When Eastlake legend Guy Cannon retired 13 years ago he had accumulated a list of achievements and accolades many would envy, and few would ever match.
Winner of eight senior club best-and-fairests, a Mulrooney Medal and a premiership, Cannon represented Canberra 25 times and served as a captain and coach over an illustrious 18-year senior football career.
When it came time for someone to inherit his famous No.4 guernsey and carry it into a new era, the chosen one was none other than a young 16-year-old Aaron Bruce, who had debuted for Eastlake alongside Cannon a year earlier when he was just 15.
The impressive resume was always going to be hard to live up to but there was one important concept that was never lost on Bruce: creating a legacy.
For the next 13 years Bruce has carried with him a sense of responsibility, honour, pride and passion for Canberra football that is inspiring a whole new generation.
That Bruce will become the NEAFL’s new games record holder on Saturday is a testament to the morals and characteristics that he lives by, and a fitting achievement for a player who’s stuck by through the tough years.
“There are probably two parts to it (longevity in the competition), Bruce tells neafl.com.au.
“Firstly, the developments that have been made to the competition itself over the journey has kept it improving, and from a player's point of view has made it a more enjoyable league in a lot of ways.
“Personally, I’ve never been someone who hasn’t wanted to play at the highest level they possibly can. There is a lot of people around who have had a lot of premiership success, particularly guys who I’ve played with or against in Canberra footy. And while you look at some of those players and are envious at times, on the whole I’ve been pretty comfortable playing and competing against AFL-listed players, and knowing you can match it at times and compete pretty strongly against them.
“And then there’s the legacy I want to leave for footy in the Canberra region. The NEAFL’s had a really positive effect in a lot of ways with the birth of the Canberra Demons. I’ve been fortunate enough to progress into a leadership role with the club. There are always fresh challenges and there have been some exciting times over the journey.”
In many ways the rise of the NEAFL competition has mirrored the rise of Bruce as not only the longest-serving player, but one of the competition’s greatest.
The 29-year-old has been through it all – the introduction of the league in 2011, the merging of two conferences into a single league in 2014, and finally the introduction of the Canberra Demons in 2016.
Along the way the list of individual accolades has continued to grow. A two-time NEAFL Team of the Year member in 2011 and 2012, Bruce has won five club leading goalkicker awards across Eastlake and Canberra and is the third-highest NEAFL goalkicker of all time with 200 majors.
A premiership has so far eluded Bruce but the times he’s gotten close are high up on his list of memorable moments.
There was the time he took a pack mark and kicked the winning point after the siren to beat Ainslie by a point in the 2012 Semi-Final, Canberra’s first ever final – and first win – last year, and plenty more little moments along the way.
“Everyone says the reason you play footy is for team success and I 100 per cent agree with that,” Bruce said.
“Certainly I wouldn’t say I’m not here to strive for anything less than a premiership. But I don’t see a premiership as the only marker of a successful a career. I have the opportunity if I wanted to, if I really decided to go and chase that.
“I enjoy the feeling after a really hard game and the physical sort of exhaustion you get and the endorphins of a win. I love the social side of things, the training, the travel… and going up against genuine AFL talent. I think it’s the whole package for me than any one thing in particular.”
The Canberra Demons means a lot to its captain. To be a part of a program which gives opportunity to young talent from the region, and develop a new club, culture and history from scratch is something he is proud to be involved in.
But Bruce has never forgotten where he comes from. When he runs out on to the field on Saturday, proudly wearing the No.4 guernsey on his back, Bruce will be inspired by his past as he fights for the Demons’ finals hopes in a crunch clash against NT Thunder.
“I’m definitely excited. It’s not every day so you do something like this,” he said.
“The game itself will be a good challenge and it’s a pretty important one for us, so that’s where the focus is.
“I certainly wouldn’t have believed the journey I would take, and the turns and kinks that have happened along the way. I am incredibly proud of everything I’ve been able to achieve.
“From point of view, yes I represent Canberra Demons but in equal parts I represent Eastlake Football Club. They were the big drivers of the Canberra Demons, and for that I will always be grateful.”
Aaron Bruce Fact File
NEAFL Games: 154 (86 for Eastlake, 68 for Canberra)
NEAFL Goals: 200 (126 for Eastlake, 74 for Canberra)
2 x NEAFL Eastern Conference Team of the Year member (2011, 2012)
2 x Eastlake Leading Goalkicker (2012, 2015)
3 x Canberra Leading Goalkicker (2016, 2017, 2018)
Canberra captain 2017 - present
NEAFL games record holder
Third-highest NEAFL goalkicker of all time
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