After several setbacks, Sam Hayes’ AFL journey comes full circle in 2022

Sam Hayes in action in the SANFL this year. Picture: Brandon Hancock/Port Adelaide FC.

After five years on the list, Sam Hayes finally made his AFL debut this season for Port Adelaide. It has been a long time coming, however the 22-year-old’s journey has been anything but straight forward.

Taken with the Pick 47 in the 2017 AFL Draft, Sam Hayes was a serious talent. He was a star in his junior days and was a celebrated ruckman.

Getting drafted is a highlight for any player who, one day, dreams of becoming an AFL footballer. Being from Victoria, moving interstate can be daunting, especially at such a young age. But when Port Adelaide called his name, Hayes took the first step on the road to becoming an AFL player.

It hasn’t all been smooth sailing for the ruckman though. He has had to bide his time to get a taste of AFL football. After an injury to Scott Lycett, the door leading to an AFL debut suddenly swung open.

The 22-year-old spoke exclusively with The Inner Sanctum regarding his footballing journey that saw him drafted by Port Adelaide, to his AFL debut at the MCG and everything in-between.

Hayes remembers the night the club drafted him and all the history and traditions that he would soon learn about as a member of the Port Adelaide Football Club.

“I was stoked to get drafted to Port Adelaide,” Hayes said.

“It was an unbelievable night, draft night. I was with my family at home and soaked up every minute of it.

“I didn’t know heaps about Port Adelaide before I got drafted. But you quickly learn once you get here. The history, the ins and outs of the club, some of the legends and all the success. I am blessed to be here and have enjoyed my time here so far.”

The ACL setback

Hayes’ AFL career had barely started before disaster struck. During a routine training drill in 2018, the then 19-year-old suffered a dreaded ACL injury. He would miss the rest of the season.

After showing some promising signs early on as he made his way in the AFL system, Hayes was dealt the cruel blow. However, looking back on the injury now, he says that it was a blessing in disguise. Even if at the time, it seemed like the world was against him during the darker days while in rehab.

He revealed that it was the club and his teammates that got him through his setback so early in his career.

“It was obviously a tough time, but I sort of look at it, like it was a bit of a blessing in disguise for me,” Hayes said.

“I was able to get in the gym and put some size on and really work on my body and fitness. There were some dark days as people who have done those long stints in rehab know. But with the support of the boys and the club, I was able to get through really well.

“I pretty much did most of my rehab with Hamish Hartlett. He did his knee a little bit after me, so we were in the gym a fair bit together, which was good.”

The road to recovery was a long one for the 22-year-old. But he came back with a vengeance. With the SANFL season scrapped in 2020 due to COVID, it wasn’t until last year that the ruckman got continuity in his game.

He managed to play all 18 SANFL games for the Port Adelaide Magpies and won the A.R. McLean Medal for the club’s Best and Fairest as he sensationally polled votes in every game.

Hayes points to his ability to do a full preseason as the catalyst for his supreme form in 2021.

“I think my pre-season, I put the work in and I was ready for the year last year and put my best foot forward every week and prepared well during the week,” he said.

“You can do a lot of talk, but I let my actions do the talk during the week and come out on the weekend and play my role for the side. Bring my strengths which is you know, my ruck work and being able to take a contested mark around the ground as well.”

Finally getting his chance

For most younger players, they will have to wait for their opportunity at AFL level and Hayes was no different. Even if it came in the worst of circumstances. Number one ruckman Scott Lycett injured his shoulder in Port’s loss to Melbourne in Round 4.

While Lycett was able to play out the remainder of the game, he was clearly hampered. Having trained all week, the news that Hayes had been eagerly waiting for did not come until the Thursday before Port’s clash with Carlton.

Hayes recalls the moment he thought he might be a chance to finally get his AFL debut. Once he found out, the 22-year-old couldn’t believe he was finally getting his chance.

“I didn’t find out until the Thursday (before Sunday’s game),” he said.

“We were training and obviously Scooter (Lycett) had dislocated his shoulder the week before against Melbourne. He played the game out and he was a test for that Thursday training session. So, we did a few ruck contests together and his shoulder was a bit sore and then he went inside (to the changerooms).

“Then the main training drill started, and they threw the ball in and he went to put his arm up to tap it and he just couldn’t put his arm up. Then they pulled him off to the side and I heard a few whispers of ‘I reckon you’re in’. It was pretty clear that maybe I was going to get picked and we played out the drill and then Ken called everyone in.

