2011 NAB NEAFL RISING STAR NOMINATION – ROUND 21
CLAY CAMERON – MT.GRAVATT

It was about the middle of last year. Clay Cameron was having a frustrating time. A young man bound for big things in the AFL, he couldn’t get on the park. A victim of chronic osteitis pubis.
 
He’d played well in the first game of the 2010 season with the Mt.Gravatt U16s against Sherwood but he pulled up very sore. That was it. He didn’t play again all year.

It’s not the sort of thing that is meant to happen to a 16-year-old. Especially not one who was voted the No.2 player at the U15 Australian Schoolboys Championships in 2009, and has since then carried that ‘special’ tag.

“Yes, frustrating was one word for it,” Cameron said diplomatically of a condition he didn’t know a lot about at the time, except that it had also ruined the 2010 season of another AFL hopeful, Jackson Allen.

“I’d never really heard much about it (OP), except that I got it due to a lack of core strength.

“Lindsay Trigar (AFLQ physiotherapist) set me on a program and all I could do for most of the year was do my exercises.

“I’d heard how it can easily resurface if you try to come back too quickly so I made sure I did everything properly. I’d never want to go through that again.”

But there was one piece of bright news from the gloom. Cameron decided he really wanted to be an AFL player. Moreover, he’d do whatever it takes.

“It was during my rehab and I started to wonder what I was doing it all for,” he said. “Then one day I said to myself ‘I want to make it in footy’. And that’s been the dream ever since.”

Only three months beyond his 17th birthday, the wonderfully athletic key forward is already making his mark.

He played a full season with the Australia Post Queensland U18s and has cemented an overnight spot in a Mt.Gravatt senior side that will be a genuine contender in the NEAFL Northern Conference finals.

Then he was paid a huge compliment when selected with Morningside’s Jordan Bourke and Noosa’s Caine Tickner in the two-tier 2011 AIS/AFL Academy for the very best young players in the country.

“My Mum’s cousin sent her a text saying congratulations. We didn’t know what she was on about so we looked on the AFLQ website and there was the AIS story. I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face for two days,” he explained.

Now there is another honor. After kicking three goals in Mt.Gravatt’s Round 21 loss to Aspley last Sunday Cameron won the final nomination for the 2011 NAB NEAFL Rising Star Award.

It’s all happened very quickly for the quietly spoken yet thoughtful and pleasantly modest young man who lives at Parkinson, graduated from Sunnybank Hills Primary School and is doing Year 12 at Redeemer Lutheran College, Rochedale.

But it wasn’t always about AFL. His father represented Queensland secondary schools in rugby league. That could have been the passion of the 190cm 82kg son and first child of Keith and Karyn Cameron.

And as a junior he was a hot prospect in track and field. In 2004 he was ranked No.1 in his age group in discuss and No.8 in high jump. In 2005 he ranked No.2 in discuss in the Pacific. And in 2007 he ranked No.7 in shot put in Australia and No.8 in discuss.

Cameron had joined Little Athletics as a six-year-old because he’d been told he had natural talent by somebody who should know. But he was barely into his teens when he’d had enough.

“After the nationals one year I just decided it was too repetitive and that I’d focus on footy. It’s different every day and I’ve loved every minute of it since then.”

Cameron had started playing football with the Calamvale Leopards U8s. After two years he joined the Mt.Gravatt Vultures. And except for a 12-month stint at Sherwood in the U12s because his home club didn’t have a division one side that year he’s been in blue and white vertical stripes the whole way.

Not when he’s watching AFL on TV. Then he prefers the Geelong Cats’ much darker and hooped version of the blue stripes.

When nominating his most admired player he’ll go with black and red, and James Hird. 

And when asked why he demonstrated another aspect to his engaging personality, saying of the Essendon captain turned coach: “Reading about him I learned he wasn’t born a great footballer but his workrate and determination inspires me”.

But Cameron is a Mt.Gravatt man. And don’t they love it.

“He’s going to be a beauty,” said Vultures coach David Lake. “He’s just one of those kids who has got something special about him. He’s got a great pair of hands and a great attitude. When things don’t go his way he still finds a way to compete. That’s not a kid thing.

“He hits the ball hard, has super clean hands and his arms extend so far that he marks the ball in front of his face rather than overhead.

“He’s quite quick, is strong for a kid, is a good kick and is only going to improve.

“When we as a team struggled to get motivated against Aspley last Sunday he didn’t. What more can you say? What more do you need to say?”

Lake had long identified a senior berth for Cameron but had deliberately left him alone through a Scorpions U18s program in which he played every game, usually as the third tall forward.

“I didn’t do much really,” was Cameron’s assessment of his Scorpions performance.

There was a pattern emerging here. This was the same young man who, when talking of his outstanding U15 Schoolboys Championships two years earlier, described his runner-up B&F award as “a great honour but quite embarrassing really”.

Embarrassing? “I didn’t think I should have got it,” he explained, having finished equal second with WA’s Brendon Lim behind only Tom Thorsen of Victorian Country.

“We had a pretty strong side and I just got on the end of a lot of hard work by the midfielders.”

Cameron wasn’t expected to dominate at U18 level this year. He was there as a bottom-age player to gain experience for next year. That he held his spot in a struggling side was plenty.

As soon as the U18s were finished Lake pounced. “I pulled him aside one day and offered him a chance to play out the year in the U18s. But he said straight away ‘No – I want to play senior footy’.

“It suited me. He had a bit of a quad strain and then we had a bye, and it wasn’t until Round 18 that we could get him in. But he’s been in the firsts ever since and hasn’t looked out of place,” Lake said.

What Lake didn’t know was that Cameron had already thought long and hard about this very situation and had planned prior to that defining conversation that he’d front the coach himself and tell him he wanted to play seniors.

“He (Lake) got to me first,” Cameron explained. “I just knew I really wanted to play senior footy before the U18s carnival next year so that I could be better prepared.”
 
Cameron has kicked nine goals in his four senior games against Morningside, Redland, NT Thunder and Aspley and heads the Mt.Gravatt tally in this bracket, ahead of Nathan Gilliland (7), Daniel Mowat (7), Damien Steven (7) and Jake Furfaro (6).

He says the biggest difference from under-age to open football is the intensity.

“You’ve got to attack each contest like it’s your last. Go hard at the footy every time. And you’ve got to work really hard going from attack to defence. One mistake and the ball is gone,” he said, demonstrating again an attitude far beyond his years.

But his step up to Open company hasn’t been without a couple of albeit minor hiccups. He picked up the nickname ‘Bubbles’ when he fell asleep on a teammate’s shoulder on the flight to Darwin, apparently blowing the odd bubble when he woke hurriedly. And, just to prove he really is a schoolboy, he left his mobile phone in his hotel room in the NT capital.

This was a slightly unsettling topic for a young man, but he quickly he regained his interview composure when asked about life after school and outside football.

“I want to be a sports scientist … something like a performance analyst,” he said. “But I know there aren’t many jobs in that field so I might have to broaden my horizons a bit.”

Maybe he will. But if local football people have any sort of idea it might not be for some time.