Hamish McLachlan chats to Andrew McGrath on the pressure of being the AFL’s number 1 draft pick
Hamish McLachlan, Sunday Herald Sun
ANDREW McGrath seems like the type of guy you’d be delighted your daughter married, and having two girls of my own, I know that’s saying something!
Mature, thoughtful, clever, gifted, humble and modest. School captain, vice-captain of footy, captain of athletics and a national champion.
Oh, and he was also a choir boy.
He went number one pick in the 2016 AFL Draft, and in his first year of football, he has met every expectation, and then some.
We spoke about his early years in Canada, how you actually pronounce his last name, the choice between football and athletics, reinvigorating the school choir, the pressure of being drafted at one, the Bombers chances of winning the last game of the season, and Lord of the Dance.
HM: You’re the first number one draft pick from Canada. I dare say, probably the last.
AM: Maybe, well, probably. It’s pretty unlikely to happen again when you say it like that, but the game’s growing. It is exciting, and it’s a pretty big honour to be the first one. Hopefully I can inspire another footballer in Canada to do the same thing. I think I’ll be the only one for a while though!
Andrew McGrath with Essendon coach John Worsfold on draft night.
HM: Were you actually an Australian citizen when you were drafted?
AM: No, I wasn’t, I think everyone assumed I was though. I’m now in the process of becoming a dual citizen.
HM: Was there any issue with getting drafted as a Canadian?
AM: No, none at all luckily. My family and I spoke with my managers, Robbie and Paul, and they scoped it out and said it was all good.
HM: Some house keeping. “Mc-Gra- r” is how I thought it was pronounced. Wrong?
AM: To my family back home, it would be wrong. They pronounce it “Mc-Gra- th” but it’s all dependant on the accent you say it with. If you say it with my parents’ accent, the Canadian accent, it’s 100% Mc-Gra- th, but here in Australia we say Mc-Gra- r.
HM: So how do you introduce yourself?
AM: Usually, with Mc-Gra- r. The Australian way.
Andrew McGrath with his Sandringham Dragons teammates on draft night.
HM: So if I’m commentating you, what would you rather?
AM: (laughs)…..This is great….I get options…..umm, stay with “Mc-Gra- r”, the Australian way. I speak with an Australian accent now, so I’ve adopted it as my last name! If I’m back home and speaking in my Canadian accent, I’ll say it the Canadian way.
HM: Do you bring out a Canadian accent when you go home?
AM: I do actually. A few people at the club are a bit surprised that it’s stuck, but my brother, my sister and I can still do our Canadian accents, as well as our Australian accents. We flick the switch when we’re talking to our parents, and when we’re talking to our mates. They find that pretty interesting.
HM: You were born in Mississauga. What do you remember from back home?
AM: Not a lot. The main thing I remember is playing in the basement. That was pretty much my playroom. My brother and I had all the toys and all the gadgets in the basement, which we played with when we couldn’t go outside because of the snow. That’s one of the main memories that I have. I remember playing in the street with our neighbours. That’s something that’s a bit different here, you probably don’t do that too often. Back home, that was sort of a big thing. It was cold!
HM: You moved over when you were 5. Was it all for your old man’s career at PWC?
AM: Initially, that was the sole purpose for our move over. My parents wanted to try something new, and experience a different part of the world. Originally it was meant to be a 3 year move, and we were meant to move back after those three years of work for dad. Those 3 years ticked over, and it’s blown out now to fourteen and counting. We just loved it out here from the get go, and although we do have strong family ties back in Canada, there was never really a thought about moving back once my brother, my sister and I started school.
HM: Your old man was a pretty good high school footballer in Canada, and your mother was a very talented hurdler. They’re well equipped for understanding sport. Do they understand the intricacies of the AFL?
AM: Yeah, they do. To many people’s surprise, my dad probably analyses it better than most….he’d be a good analyst now! He’s got a pretty good read on the game. He didn’t used to give me too many pointers on how to play the game, while he was biding his time and learning the game himself. He loves it now, and knows all the intricacies of the AFL and how everything works. It’s the same with mum. She won’t talk about it too much, but she knows exactly what’s going on. I’ve been playing it for so long now, and they’ve been around every single level of football you can imagine. They know pretty much everything now.
HM: How talented a hurdler was your mum?
