Sport following strong form for Vic Country. Stevens knew it was almost time to choose between the two, he just didn't know the knee would make the decision for him.
"I sort of forget about it a little bit," he recalled. "But in the April of 2021 I played in the Australian championships for Vic Country and on the back of that was asked to go to the AIS for a week-long camp with the under-17 nationals ahead of the world champs.
"Then I was just onto footy the next weekend and I realised I had to choose. I couldn't be playing Rebels or Country and then spending week-long camps at the AIS with basketball.
"From then on, it got taken out of my hands a little bit with my knee because that summer was going to be all basketball. I didn't play any basketball. It was a big decision to stop playing basketball, but those basketball experiences shaped me as a footballer."
Stevens' interviews at the Combine confirmed everything clubs already knew about the impressive kid from the country. He is built of the right material, oozing leadership. What you see is what you get. But a bit like two-time Richmond premiership midfielder Jack Graham, who won the Larke Medal, All-Australian selection and South Australia's MVP award before being picked at No.53 in the 2016 AFL Draft, clubs are divided on where the midfielder/half-back will be picked. Some think it will be on night one. Others think it might be early the next night. It could end up being late.
David Trotter, from Hemisphere Management Group, represents Stevens and has had conversations with the teenager about his range. Clubs often have different ranges for different players, but sometimes a player has a wider range than others. Stevens is that player this year, even despite producing a dominant display at VFL level against a stacked Collingwood outfit, where he finished with 29 disposals on a wet August morning at Victoria Park. And even after a brilliant underage career in Warrnambool.
"I know I am one of those unique ones where it is hard to get a read. Trotts has helped me come to terms with that. Initially I thought that was a bit crazy, but I've come to terms about that. If its pick 20 or pick 60 or rookie, I'll just feel fortunate to get a chance," he said.
"On the 20th of November your name could be called out and then you're heading across the country. But the unknown is challenging. All year when you play a good game, hopefully you speak to Trotts afterwards and you learn who is interested where you're going to go in the draft. That was what I expected more, but it doesn't work like that. You just never know what's going to happen."