No doubts, a young Cat comes of age

You see a lot of highlights packages in the lead-in to any AFL season. And those montages of images from the 2012 season doing the rounds, and those from a year before, say it all about the coming of age of Tom Hawkins.

In the earlier version, there’s Hawkins, at a critical moment in the last quarter of Geelong’s 2011 grand final against Collingwood, having marked close to goal, but plagued by doubt about his ability to convert, dishing off a handball to teammate Steve Johnson, who applies the finishing touches.

The moment on show this off-season has been Hawkins calmly steering that monster 60-metre drop punt through to give the Cats a win after the siren over Hawthorn. Doubt? What doubt?

”If you could put that two minutes in a bottle and bring it out at different times in your life, I’d love that,” he smiles. ”Just an awesome feeling, hard to explain. As a kid in the backyard I had those shots, probably from about 20 metres out, and I reckon I ran at about 40 per cent. So it was a pretty sweet feeling.”

But, if a lot less public, every bit as sweet for Hawkins was the moment just two weeks ago when he was officially endorsed by his peers as a member of Geelong’s leadership group for 2013.

Hawkins and Andrew Mackie were given the nod to join other leaders, skipper Joel Selwood, Jimmy Bartel, Johnson, James Kelly and Harry Taylor. Hawkins happily concedes it was a proud day. ”Definitely. To be voted in by your peers is fantastic, and just knowing that you’ve gained respect from them is great,” he says. ”I think with more senior players leaving, the onus is on guys in similar positions to [me] to take more of a leadership role and just help develop the younger group on our list. ‘It’s us guys who’ve been around here five to eight years that can really have more influence … around the group, and I suppose I’m now seeing that I can help out, both from my position on the ground and in being more of a senior face in the team. ‘Not mentoring as such, but providing ideas and a little bit of help for guys who are younger. Anything that can make this team better as a playing list and also help people grow and learn more about themselves.”

While the likes of Cam Mooney, Brad Ottens, Cameron Ling and now Matthew Scarlett have left, there’s still a large core of veterans guiding the Cats’ fortunes.

And perhaps the best example is far from a veteran. At 24, skipper Selwood, Hawkins’ closest mate, is in his football prime, and while a completely different type of player, for the big key forward he remains an inspirational force.

”We were drafted together, we lived together, though he could only handle a year of me,” Hawkins chuckles. ”But to be the same age and to look at what he’s done … he’s just remarkable, an inspiration to everyone, and a great bloke. ‘It’s just the way he goes about his football. He trains like he wants to play. He’s here every day doing what he needs to do to get himself in the best possible shape to play the best footy he can. He’s always in here helping the young guys as well. He’s a great role model.”

While the courageous on-baller fitted immediately into the Geelong mix, a major player in a premiership in his first season of 2007, Hawkins, however, remained for much longer the gawky kid, showing glimpses of talent but still lacking the confidence to physically impose himself despite his considerable height and strength.

But if the second half of the grand final two years ago was just an entree to Hawkins’ capabilities, 2012 proved the main course.

Dominant from the start of the season, Hawkins racked up the numbers, and the gongs – runner-up in the Coleman Medal with 62 goals, full-forward in the All-Australian side and, finally, the Geelong best and fairest, by a whisker from Selwood.

More than the stats and the awards, though, it was as much the presence he provided, the soaring confidence reflected in his attack on the contest, those 197centimetres and 105kilograms now having, literally, the impact the Cats always hoped they would.

Does he feel on more of an even keel with his captain these days? ”No, I’ve still got a long way to go,” he shrugs. ”Really, I’ll never compare myself to anyone. I’m just out there each year trying to improve on my game, and he would be the same. You’re just trying to get better every year. I don’t think anyone’s ever mastered the game of football.”

Perhaps, though, Hawkins has one advantage over most of his peers. Simply, the strength of the emotional ties to the club, the 182-game career of his father, ”Jumping” Jack Hawkins enshrined in Geelong folklore. Tom knows how fortunate he is to be living the  dream.”I remember when I was a kid, people would ask me what I wanted to do when I was older, and I’d just say, ‘I’m going to play footy for Geelong’. And to be down here now doing something I love is very special.       I remember coming down here and sitting in the old past players’ stand, which had a capacity of about 40. There were about four bench seats in front of that, and I’d go and sit there and be so close I could lean over the fence and pick up a bit of grass and take it home with me. I knew the history of the club when I got here. I knew the greats, like the Nankervis brothers, and ‘Polly’ Farmer. I know how special it is to walk in every day and see those names on the lockers. And to have been part of an era that’s won three premierships and played finals regularly. Now I see what it means to win. That’s going to hold me in good stead.”

Not to mention the dozen or so youngsters the Cats have brought into senior ranks this past year, whom Hawkins will now tend over.

It doesn’t seem all that long ago that he was one of them. But with the lessons taken on board and the results self-evident, as the baton of generational change is passed, it’s Hawkins now doing the teaching.