Danyle Pearce: The first AFL free agent

Danyle Pearce nearly gave up on football after being overlooked in the national draft.

However, he went on to win the 2006 Rising Star and play in two grand finals.

Jack Hudson: We’ll go back to the start of your footy days; where did you play your juniors and what do you remember about them?

Danyle Pearce: My first ever memory of footy would have been when I was five or six years old running on the hill at Broadview Football Club watching my dad.

I was getting entrenched in the smell of deep heat, tape and oil and the boys getting ready in the change rooms – that real sort of love and want to play started there.

I started playing at Fitzroy Football Club in Adelaide, I lived in there and my closest friends all played there.

I played a few years there, and at about eight years of age we moved to Meningie, I was playing there for about three years.

From there, my family moved back into Adelaide and from under 13s, 14s and 15s I was playing at Edwardstown Football Club, and at the same time it was when the youth development squad started at the Sturt Football Club.

Everyone at Edwardstown was zoned out there, and I tagged along and followed them.

I was actually zoned to Glenelg at the time, but I think there was a small transfer fee that was paid, and I was allowed to go out to Sturt, and everything grew from there.

JH: What was it like when you first walked through the doors at Sturt?

DP: It was good in the little development league, before they brought in the under 16s and 18s, they had the 19s, 17s and 15s and they had the McDonalds Cup games for 13s and 14s.

Between games at Edwardstown you’d have games at Sturt and you’d play up there, we had some nine-a-side games at the old Football Park at half-time of some AFL games, and we were very successful.

We went on and won the under 17 premiership, I missed the under 19s and reserves and went onto seniors.

It’s been fantastic since day one being there, I was lucky enough to have all my friends at the time playing there, everything felt natural to be honest.

It was the natural progression to the next step and wanting to keep playing.

Going to Sturt I was family friends with Michael Graham, in high school Malcolm Greenslade was my PE teacher and I grew up around him.

I grew up around a lot of Sturt legends and everything blended together, and I got a chance to play there.

JH: You were then picked up in the Rookie Draft by Port Adelaide – was it expected?

DP: No, it wasn’t, we had the under 18 championships and I didn’t play great over there.

Then we went to the National Draft camp and did well there, I broke a few records there too.

Then you start hearing the talk of getting drafted and going to different places and unfortunately, I missed out on that, which was a big disappointment.

I was almost ready to throw in the towel and give up on any chance of being drafted, I did my own thing for a little bit.

I didn’t even know there was a Rookie Draft, I didn’t know there was a rookie list, someone made mention to me about the draft.

Mark Williams invited me and Elijah Ware out at the time, we trained with a little side squad at Alberton in front of ‘Choco’ and a few of the coaches.

I think they had a pre-season selection which got someone straight onto the senior list, and a rookie pick – they took Elijah with the pre-season pick and myself with the rookie draft.

Back in those days, there had to be a senior spot on the list (for a rookie elevation) and someone had to be injured and you got half the pay of the originally lowest paid player on the list, you weren’t in the team photos.

I was in the photos for all the sponsors and everything, but as soon as the team photo comes on, all the rookie listed players are asked to come out of it, that really sucked at the time.

I remember thinking how much I hated it.

Prior to training with Port, I had two weeks out with the Adelaide Crows, I was out there with Matt Priddis and Elijah was there as well.

As the season started, I couldn’t foresee any chance of playing, things were going well at Sturt for myself, and unfortunately it was Elijah who hurt his knee and was put on the long-term injury list, and that opened up a spot on the senior list.

I got the elevation in round 15 and played in round 16.

JH: Your debut was against North Melbourne in Canberra, what do you remember about it?

DP: It was actually a good transition to be honest, not being thrown straight in front of a Football Park crowd – it would’ve been exciting to play in front of that.

But to transition from 4000-6000 at an SANFL games to Manuka Oval where there was maybe 8000 it wasn’t hard at all.

I felt a lot more at ease going into that step rather than going in front of 40000 and maybe being a bit of a deer in the headlights.

It felt good, it felt similar to state league but obviously a lot better.

We had a really good first half and a horrendous second half.

I think we were up by 40 points at one stage and lost.

Danyle Pearce’s move to Fremantle was the first free agent submission. Picture: fremantlefc.com.au.

JH: In 2006 you broke onto the scene and won the Rising Star – what do you remember about that year?

DP: Phil Walsh, the late Crows coach, he was our midfield coach then and I sat down with him.

Things were going well at half-forward, but we had a conversation about playing on-ball.

We had some great ruckman, we had Dean Brogan and Brendon Lade, we had All-Australian class ruckman.

The conversation was to play me, Peter and Shaun Burgoyne, Kane Cornes as a tagger in the middle.

I fully jumped at the opportunity and things went really well and I felt like I had a good year, and I was nominated in round three against Fremantle at Football Park.

I got the invite to go along to the function at the end of the year, I took a close friend of mine from Edwardstown, who was Hamish Hartlett’s dad, Graham.

I grew up with Hamish’s brother Adam who played at Carlton, we played together at Edwardstown.

I invited him, as you could invite someone from your junior club, as well as my family and my partner, we went along.

