For Stuart Horner, a football career almost ended before it had even started.
The boy from Olinda was battling in the Eastern Ranges side in his under-18 year.
And it almost reached a tipping point.
“I didn’t really enjoy Ranges,” Horner said.
“I was in and out of the side for the TAC cup.”
“I got to the end of my last year at Eastern Ranges and I remember ‘Moners’ (Chris Monaghan – Box Hill Recruiting and List Manager) came down to invite blokes to try out for Box Hill.
“I was asked… I wasn’t going to do it (Box Hill try-outs).
“But at the last second… I don’t know…I just thought I’d give it a go.
“I came down to pre-season and jumped straight into the development team for the year.”
It proved to be Horner’s finest decision.
Fast forward four years and the unheralded defender has stepped up to become an increasingly vital component in Box Hill’s premiership-defending backline.
The 182cm Horner has applied himself on some of the VFL’s most attacking forwards and has shone with his dogged and disciplined approach in clashes against Port Melbourne (12 disposals, eight marks), Richmond (17 disposals, four marks) and Williamstown (16 disposals, five marks and four rebound 50s) this season.
In fact, his eight games this season have doubled his overall tally in four years at the Box Hill Hawks.
Deep down, Horner always believed he had the ability to do it. He just needed an opportunity.
And now, more importantly, he is taking it.
“Opportunities are always going to be limited with the way the system is,” Horner said.
“This year we had a big list turn over, which led to a bit more opportunity for myself. In my fourth year, I’m starting to familiarise myself with the role I need to play.
“It’s hard when you’re coming in and out of the side – I was always pretty worried about making a mistake.
“I was confident in my own ability. I knew I was good enough, but I didn’t know whether the opportunity would come.”
Along with opportunity, it has been the backing from his coaches and a defined role in the side, that has allowed the Hawks no.62 to flourish.
“The coaches backing me in has definitely allowed me to feel more comfortable in the environment,” Horner continued.
“It might be someone else’s role to go out there and rack up heaps of the pill, whereas with myself I know I will need to shut down my opponent.”
“Maxy (Max Bailey – Senior Coach) and Az (Aaron Cornelius – Assistant Coach) have shown a fair bit of faith in me… and just told me to focus on my role.
“It’s given me a lot more confidence to play the way I like to play.
“It’s been huge.”
In his short career, Horner has grown to expect disappointment.
In 2016, his first year at the club, he played all season in the Development League team, only to be dropped for finals when senior players returned.
He eventually missed out on premiership glory.
Horner continued to develop over the next two seasons at City Oval, adjusting seamlessly to VFL level with efficient disposal and a cool head under pressure.
However, it was for only four games, as he regularly found himself watching on from the stands as the senior players took the reins.
It was pre-season this year, when he discovered the confidence to back himself, that his career took a bright turn.
The 21-year-old has only gone from strength to strength since.
“I never actually did a Captain’s run before this year,” Horner explained of the training session completed the day before match day.
“I was always called up the night before to play (VFL). Once I was on my way to a local game and got a call to do a U-turn and come down to put on the jumper.”
“My confidence really came in the practice games this season. There was none of the Hawthorn boys playing or the senior heads above us.
“I started to back myself more and started to use my voice more.
“It was a really good base to step into this season.”
Senior Coach Max Bailey is full of admiration for the highly consistent, and respected clubman.
“Stewy fell into our side in Round 1. He was a late call up for our first game and held his spot from just being a really reliable defender,” Bailey said.
“We have real trust in him winning his one on one contests and defending really strongly. When he gets the opportunity with the ball, he does what we need him to do; never too much.”
“He was a culprit of having a whole bunch of Hawthorn guys come back…he didn’t deserve to get dropped (after Round 9). It was just out of circumstance.
“His attitude has been outstanding the whole way. He’s a really good kid, and he just wants to play footy.
“He’s aggressive at defending, he doesn’t give in and he plays our system exceptionally.
“He does the simple things really well, which as a coach, we love.”
Amidst a significant list turn over and a leadership vacuum, Box Hill has implemented an Emerging Leaders Program, designed to encourage the clubs’ youthful brigade of talent to embrace further leadership roles.
Horner’s selection in this program points to his value and respect within the club.
Working in conjunction with the senior leadership group has given the youngster the chance to experience and learn from the brain trust driving the reigning-premiers campaign.
The opportunity to sit in on a leadership group meeting provided this catalyst for growth.
“In my first few years I was pretty quiet on field and at training,” Horner said.
“You obviously vote for your Captain, but I didn’t realise the work behind the scenes our leaders are doing for the club.”
“It definitely opened my eyes.”
After playing seven consecutive games to open the season, Horner faced a mid-season stint out of the side. A clean bill of health meant spots were at a premium for VFL-listed players.
The dogged and dour defender went back to local club Norwood with a clear focus on becoming more proactive in the play and improving his positional flexibility.
Horner found himself lining up on former Demon and prolific South Croydon ball winner Matt Jones, proceeding to entirely blanket the star’s influence in a half.
Jones had been named best on ground for the previous three weeks.
Horner’s versatile performance drove Norwood to victory and launched himself back into Box Hill’s side against the second-placed Richmond last Sunday.
Now back in the senior team, the boy from Olinda who doubted a future in the game, has regained his drive and passion more than ever before.
And he’s thriving with the added responsibility.
“It has been a real growth year for me, I just want to keep building on that,” he concluded.
“I have definitely been surprised with the whole situation this season, but I’m super happy about it.”
“I just want to play as many games as I can and play in a successful team.
“I just love playing senior footy.”