For a young AFL hopeful, non-selection in the NAB AFL Draft may look like, on the surface, the failure to realise a lifelong dream.

However, those overlooked at the national draft might still earn their shot at the big time.

Every year there are players who slide into the rookie draft, only to go on and have good senior careers, much like Kayne Turner and Cam Zurhaar on the current North Melbourne list.

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Before his career was prematurely ended due to concussion at the end of 2015, current North Melbourne development and VFL coach Leigh Adams was one of the club’s greatest rookie draft bargains, slipping to pick three after the national draft.

Playing 104 games for the club, Adams was a small mid/forward blessed with a brilliant football IQ, coupling hard-nosed efforts with exceptional skills.

Adams says he didn’t let the disappointment of not being selected in the national draft affect his AFL dream.

“I think it was a Saturday morning, and we all sat around to listen to the national draft on the radio. I’m trying to think back and I don’t even think it was broadcast,” Adams told North Media.

“There were 60 or 70 picks in the national draft and I didn’t hear my name get read out. I missed out. After that I was absolutely gutted, and pretty disappointed, angry and upset.

“Within about an hour of the draft finishing I had a couple of clubs, North Melbourne being one of them, ring me up and ask me to go and train with them for a rookie spot.

“The disappointment was pretty short-lived. After getting off the phone with the interested clubs I just had to focus on making the most of the next opportunity. Just because I missed out on the national draft didn’t mean I was sunk.”

Testing out potential rookies on the training track is by no means a foreign concept in the AFL landscape. Players will train with clubs in the hopes of securing a final list spot right up until the start of the season.

The draft’s format has changed since Adams was finally recruited. While the rookie draft is now held the day after the national draft, it used to be weeks afterwards, allowing hopefuls the chance to trial at length with interested teams.

Adams says while he did train at North, he didn’t necessarily think he’d be calling Arden Street home.

“I went to Essendon for a week or two trying to win a rookie spot because they had an earlier pick than North, then I went to North after that,” he said. 

“I was training at the club the day of the draft, so I got sent home after the morning session. My internet dropped out so the way I found out I’d been picked up by the Kangas was a few mates texting me. I got back in the car and went back to Arden Street.

“Essendon had pick two in the rookie draft and North had pick three, so to be honest I thought I’d end up at Essendon. They decided to go a different way and I was rapt to stay in Melbourne anyway.”

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After captaining the Vic Metro Under-18s in his draft year, and winning his team’s most valuable player award and a place in the under-18 All-Australian team, Adams’ CV heading into the draft was that of a potential first-round draft pick.

He was obviously a talented footballer with the leadership qualities clubs often crave, so why, then, did he fall into the rookie draft? 

Adams says injury issues and his physical profile may have sowed doubt in recruiters’ minds.

“Around that period teams were picking more athletic players, those taller blokes who could run and jump. I’m clearly not one of them,” he said.

“I wasn’t really quick for my size either and I didn’t have a great tank. After captaining Vic Metro I had a dodgy hip, so I went in for surgery to make sure I was right for pre-season.

“When you put all those things together; short, not fit, not quick, and a bit of an injury history, it doesn’t make for a great recipe to make the grade as an elite footballer.”

With the sink-or-swim nature of elite AFL football, the two-year contracts afforded to those selected in the national draft allow the young, first-year prospects to ease into the system if required.

Those taken in the rookie draft, however, are only afforded one-year deals, meaning they have to come into the team and hit the ground running to earn a new contract and retain their spot on the list.

In most sports with a draft system, the saying that ‘getting drafted is the easy part’ often rings true.

Adams says he believes being taken as a rookie selection may have been a blessing in disguise.

“Because you’ve only got a one-year deal you feel that little bit of extra urgency about making a good, immediate impact. You don’t have the luxury of dipping your toe in the water in your first year in the system. We’ve called that ‘the rookie mindset’ at the club for a long time.

“I was filthy I dropped so low. I didn’t have a little chip on my shoulder, I had a huge chip on my shoulder. It wasn’t so much wanting to prove other clubs that didn’t take me wrong, but it was more that I had a real self-belief that I was good enough.

“Playing against all the guys that got drafted before you, and playing well against them, you can’t really understand why the recruiters didn’t pick you.

“It’s only later you gain that knowledge of the rigours of AFL footy. The strength, fitness and speed required. It’s only then you can start to see the thought process of the recruiters not taking you.

“In the end, needing to have that ‘hit the ground running’ mindset was a great thing for me. Going in the rookie draft probably did help me a little bit.”