IF ESSENDON is playing on a Friday night, there is every chance you'll find Sam Durham back in Seymour in country Victoria the following day, watching his local team, close mates and older brother Joel playing for his hometown club.   

Over pre-season he'll do laps of Kings Park, the ground in the middle of the Goulburn Valley town, and even during the Bombers' mid-season bye he has been known to do a session or two with Seymour's side.

"They get a bit of a surprise that I actually do that," the Bombers midfielder told AFL.com.au this week. "They're just like 'What are you doin' here?' But they love it and I try to teach a few of the younger boys.


"I love going back. It's always good fun to go and watch, you always get grounded when you go back there so you can't get too much of a big head. They bring you back down to Earth pretty quick."

Durham's longer road to the AFL means he's an unlikely candidate for getting ahead of himself anyway. But there are reasons to be pleased, including this week signing a four-year contract extension through to the end of 2028, when he'll be a free agent.

It comes after recently reaching his 50th game in Essendon colours as coach Brad Scott hands him more responsibility as an inside midfielder this season, with the Bombers looking to the 2021 mid-season rookie to bring his talents to their mix after developing as a long-running wingman.

"I can bring a different element into that midfield group, especially with my toughness around the ball. That's the one thing I know I can bring. Sometimes I won't get as much of the ball, but I know I can bring the effort and the toughness. That can't waiver," Durham said.

"Growing up in a country town, country boys are a bit tougher than the city boys. I've had some tough mentors in my life and you don't really shy away from it. It's always been the way that if you go in hard you'll be right."


That received an early test in round one against Hawthorn, when he was going head-to-head with Hawks hard-nut Jai Newcombe and copped an accidental knock to the head. Durham rubbed it off and kicked a brilliant, tackle-evading goal in the last quarter to help seal Essendon's victory.

"It was right on the side of my head," he said. "Lucky I can take a hit."

The 22-year-old took a few on his path to the Bombers, after being overlooked for two years before getting his chance three years ago.

As others grew in their teens, Durham's size worked against him as he missed out on several junior squads with the Murray Bushrangers, including the year before he was draft eligible in 2018.

"I didn't really want to go back and try out again because it was about four years in a row where I'd gotten to the last cut but it was the same thing – 'too small and you're not up to it'. I was like 'Yep, righto'," he said.

"In my top-age pre-season I was like 'Nah, I'm not going back' and mum wanted me to. I said 'Nah, it's alright mum, I'm not going to go back'. There were a few people at the footy club at Seymour who encouraged me and my old boss said 'Mate, you gotta go, you don't want to be a 'chippy' forever' and I am glad he did say that because I'm here now."

He played 16 games in 2019 and didn't get drafted, but there was a flicker. Recruiter Simon Dalrymple, then with Sydney, reached out and spoke with Durham, but the Swans didn't end up taking him that season. "They came late and said if there was a spot to open up they'd probably take me, but it didn't happen," Durham said.

Still, he was enthused. While doing his carpentry apprenticeship, he went into 2020 hoping to prove his worth. It was short-lived, as COVID wiped out football in Victoria for the season and meant he was no chance to further impress scouts.

"Going into that year I said I'm going to give this one last crack and then when it got cut short I was like 'Oh no, really? Again?!' But credit to me and my running coach, Kevin Lubeck, all through that year we just ran and did some lonely nights at Kings Park just running so I could do the Combine and 2km time trial at the end of the year," Durham said.

Murray's link with Richmond's VFL program had meant Durham trained with the Tigers in 2020 and then again ahead of the 2021 season, when clubs started to take notice of him as a mid-season recruit. Essendon, Sydney, Richmond and the Giants were among the interested, although Durham hadn't had the mid-season intake on his radar.

"I didn't know anything about the mid-season draft, I was just hoping for the draft at the end really to get picked up the normal way. Then my manager Pete (Lenton) said he thought I could get picked up in the mid-season draft and we'll nominate," he said.

"I had no idea about the six month or the year-and-a-half contracts and he's like 'We're gonna go the year and a half,' and I said 'Nah mate I just want six months'. He said he thought we could get it, so Pete was a shining light on that sort of stuff for me because I have no idea about any of it.

"Sydney was very interested and two weeks out from the draft it went bonkers. Richmond was keen. It was a pretty crazy time."

After a couple of VFL games with the Bombers, Durham made his debut in round 18, 2021 and played the last seven games of that season, including an elimination final against the Western Bulldogs in Tasmania, forced out of Victoria due to another COVID lockdown.

"It was awesome to have that experience in that final in Tassie but it didn't really feel like a final. Even running out on the ground and doing the national anthem I was like "What's going on here?!' but it was pretty cool to get that exposure to it," he said.


His hard-working manner immediately suited the Bombers' needs, a trait he puts down to his mum, Jan.

"I got most of that from mum – single parent, she works flat out every day, she owns a shoe shop in Seymour so she's a pretty hard worker," he said.

"She's been massive for me. She's probably the only one who really did believe I could make it when no one did. There were a few people back in Seymour who said 'Oh mate, why are you going back up there again?' and stuff like that, but mum was happy to take me around.

"She loves going to the games. She loves the free tickets and the wristbands into the rooms afterwards. They fight over that. We've got a small family and I try to make them proud."

Jan was in the stands last year when Durham's mark then goal in the dying seconds against Richmond in the Dreamtime at the 'G clash saw the Bombers clinch a famous win, left fans in raptures, made Durham a more recognised footy face and put him alongside the late comeback goals like David Zaharakis' famous Anzac Day winner.

The TV prize he won for his performance that night is now with his aunty – 'That got snaffled up pretty quick," he said – and much of the guest pack he got for being on The Sunday Footy Show he sent to his mum.

Sam Durham returns to the track after his bout of illness last week. (Photo: AFL Photos)

"That was pretty much a lifechanging moment. I didn't really know the significance of that game and the goal. I was driving back with Andy (McGrath) because I lived with him at the time and he said 'Mate, you don't understand, this is going to go down like the 'Zacka' goal'. I was like 'Well, that's crazy'. I had to do a lot of media afterwards which I'm not the best at, but it was pretty cool," Durham said. "I get noticed a bit more, but I haven't changed too much from it."

It's a knockabout, relaxed approach that has quickly endeared Durham inside and outside of Essendon as the club looks for its edge, with the popular youngster typically self-effacing about why that might be.

"I dunno, I just have a crack every week. It doesn't matter if we're 100 points up or 100 points down, I'll probably give the same effort, so I hold that close," he said. "I haven't copped too much slack off the Bomber faithful yet so hopefully it can stay that way."