We were at the hotel the night before the awards and I got a call from someone at Port, who asked if I had written anything down for the next day, and I said no, no, no, I had no expectations at all.

All the talk was about Andrew Raines or Heath Shaw winning it, and I had distinctively remember having a conversation with my now wife, and we said we’d go along, enjoy the Melbourne trip, do some shopping and enjoy it.

It was at about 8 or 9pm after dinner, Port called up and asked if I had written anything doing, I said I’m not thinking about it, not stressing about it, I’m here to have a good time and just enjoy it.

They were very adamant and said I had to write something just in case, and then in my head I thought maybe someone at the club knows something.

I went along, I polled well and won it.

I remember getting up and accepting the award, I thanked the AFL and stuff, I think my words were “I came along because there was a free trip away to Melbourne, free food and a nice function, that’s what I’ve come for and this is a nice surprise.”

That was exactly how I felt, there was no expectations at all.

I enjoyed it, it was a great achievement to look back on, it’s nice to say I was able to win it.

JH: You played in the International Rules Series later that year. What do you remember about it?

DP: I remember being broke, that’s what I remember.

The story behind that was I was still on a rookie’s contract – my first contract was $24,600.

I’m literally on zero money going over to Europe, and earlier Port played Geelong in London in an exhibition game.

I can’t recall how long we were away for, going from London then to Ireland.

I had $800 spending money, and converting that to Euros, that was nothing.

I think I had to ask one of the officials at Port at the time for a small loan, saying I was going to Ireland, I was paying rent at the place I was living at.

There were established players and blokes on heavier pay check and they were going out and doing things in Ireland.

I think they put us up in a five-star castle somewhere in the Ireland landscape.

They had horse-riding, equestrian and all this other stuff and I’m looking at the prices, and said “yeah, nah, I’ll stay up in my room thanks.”

Being around all those players, such as Michael Voss, Dustin Fletcher, Barry Hall, Ryan O’Keefe, Kade Simpson, David Mundy, Aaron Davey, Chance Bateman and all these players you want to play like.

That whole experience was incredible and is something I’d never, ever forget.

Playing in front of about 90,000 in the second test, it was incredible, I remember so much from that trip.

The one thing I loved out of it was the chance to be coached by Kevin Sheedy, in the indigenous community he’s right up there, he’s always pushed indigenous rights and indigenous players.

I remember being so nervous and excited to be there with him.

JH: You won the Gavin Wanganeen Medal as well – what did that mean to you?

DP: That was the first year they brought it in, one of my proudest moments was to play alongside the first indigenous player to play 300 games and be in that game.

Unfortunately, we didn’t win the game, but to be apart of it was fantastic, and then they brought in an award named after Gavin.

To be the inaugural winner is something I was very proud of.

Danyle Pearce played in both the 2007 and 2013 grand finals for Port Adelaide and Fremantle respectively. Picture: fremantlefc.com.au.

JH: 12 months after that was the 2007 AFL Grand Final – what do you remember about it?

DP: They were on a winning streak at Geelong, and we just beat them down there in a heartstopper with Dom Cassisi kicking the winner on his opposite foot.

I was right there next to him, that was a great game to be a part of.

We went into the game – there was no overconfidence – we were a really young side, we thought we were ready for the game.

We lost Michael Wilson in the preliminary final, that was a big loss for us.

It was a big build up to the game.

After the first quarter, we were shell-shocked, it was a heavy deficit at half-time then it just continued to grow.

It literally turned into a disappointing blur when you look back on it.

They were a great side, they were absolutely ripe and ready, they were big physically and mature, they were full grown men.

We were a very young side, we had Travis Boak in his first year, same with Justin Westhoff, I was in my second year, we had a few third-year players.

Take nothing away from Geelong they killed us, they slaughtered us, they murdered us.

They deserved to win it, and they went onto have a great dynasty and a few more flags.

It was a great experience to be a part of the whole parade, the grand final, but then the big sour note of not only losing, but the way we lost.

JH: From 2008 onwards it was tough at Port both on and off the field – what do you remember about it, what was the feel around the place?

DP: Those big, stupid bloody tarps, that’s what I remember.

It wasn’t a great time internally at the club and outwardly.

As a playing group, there wasn’t fracture between the players or anything like that, I think Kane (Cornes) has written a little in his book that he said about some things that could’ve been handled a lot better between coaches and players.

It wasn’t a great time, it was definitely a black spot in the short AFL history of Port.

From everything that I heard a month or two after Kenny (Hinkley) was hired – I had left to go to Fremantle and called up all the boys there – there was absolutely nothing but glowing reviews on Kenny himself, and also the turnaround of the club and the way things were run, and they way things were going between everyone.

It was a complete 180 in such a short time.

There was an opportunity to stay at Port for a short-term with no guarantees or secure my family’s future and turn over a new leaf and go to Fremantle.

The question was raised if I stayed at the two years I was offered at Port, and we weren’t winning – I’d be 28 and out of a contract, I asked if they’d offer me a contract at that age and they couldn’t give me an answer.

That uncertainty was another reason it was time for a new leaf, time for a new start and a great chance we got to go to Fremantle.

