Ben Long’s move from Darwin to Melbourne to further his education three years ago unexpectedly resulted in his starring role in Footscray’s 2016 Peter Jackson VFL premiership campaign.
Despite only playing his first VFL game in Round 18 this year, 19-year-old Long quickly established himself in the all-conquering Bulldogs team across the last seven games of the season.
The 185cm forward booted six goals in their big preliminary-final win against Collingwood and another two in the premiership triumph over the Casey Scorpions on the big stage of Etihad Stadium, highlighting why a host of AFL clubs had nominated him to return to the venue for the recent NAB AFL Draft Combine.
At the four-day screening of the nation’s most sought-after football talent, Long recorded a level 13.6 beep test as well as times of 10:52 in the 3km time trial, 3.03 seconds in the 20m sprint and 25.90 seconds in the repeat sprint test, while also finishing equal-third in the kicking test.
Speaking to vfl.com.au at the Combine less than two weeks after Footscray’s success, he said his achievements in 2016 were still only just sinking in.
“I enjoyed this year the most out of my three years I’ve been down here (in Melbourne),” Long said.
“At the start of the year I represented NT Thunder at the (Division 2) U18 Championships and went on to play for the Allies (in Division 1). I got asked to go down to Footscray and start training with them, and lucky enough the club wanted to sign me and I went on to play seven games and win a flag.
“Looking back at it now, I’m very happy and excited that I’ve not just won a premiership but made new relationships, and meeting new people is one of the best things.”
Long has met a whole community of new people since winning an indigenous scholarship to attend Melbourne Grammar in 2014. While the move from his home community in the NT was initially difficult, he has boarded at Grammar for three years and said his football development was an added bonus to completing his education at the prestigious institution.
“I think it did (take a while to adjust in Melbourne),” Long said.
“I had some family members down here, so that helped with me settling myself in. I was homesick now and then and thought of home, but I had friends who were actually from Darwin here as well which comforted me heaps. If it wasn’t for my family and friends, I don’t think I’d be down here.
“It was all new to me and I didn’t really know much about junior footy here. I guess it was sort of a bonus to me with my footy, moving down here and showcasing myself while playing school footy and this year in the VFL. I’m really proud of myself.”
While Long’s displays of agility, defensive pressure and goal sense in big VFL games would be enough to sell himself to AFL clubs, he preferred to focus on his off-field traits in interviews at the Draft Combine.
Being a year older than almost all other Combine attendees, Long felt demonstrating his maturity and leadership potential was particularly important – and he has a perfect role model within his own family.
“I grew up watching my cousin Cyril Rioli once he had been drafted (by Hawthorn),” Long said. “I watch him every time he plays. He’s like an idol to me and someone similar to me who I model my game around.
“I ask him questions now and then about what it’s like, (because) he’s been through the process of coming to the Combine and he’s now in the AFL system. He just encourages me and sort of leads me in the right direction.
“I think about Shaun Burgoyne too, obviously being indigenous – and playing in the back line is something I prefer as well. I guess I’ve played everywhere as a player, forward and back and through the midfield.”
Clearly, Long’s ability to adjust to different circumstances both on and off the field have served him well.
While they may not have been the primary goals when he made that big life decision three years ago, he now has a VFL premiership under his belt and can rightfully dream of hearing his name read out on November 25.