AM: She was a national hurdler. She couldn’t take it much further due to financial reasons.
HM: Too expensive, no prize money?
AM: They just didn’t fund anything back in Canada at the time. You had to fund yourself to get to those meets, and at the time it wasn’t really an option for mum. She ran at the state comps, and did fairly well. She ran at high school, she ran at university, but then stopped after that.
HM: Between your father Mike, as a good footballer, and your Mum Sandy as a hurdler, they bred a serious athlete. Just give me your National Athletics CV please.
AM: Ahhh, ok…..I was U/14 National High Jump Champion in 2012. I won the 200m hurdles in U/15’s and U/16’s, the 400m hurdles in U/17, and also the national heptathlon in U/15.
McGrath at the last athletics national meeting with coach Kevin.
HM: What’s your best high jump?
AM: I think it was 2m at an APS meet in my final year at school.
HM: That’s enormous – the World Record is 2.45m….has been since 1993. That’s a serious CV. At what point did you think you had to make a choice between athletics and footy?
AM: It came about during U/16’s footy when I was in year 10. That was my first year playing first 18 for Brighton Grammar. I also won the National Title that year, so at the end of that year I had to make my decision what I was doing.
HM: What did you win the national title in that year?
AM: That was the 400m hurdles.
HM: It’s like Bo Jackson was living in Brighton!
AM: (laughs) I’ve read about Bo – he was a freak!
HM: So when you choose football over athletics, what is it that you weigh up? Enjoyment, likelihood of success, financial security?
AM: It was a mixture of all I think. My family and the people around me all suggested that I just do which one I love. For me, I was weighing up which one I could make a living out of, as well as trying to determine which one I loved more. It probably took me 3 or 4 months to make the call. I was swaying side to side, but at the end of the day I thought footy was the sport I enjoyed playing more, the one that I could see myself making a living out of, and one that I would hopefully succeed in.
HM: What did you take out of your time training and competing as an athlete that is now useful from either a mental or a physical stand point in AFL?
AM: I guess there’s a lot of things that I took out of athletics. Firstly, just being disciplined and learning how to train properly. My coach Kevin taught me how to train properly from a very young age, and how to get the best out of myself. I think with footy you can hide in the pack a little bit. In a team sport your coach can’t watch you individually all the time, so you have to take things on yourself to improve as a player. I think I’ve learnt that from doing an individual sport at a relatively high level.
On the physical side of things, having speed in the modern AFL game is vital. The game moves so fast, and to be able to run, change direction and jump well for a smaller guy like myself holds me in pretty good stead.
HM: When you’re hurdling it’s you against seven individuals, no excuses. With team sports, every now and again the blame goes elsewhere, but not with hurdling. Or high jump. Only one guy’s in charge.
AM: Yeah, you’re right. That’s what I like about individual sports. You can’t blame anyone else; it’s all on you. You win, or lose, based on how you handle the moment. I think that made me more determined in my football too. I didn’t want to rely on other people to get me the ball, or to do things for me so I looked like a better player. I think from a young age that’s the mindset I had. I’m going to win my own ball when possible, I’m going to do what’s right for the team, and if I can impact the game in any way possible, I’m going to do that.
Andrew McGrath after his AFL debut match with Essendon.
HM: You’re a Brighton Grammar boy. How would you have described yourself as a student?
AM: I think similar to the way I go about my sport. I was pretty diligent as a student. I tried
very hard in my studies, and I really held them in high regard during year 12. I was fortunate enough to be school captain of Brighton Grammar, which was something that I didn’t really expect at the start of year 11. However, as year 11 progressed, I thought that it could be for me. A lot of my mates and teachers thought so too. Brighton Grammar has taught me a lot, but mainly about how to be a good person. You do get a great education, and you do meet friends for life, but I guess you just learn how to communicate with people, and how to be a genuine good person.
HM: When you were appointed school captain, was it voted on by the kids, or a
combination of kids and teachers?
AM: It was a combination. So we all sat down and voted. I think every student had five votes, and likewise with the teachers. From there, the headmaster and the head of senior school compiled the results and came up with the top three. From there the top three all had interviews with the headmaster, and the head of the senior school. That was how it was decided.
HM: What were your year 12 marks?