JH: You were one of the first free agents ever – what do you remember about that process?

DP: I was the first, we spoke about that, Freo wanted to make sure we got in nice and early.

I remember the concept coming up, these days everyone’s chopping and changing every second year if they’ve had enough, but back then it was once you guys have played eight years, you can get a little bit of control if you want to change or if you want to stay.

It conveniently came out on my eighth year, we spoke to Fremantle once we knew and the particulars, once the deadline opened, we signed straight away.

I met Ross (Lyon) and Chris Bond at the time – it was just after Freo had beaten Geelong at the MCG and dominated that game.

That was one of the games that I watched closely, a young Fremantle side, they were growing and getting better, all I could picture was myself on one wing and Stephen Hill on the other.

We thought it’d be a great opportunity to see Western Australia and move over.

It’s something we have no regrets about, I was nervous at the start, loved it after a few months of being there, and it was definitely a tough decision to move back, we thought it might be easy to get there, play and then move back, but we fell in love with WA and our family friends over there.

JH: How did you feel when you first played against Port?

DP: I was excited, a mate of mine who I played juniors with at Sturt, Angus Monfries, he had joined Port on a four-year deal and he had my old number six.

I was nervous going up against your old mates and everyone you’re really close with and you know.

At that time of year, I still spoke to a lot of them, you want to go out there and show ‘you should’ve stayed, and I deserved I still be there, and I made the right decision to come over.’

We had a very strong Fremantle side in my first four years there, we got the win and it was great, but as soon as the siren finishes, you want to go and hug all your friends, ask them what’s going on, how’s it been, it’s a lot of mixed emotions.

JH: Later that year it was the 2013 grand final – what do you remember about it and did the heartbreak of 2007 help prepare a bit better?

DP: I remember thinking don’t be overawed by everything and take in the grand final parade.

There’s a lot of changes to your week, you’re away from your family for a lot longer, you want to try and make everything as familiar as possible.

That was the kind of feedback I was giving to them, there’s going to be a lot of sitting around, a lot of doing this formal stuff, just be prepared for it, don’t be stressed or annoyed, just embrace it.

You never know if you’re ever going to come back.

The game itself, looking back and watching it, it felt like it was a good game, we missed a lot of opportunities, you look how close you were at the end of the third quarter and the start of the fourth and you’re right there.

It’s disappointing that we never won one, but we tried everything, unfortunately.

If everyone had a dream life then we’d always be happy, but that’s not life.

Danyle Pearce won the 2006 Rising Star award. Picture: Port Adelaide FC – Twitter.

JH: During your playing career you played alongside two champion centre-half forwards in Warren Tredrea and Matthew Pavlich. Could you pick one?

DP: Nah, they were both big, composing, great leaders.

Warren was your traditional centre-half forward, your full forward, your key forward, you’d kick the ball up in the air and he’s either going to take the mark or crash the pack.

The same with Pav, if you put someone small on him he’s going to out-body you, and if you put someone big on him he’ll beat you with mobility.

You can throw Pav in the middle, you could throw either one back if you needed a shut down or a big key presence at the back.

It’s so hard to separate them.

I think both of them get a lot of due credit and a lot of accolades, but if either one of them played in Melbourne, I think they’d be seen in a lot of a higher regard.

They’re both absolute legends and champions of the game.

JH: You returned to Sturt last year, how did you find that first pre-season?

DP: Good, I was in a bit of an AFL mindset when I retired, I still grabbed the pre-season program when I left, and I was doing that all the way up to January.

I was still running in the mornings before going to work, even to the gym at 5am and training at the end of the day.

I found it probably got a bit too much, I went from not playing AFL to suddenly spending more time trying to keep up.

I still had that mentality, if I wasn’t doing it for a couple of days, I felt I was losing all this fitness, and that mentality hadn’t filtered off yet.

The reason I went back was to go back and enjoy playing footy again.

The AFL can zap it out of you, everything’s scrutinised, everything’s watched, everything’s judged, everyone’s a couch expert.

When you back to local footy, you play the footy, you go and give it your all, and when the game’s done, you go in the club rooms, you’re with your mates you can have a beer and a laugh.

My kids were running in and singing the song at games at Peel Thunder last year, they really started loving coming to the footy because they were on the oval, they were having a kick, they were getting involved as I was going out and warming up.

At the end of last year, as soon as we lost, all I was thinking about was when can we start again and when can we start winning again, and I knew straight away I wanted to start playing at least for another year.

JH: You represented South Australia not too long ago, how did that feel?

DP: That was fantastic, when I came back I didn’t think of the state team or anything like that.

I got an invite to play, I saw ‘Carry’ (Josh Carr) was coaching and Jacob Surjan was helping, and all the other assistant coaches.

I either played with/against all the coaches on more occasions than I had with any of the players, so that made me feel really old.

I got the letter to go out and play, I saw it was in WA, everything piqued my interest.

They hadn’t won there in 17 years, going back to WA I could see all my family friends over there, it worked out well.

I remember seeing WA’s team and thinking they had all their big guns playing, and everyone was talking about how they were going to win.

There was a confidence among us state boys, we’d make a contest of it.

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