For former James Hird Academy (JHA) coach Heath Hocking, Wednesday’s draft was an occasion which filled him with pride.
The former 126-game Bombers midfielder possessed those feelings after watching two young men, who he’d helped mentor, realise their dreams of becoming AFL players for the club they grew up barracking for.
Josh Eyre and Cody Brand, who have Indigenous roots, had been part of the club’s JHA since 2018 and worked closely with Hocking, while also juggling commitments with their NAB League club Calder Cannons and schools Assumption College and Essendon Grammar respectively.
Hocking recounted the first time he saw Eyre and Brand trial and then join the club’s Next Generation Academy (NGA) program.
While initially tentative but showing glimpses of the traits of AFL footballers, Hocking noted how quickly they’d developed on a personal and professional level.
“In my first year of coaching the James Hird Academy, Cody and three other guys came down to basically sort of do a drill just to see how they move,” Hocking said.
“With his size, we knew he was always going to be a taller prospect, so it was more so to see how he was with his personality. I know from that first session, Adrian (Dodoro) was pretty excited in what he saw in Cody.
“Over that time, it was nice to see him open up and come out of his shell a lot after thinking he was a bit of a quiet kid.
“Josh was a later inclusion. He was injured through 2018, so we didn’t see much of him until his bottom age last year.
“He came across as very willing to work and listen and that for me as a coach is the best thing you can have from a player, someone who wants to take on feedback and actually take what he’s learnt and put into his game.”
While Eyre and Brand have their own unique attributes, both are similar in height at 198cm and 196cm respectively, can cover the ground well, mark strongly overhead, possess terrific skills and compete fiercely in one-on-one contests.
Hocking says Brand reminds him of the Bombers’ games record holder Dustin Fletcher, who Brand idolised and received mentoring from at Essendon Grammar, where Fletcher oversees the backline.
Eyre, who idolised Essendon’s record goalkicker Matthew Lloyd growing up, is predominantly a tall but has freakish athletic attributes (he clocked 6:30 mins in the 2km time trial and 2.98 secs in the 20m sprint at November’s Victorian Combine) that could allow him to even play as a wingman.
“Watching him play (Brand), I thought I could see a little bit of a Dustin Fletcher-like defender who could spoil and come off and take marks,” Hocking said.
“He trained with Essendon earlier this year and I saw a different side to him, (he became) a real competitive, professional player and I thought he was going to be a chance to make it.
“Through seeing (Eyre) play at Calder, he played games as a key position who could go both ways as a defender or back, but he also has the attributes to play on a wing.”
While watching both boys get drafted was a great moment, the most pleasing aspect for Hocking is the ceiling Eyre and Brand potentially have.
Having coached and stayed in contact with them for several years, Hocking knows how quickly they’ve improved their game to get themselves into the position where they are today.
It’s why Hocking believes they have the right character and resolve to take the next step in becoming competent AFL players, and it’s a journey he can’t wait to see evolve.
“Being an ex-Essendon player, staff member and now a supporter, I’m going to really watch (the future) with a lot of intent and see where these guys can get their game to,” Hocking said.
“I’ve seen Cody develop over a year and a half from ‘oh yeah,he could make it’, to ‘yeah, he’s got something’.
“Josh is the same where in six months, he’s taken his game to the next level and these guys haven’t been able to play footy this year.
“So as soon as you throw them into an elite environment like the Essendon Football Club and see them work with guys like Michael Hurley, you’ll see the improvement. I think they can do it, but it’s up to them and getting the most out of themselves.
“Just having that little percentage of time to work with them was great. From that side of it, I’m really excited to see where their career goes.”