AM: I ended up getting 87.5, which was probably a bit lower than I thought I should have got. I was pretty filthy on myself for a couple of weeks after that. I ended up getting into my course, and I’m glad it all worked out, but again I was a little bit annoyed at myself because I felt as though I could do better.
HM: Are you studying now?
AM: I’m not studying anything at the moment. I deferred from University this year. We do a course through the AFL as first year players. It’s a Rec 1 in Sport. Starting next year, I’ll do commerce at Monash Uni.
HM: Perfect. School captain, and vice-captain of footy. Who got the nod for captaincy?
AM: Blake Hayes, who’s one of my best mates actually. Blake and I were the only ones that played from year 10 all the way through in the First 18.
HM: So what’s Blake doing now?
AM: Blake’s actually over in America at the University of Illinois. He stopped TAC Cup footy in U/17’s and started playing American football, as a punter. He got a scholarship to go over to the University of Illinois quite recently, and he’s over there now. He’s been there for about a month, and he’s absolutely loving it.
McGrath with his family and supporters on draft night.
HM: Is he going well as a punter?
AM: Yeah, he is apparently. Their season starts pretty soon, so I’ll be waiting anxiously to see whether he’ll get picked for the first game. He’s got a good kick on him, so fingers crossed he can take it a long way.
HM: School captain, vice-captain of football, captain of athletics, and a choir boy.
AM: (laughs) Yeah, I was in the choir. I’ve copped a little bit of stick at the club about that!
HM: Your favourite hymn?
AM: Lord of the Dance.
HM: Dance then, wherever you may be, I am the Lord of the Dance said he...
AM: There you go.
HM: Boarding School……Chapel on Sundays!
AM: It’s one of the popular hymns at school. Going into the choir I wasn’t a good singer at all. You could probably guess that. Our school choir was really low on numbers, and it didn’t have too much support from anyone at the school, so I sort of took it upon myself to change that. In year 12, the four leaders at the school had an office to themselves, so we all got together and decided we’d join the choir to raise awareness. We got a lot more people involved than the previous year, to help out a different area of the school that didn’t get much support previously. That’s where that came from.
HM: No wonder you were School Captain. You are a leader of men.
AM: (laughs) Thank you.
HM: What’s your greatest flaw?
AM: I’m a perfectionist. That’s probably my biggest flaw. I get stuck up on little things too often. On the training track, if I miss a kick, or miss a handball, I’ll make sure I do an extra ten of them to ensure it never happens again. That can sometimes annoy people a little bit. That’s my main flaw I think. I’m probably a little bit lazy also when I can afford to be.
HM: You don’t sound too lazy. I love your old man’s description of you. “It’s almost like he’s unconsciously competent, because his life has always been busy and filled. He just rolls from one thing to the next”. It’s a nice way to be described; “unconsciously competent”.
AM: Yeah, I guess when you put it that way, it is nice. It does make sense. It’s a fairly good way to describe the way I’ve grown up, and the person I am today.
HM: Just going through your footy record. Three years at Brighton Grammar in the first 18. Three premierships.
AM: That was a good time at school. Our last premiership before then was in ‘92, so it was an exciting period.
HM: Then Sandringham Dragons. Premiership.
AM: Yep, in my top age year.
HM: Vic Metro. Premiership.
HM: Three from three last year?
AM: Yeah. I was very fortunate enough to be in three talented teams last year. That probably helped when it came to the back end of the year and the draft.
HM: When did you know Essendon were choosing you?
AM: I didn’t actually now until my name was read out. Adrian Dodoro sent three of us in the draft a message when we were all getting ready, about an hour and a half before. He said that he wasn’t telling anyone who they were taking, which I was a bit filthy about at the time. I would have liked to have known regardless, but I think the way it panned out meant it was better for the AFL, and better for the viewers. It would have felt better for my family and the three other guys if we had known….it was pretty stressful!
McGrath competing in the APS 110m hurdles in year 12.
HM: How many clubs did you speak with before the draft?
AM: I think throughout the year I spoke to all of them, whether that be an hour chat, or a 5 minute ‘get to know you’ at the combine.
HM: It’s like speed dating at the combine….sit down, chat, try and impress, move on.
AM: (laughs) Yeah, it is a bit. At the combine especially, you’re in and out, speaking to heaps of different people.
