AFL

For Geelong Cats player Tom Atkins, the path to AFL success has been paved with graft and grind. But his patience and hard work has paid off, earning him another two years at the Cattery. By Linda Pearce.

Tom Atkins’ unconventional AFL journey

Tom Atkins during Geelong’s round 11 match at the MCG in May.
Credit: Dylan Burns / AFL Photos via Getty Images

You know the type. The junior star destined for a glorious sporting career. The one whose future is mapped out like geography 101 before the ink has dried on the final year 12 exams. The standout who has fans salivating and recruiting managers knocking. That kid’s name was not Tom Atkins.

Now 25, Atkins is the son of a highly competitive almost-Bulldog turned local footy legend, Mick Atkins, who became a journalist and then a fish’n’chip shop owner in Corio Bay in the south-west corner of Victoria’s Port Phillip. It was there that young Tom was eventually promoted from the cash register to the fryer, while never graduating to football’s elite representative pathway from Geelong College in the Associated Public Schools competition.

Little wonder that AFL was not his teenage dream. “It was never a possibility for me in school, really,” says Atkins. “I loved footy, and it was definitely a big part of my life, but it just wasn’t an option. I never thought I was good enough. I never played any TAC Cup [under 18s] or anything, so it just wasn’t on the table … I went to uni and did accounting for four years.”

No calculator is required to tally how many seasons he spent with the Cats in the feeder VFL competition (five), or national drafts (three) in which the hard-at-it midfielder was touted as an AFL prospect but never picked. Yet fingers and toes are insufficient to count the record-equalling number of tackles (23) he laid against the Collingwood reserves late in 2017, including 12 in the final quarter alone.

“Once I got to the VFL, got a couple of games, and started playing against blokes who were on an AFL list, it probably just opened my eyes to think, ‘Oh, I’m not as good as them, but I’m not that far off, so maybe if I can just spend a couple of years in the VFL, I could get to that level,’ ” he says. “And eventually I started to become a little bit better than those guys, and it sort of went from there.”

Occasionally, Atkins would be among the hopefuls invited to train with Geelong’s senior squad to make up the numbers, and he spent those two hours trying his “absolute guts out because you’re like, ‘Oh, this is it, I’m training against [Patrick] Dangerfield and Joel [Selwood] and all those guys.’ ” At times, Atkins thought he was going well enough that, yes, perhaps he could play at the top level. But what he still needed was a chance.

He retained perspective throughout those setbacks, including when discarded Bulldog Stewart Crameri was the Cats’ only selection in the 2017 rookie draft, which Atkins had dared to dream was his big chance. “To be honest, it wasn’t crushing or anything,” says Atkins. “The whole time I just kept my expectations low, because if you don’t expect too much, you’re not really gonna be let down too much. It wasn’t like the end of the world.”

Finally, his time came, with Geelong honouring its pledge to take the 23-year-old with pick 11 in the 2019 rookie draft after he played another exceptional VFL season. The memory of that first official day at Kardinia Park is vivid. “I’d been in the club 1000 times before, but it was just so different to be in there as someone on the list. You just feel over the moon. Sort of in disbelief for the first three weeks. You’re floating around and just pinching yourself.”

Atkins has never been able to get truly comfortable, though – even after initially embracing a new role as a pressure forward, given the Cats’ exceptional midfield, and playing 23 of 25 games in that debut season. Certainly not last year, when, despite adding a dozen appearances to a career tally highlighted by an elite average of four tackles a game, he was dropped after the first of Geelong’s four finals.

You believe Atkins when he says he was not so concerned about his own status entering the last year of his contract (which, incidentally, was recently extended until the end of 2023) because he was gutted to see the dejection of friends and teammates who had fallen short.

“It was a really emotional four weeks for me,” he says. “Just the initial sadness of being dropped, and then trying to carry myself well around the club – yeah, it was a good learning curve.”

But just as he was feeling down, things started to pick up. Late last season Matthew Scarlett, a former Geelong champion and the team’s current defensive coach, started to think his group could do with just what the tough, competitive but latterly out-of-favour Atkins could potentially bring – including his clean ball work at ground level.

“So I flagged it late last year with a few people and spoke to Tom about a bit of a change of roles during the preseason and he was willing to give it a crack and had a really good preseason training with the back line,” says Scarlett. “He’s a wonderful teammate, and very popular here at the footy club, and fitting in really well into the back six. Hasn’t missed a beat, really. He’s been fantastic. I think he’s going better than probably we all thought he was gonna be going!”

Asked whether he is now a career defender, Atkins says with a laughs that at this stage he seems to be, while joking that “they might draft an 18-year-old defending gun next year, so I’ll be back scrambling for another position”. Despite playing every game in 2021, he still finds himself wondering sometimes where he fits in when there is a healthy list to pick from. But rather than getting stressed, he just tries to train hard and keep doing the right things.

Still, security continues to be a relatively foreign concept for such a late conscript, one who often thinks how lucky he is, and whose currently second-placed Cats remain perennial contenders, with Atkins a fixture in the AFL’s stingiest back line so far in 2021. “In some ways it makes you become a better player, because you sort of know that you’re always on the edge and you’ve got to train harder, or you’ve got to do extras or whatever you need to try to keep your spot. But I think it’s really healthy overall, and especially for the footy club, which is the main goal.”

For a more-grunt-than-flash athlete who admits he has always been more of a defensive player even while playing forward, Atkins knows there is still much to learn. But he also has plenty to offer – by not being one of those anointed-for-greatness types but by persisting and finding a different way.

“It’s a great reflection of what he’s really made of, [after] year after year of playing good strong football in our VFL team and being overlooked,” says six-time All-Australian and triple premiership player Scarlett. “It says a lot about Tom that he kept at it, and finally got there, and I guess it shows to the kids that don’t get drafted in their under-18 season that there are different pathways…”

Atkins agrees that his story sends a message to those who are not the most talented or necessarily able to take the direct route to their dream destination. Aim to improve gradually, he suggests. Progress how and when you can. Focus on outside interests and consider footy success a bonus.

“It’s so tough for some kids these days, especially kids who’ve been touted since they were 16 to be draft picks, but then they just don’t get picked up when they’re 18. Everyone’s been telling them it’s the one thing that they’re meant to do and then, when it doesn’t work out, it’s devastating,” he says. “So I think my story’s a lot different to those guys, because I never had any expectations on me.”

Yet once perseverance met opportunity, however belatedly, what Atkins has so deservedly had is results.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 31, 2021 as "Hard yards".

A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.

Linda Pearce is an award-winning freelance sportswriter, based in Melbourne.