“He said a little bit like five years, an ACL, COVID interrupted year, but Sam Hayes will make his debut this year. All the boys got around me and it was a moment I will never forget. After that it was just so surreal, I couldn’t believe it really. I was floating for a bit there.

“You don’t want to see anyone go down with injury like that. Especially someone you are close with and plays similar position to you. But I was just thankful that when Scooter went down that they (Port) had faith in me that they could pick me and go from there.”

Hayes’ AFL debut at the MCG

With the news now official that he would be making his AFL debut after so many hurdles, Hayes was thankful for the opportunity. What was even better for the 22-year-old, was that the game was taking place at ‘his home ground’.

Being from Melbourne, playing his first-ever AFL game at the MCG was extra special for the ruckman. He was lucky enough to have some family and friends at the ground too.

While the result was not what he nor the club wanted, it was great for Hayes to finally get his chance at AFL level. He added that it is something that he will never forget.

“I just wanted to go out there in my first game, I was really thankful that my first game was at the MCG,” Hayes said.

Hayes in action for the Magpies earlier this year. Photo via sanfl.com.au

“I’m from Melbourne obviously, it was awesome to have my family there and I had heaps of mates there as well, so that was awesome. I had my mates behind the goals and in the warmup, I went around them and that was bloody awesome. It’s something I’ll never forget that’s for sure.”

While he is the club’s number one ruck now, Hayes is under no illusions when it comes to his spot in the team each week.

The step up from the SANFL to the AFL can take some time to adjust to. For Hayes, it was very different to what he had experienced for the Port Magpies in previous years.

“The footy was fast, it was quick, it was stronger. It was all up a level from SANFL,” he said.

“It was a close game that one (against Carlton). First half we didn’t do too well, but we really came back in the second half. It was just overall a great experience and I’ll never forget that day.

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“I’m just blessed to get that opportunity. There is no guarantees that I’m going to play every single week.

“Even though Scooter (Lycett) is out, I got to earn my spot in the side and continue to grow and build my game and work with the coaches. It’s definitely not easy but I am having a lot of fun playing AFL footy, it’s bloody awesome.”

Having now gotten a taste of AFL football, the 22-year-old is slowly starting to feel comfortable at the elite level. While each week presents a different challenge for the Victorian-born ruckman, it is one he is getting familiar with.

Building trust with his teammates is a priority for the young ruckman and it is something he will continue to do with every chance he gets.

“I feel as though I’m starting to become accustomed to it and comfortable at the level,” he said.

“But I still know I have a long way to go. I want to keep building trust within the group and I’ll continue to do that during the week at training and then on gameday. But every opportunity I get, I want to put my best foot forward and that’s basically what I’m after.”

Port’s future number one?

With Scott Lycett sidelined for the best part of three months with his shoulder injury, there is a chance for Hayes to really cement his spot as Port Adelaide’s number one ruck.

While Lycett is Port Adelaide’s first choice at the time of writing, Hayes said that he feels he is next in line.

He also adds that for the time being, it is exciting to be “the guy” for the Port Adelaide Football Club.

“It’s exciting (to be the club’s number one ruck),” Hayes said.

“Scooter (Lycett) isn’t getting any younger and I think I’m the next one to come through. I just want to make this position my own and put my best foot forward and really drive the midfield and do my job.

“That’s to put it on a platter for Ollie Wines, Travis Boak and Buttsy (Zak Butters). Connor Rozee is in the middle now, so there’s younger boys coming through. They are getting a look in the midfield and I’m starting to build a connection with them.

“I just want to keep working on it every week. We all have a good relationship off the field as well and that definitely helps when you’re on field. It’s exciting to think that this could be the future for me. As I said, there’s no guarantees. You got to earn your spot and I just want to make it my own each week.”

It has been a long time coming for Sam Hayes. Having dealt with so much adversity so early in his career, the 22-year-old is grabbing his AFL chance with both hands and is having the time of his life in the process.

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About Adam Schultz 69 Articles
Adam is a freelance writer and has covered the NBA, NFL, AFL and the English Premier League for various sites. He has over five years of experience covering sports across the globe. Adam loves everything sport but his main passions are NFL, football and the AFL.

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