HM: What was the most bizarre question you were asked?
AM: Essendon probably have the most bizarre questions. They get our psychologist Jonah in, to pick the brains of the draftees. He asks some bizarre questions, like counting backwards by 7 from 92, and spelling different words backwards, just to see how you handle a different challenge.
HM: Did Nick Dal Santo live in your street during school?
AM: He used to, yes. He recently moved, I’m not sure where exactly. He lived in our street for quite a while.
HM: Did he help you with your footy?
AM: I learnt a lot off him. When I was a lot younger, I was a bit afraid of Nick. I just saw him as a gun St Kilda player, but as I got a bit older and I started to get serious about my footy, my dad and I reached out to him and asked if we could have a chat. Eventually we ended up doing some kicking sessions during the off-season, heading into my top age year. I learnt a lot about the way he kicks.
HM: Just going back to the draft, and being taken at one. It’s good for the ego, but is it good for anything else? Does it add unwanted pressure, or does it give you confidence.
AM: I think a little bit of both actually. The way I’ve looked at it is you’d rather go one than not. Everything that comes with it is almost like a privilege. So many people aim to get drafted, so to go as the number one pick in such a talented group of players is a real honour, and something that I think keeps me honest, every day.
HM: So your names gets called out – what happens from there? How quickly have you got someone shaking your hand, and how quickly are you at the club?
AM: That’s a great question. The night is a bit of a blur to be honest. I remember sitting in the hall for two hours before the draft, shaking, as nervous as ever. When your name finally gets called out, you walk up to the stage, shake Gil’s hand, and the madness pretty much happens from there. You talk to the media for the first two hours, you see your family after that, and then you wake up the next morning and it finally feels pretty real. You fly home and pack your bags for training on Monday. We went on training camp on the first Monday, so we were straight into it. The last six months have flown by.
HM: What has been the biggest adjustment for you?
AM: The drive is pretty significant for me. I’m still living at home, so driving 45 minutes to work every day is a bit different from the 5 minutes I drove to school. The hours, as well. I was used to training for two hours, three times a week for footy. Now, it’s pretty much a 9 to 5 gig. That took my body a little bit of time to get used to. Early days when I would come home, Mum knew the routine. I’d go up to my room, have a sleep, wake up, eat some food and then go back to sleep again. It probably took me a month to get out of that. Now, I think I’ve adapted well to it. The club’s great with managing the young players. They completely monitor your load. They monitor how you’re feeling, and adjust your program accordingly.
McGrath gets a hug from teammate Jobe Watson after the Anzac Day clash.
HM: When did you find out you were playing in round one? I know there would have been a bit of an assumption, but when do you actually get told?
AM: So match committee is on the Wednesday for us, so it’s usually three days before the game. We’ll have main training that morning, then a meeting, and then the coaches will go off for match committee and we’ll do our weights. The way it worked out was I was in the weights room, and I started to see a few cameras floating around. It got me thinking a bit. Then all of a sudden Woosha walks up to me and says, “What do you think I have to do this week?” I was a bit oblivious at the time. I said “I’m not really sure. Pick the team, I guess”. He said, Congratulations, you’re playing”. It happened really quickly, and then all the boys got around me. It was an exciting time, but pretty unexpected for me.
HM: Round one. Essendon and Hawthorn. 80,000 or so. MCG. Was it everything you hoped it would be?
AM: Yeah. It was. It was a pretty amazing game not only for me, playing my debut game, but the club as well. Coming off the year Essendon had in 2016, all the fans and all the returning players were really excited. The way it panned out was pretty perfect. I got to play my first game in front of a massive crowd, and we got a great win over a great side. It was everything I could have asked for, and more.
HM: In an unbelievably open year, can the Bombers pinch the flag?
AM: I think we’re a genuine chance. We do have a tough road ahead. We haven’t really done ourselves too many favours throughout the year. We’ve played some really good footy, and some really inconsistent footy at times. I think if we can get ourselves into finals, we’re a real chance, like any other club in the league at the moment. It’s a really exciting time of the year, and we just need to get the points on the board to hopefully be there in September.
HM: It’s a cracking season of footy - Andy, thanks for spending some time chatting, I’ve really enjoyed it.
AM: No worries at all. It’s been a pleasure speaking to you as well, Hame.