Sydney Stack had been either late to training, or failed to turn up. Peter Sumich, his coach at the Western Australian state under-18s, can't remember whether Stack made training or not.
Stack had been out with a teammate, the current GWS player Bobby Hill, for a few drinks. No terrible misdeeds were committed – they certainly weren't around a strip joint at 3.30am – but Stack and Hill had been out, had a dispute over a girl and then Sydney had missed training or turned up late.
Sydney Stack has apologised and said he’ll own the consequences of his actions on the Gold Coast. Credit:Getty Images
Sumich, believing he needed to educate the youngster – Leon Davis' old town – decided to dump Stack from the state team for the first game of the national under-18s carnival, the event that showcases the best draftable talent in the country.
Stack, concerned that Sumich's statement would impact on his shot of getting drafted, pleaded with the coach to let him play in the first game (in Perth).
"I won't get picked up if I don't play," Stack begged.
"Too bad," replied Sumich, taking a hard line.
This incident involving Stack and Hill was known to the recruiters at AFL clubs, and Stacks fears were justified – he was not selected in the drafts of 2018, despite Sumich rating Stack as the best player in the WA side and recruiters knowing he was a top 15-20 pick on talent.
He's not a shithead.
One club, as we know, did eventually take the plunge on Stack. But the Tigers adopted a "try before you buy" approach, which had been enabled by a new rule that allowed clubs to trial a player in the pre-season and place them on the list.
In a measure of Richmond's commitment, senior coach Damien Hardwick offered to let Stack live with him and his wife over summer; if he did the right things, Sydney would get the last vacancy on the list.
When Sumich spoke to Richmond's recruiting manager Matty Clarke about Stack, he offered this telling observation about the kid whose difficulties and background in Northam, WA, had seen him bypassed.
"One thing he'll do is he'll tell you the truth," Sumich told the Richmond recruiter, Stack having taken the blame for the Hill incident.
Sumich describes Stack – one of a pair of youthful Tigers whose late night sojourn to Surfers incurred the wrath of Richmond, the AFL and the Queensland government- as a "really nice kid" who deserved another chance.
"He's not a shithead," said Sumich.
While Stack's honesty and affability are not in question, those staggeringly poor calls he and Callum Coleman-Jones made have jeopardised his football future – a reality acknowledged by his manager Paul Peos on Saturday.
Richmond have said that they'll throw their arms around Stack and Coleman-Jones, while also making an ambit claim that the pair jointly foot the bill for $75,000 of the AFL's $100,000 fine.
Whatever settlement is reached with the fine – which manager Peos says Stack won’t pay – Stack will be back in Melbourne, outside of the club hub. He will not play for several weeks in the 2021 season, when he and Coleman-Jones also come out of contract.
Footy is replete with fork-in-road moments in the careers of the highly talented. For Dustin Martin, it wasn't so much a fork as an alleged chopstick back late in 2015, when Martin was accused of intimidating a woman at a restaurant after a music festival he'd attended (Richmond disputed and it was not proven that he waved chopsticks).
Martin, hitherto a gifted footballer who had not reached his ceiling, has not had a single known blemish, inside or outside the club, since the restaurant incident; he's become the AFL's premier player or thereabouts.
Stack is no Martin, nor is he capable of reaching the heights of another lad-turned-Brownlow medallist in Dane Swan. But, as with those players (Swan was nearly sacked by Collingwood following an incident at Federation Square in 2003), Stack is at that juncture when a footballer either kicks on (not in the manner of Thursday night), or it almost certainly ends.
The ones who don't navigate that next phase are far more numerous than the likes of Martin and Swan.
Richmond, angered by the kebab-and-fight scandal, will give Stack and Coleman-Jones a second shot at redemption, but history – and the new brutopia of reduced list sizes and football budgets – means there's not much chance Stack will get a third chance.
The Tigers are renowned for extracting from players, for making them the best version of themselves. If Stack fails at Richmond, it is doubtful that a second club will take him.
The Stack narrative of 2019 was largely a tale of a club investing time, expertise and, yes, love in a gifted Indigenous kid, when other clubs were risk averse. Richmond's resources and knowledge of Indigenous culture formed the backdrop to their investment.
Richmond's careful tending of Stack allowed him to bloom in 2019. List manager Blair Hartley and Hardwick took a special interest in him and he was unfortunate to miss the premiership. He had stagnated this year, up until Friday's freefall.
The Tigers, doubtless, will not let Stack fend entirely for himself in Melbourne, knowing that he will need support, even if Sumich's tough love is also in order.
But the Stack of the coming months and 2021 faces a different scenario to the kid who moved in with the Hardwicks.
The first phase of Stack's career was driven by Richmond's resources, care and environment. This second act in his career will be shaped Stack's own actions. "Now, it's up to the player," said one AFL figure who knows Stack.
Stack will not be left alone, but he alone will write the script of this second act. "It's never too late to be what you might have been," as the writer George Eliot reputedly said.
Even at 20, Sydney doesn't have a stack of time.
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