February 7, 2022 – a day 26 years in the making for versatile SUN James Tsitas as his lifelong dream of reaching an AFL list became reality.
He had pipped several close contenders for the final spot on the SUNS list as a pre-season supplementary selection and a long-awaited crack at AFL level eight years after first being eligible as a teenager.
Few players’ journey to the heights of AFL football are as colourful or adventurous as the ‘Governor of Grovedale’s’ who sat down with SUNS teammate Rory Atkins on the inaugural instalment of Chats with Rat to discuss the journey from backyard boxing bouts in Grovedale to Heritage Bank Stadium.
“I had a very active childhood. I grew up with a boxing gym in my backyard. Dad was a pro boxer and a boxing trainer, so I was always around fitness,” Tsitas said.
A stellar young football journey began early days for the Grovedale Tigers and quickly flourished into a promising young career when local U18 outfit Geelong Falcons came knocking.
However, the 2013 AFL draft, the first in which Tsitas was eligible, would come and go without luck.
While the 18-year-old put the wheels of his future off-field endeavours into motion studying a Bachelor of Exercise Science, he elected for a change of scenery away from the comforts of Geelong in hope of taking that next leap towards the AFL.
“After that (not being drafted) it was like ‘what’s next?’ So, I travelled up the road to North Ballarat.
“Those boys train hard… I was probably a bit shocked at that and that taught me just how hard I need to train.
“It was a big punch in the mouth when I went to training and I thought, ‘this is hard…this is a massive step up’.”
The comforts of returning to home-cooked meals and folded laundry saw Tsitas return home to Geelong after two years with the Roosters.
“I moved back in with Mum. Living out of home was too hard in Ballarat, I was leaving stacked washing… I wasn’t great at living out by myself.”
Four years with the Falcons and a 2020 campaign at Williamstown halted by the COVID-19 pandemic moved into a tenure across the border with Woodville West-Torrens in the SANFL and multiple NTFL clubs.
During that initial return to the Falcons was when Tsitas began to plant the seeds that would blossom into something special.
“At that point you begin to think ‘Why are 18 clubs overlooking me?’ Clubs are overlooking you for a reason, so you have to look in your own backyard,” Tsitas continued.
“I really wanted to get to this level, to better myself as much as I could. I probably took the feedback to heart a bit. I wanted to be good so badly that when someone gave me feedback, I probably took it bad.
“Until you accept the feedback and act on it… that’s when I saw my footy grow.
“When I started acting on that feedback, given freedom to play at Woodville West-Torrens and implement everything I’d been working on, that’s when my footy took off.
“[At first at North Ballarat] I was looking for shortcuts, not pushing myself too hard in the running. I thought ‘you can be good and not fit’ so I wasn’t pushing myself as hard as I could.
“It came to me ‘how many running sessions have I done and how many can I remember?’… I know I can get through it, so rather than looking for shortcuts, how about I give it my all?
“It was a thing that really made me the happiest. There was nothing that made me feel better than getting better at footy.
“I made it everything I do is to get better at footy. I just doubled down.”
He won the 2017 Best and Fairest at the Falcons before going one better and winning the prestigious Magarey Medal in the SANFL in 2021 to go with three premierships in South Australia and the Northern Territory.
It’s a winding career that puts him alongside some of the game’s most iconic names – Michael Long, Shaun Burgoyne, Eddie Betts and James Tsitas – the only footballers to have played in the AFL, VFL, SANFL and NTFL.
The rise was far from smooth sailing however and almost ended at the Victorian-South Australian border before it all began.
“This was in 2020, during COVID. You had to get a cross-border exemption.
“I got to the border and the police officer said, ‘what are you coming over for?’ I said PT’ing and he said ‘mate, that’s not essential.’
“I also said I’m coming to play footy, what’s more essential than that? – he didn’t agree.”
Perhaps the longest 45-minute of wait of his life ensued before eventually being permitted to enter South Australia, followed by two weeks of quarantine alone in a North Adelaide apartment.
Not that that stopped the hard work.
“They (Woodville-West Torrens) dropped off a footy for me, so I was running around the house like a madman.
“I was stiff arming chairs…I would handball against the wall, ground ball, back pedal, ground ball, on repeat, working on my skills.
“Two weeks of that, the white wall near the front door was red as… the thing was absolutely covered, red ball prints everywhere.”
It’s fair to say that years later when he edged out a prized spot on the SUNS list, it was an opportunity beyond deserved.
Not that that stopped the hard work there, either.
“Nothing is more important to me at this stage than footy. I’ve worked my whole life to get here so why not put every egg into this basket.”
The 28-year-old has since earned the opportunity to play five games for the club at AFL level.
He was a key cog in the SUNS charge to an inaugural VFL premiership in 2023, leading the side as captain before a gut-wrenching tribunal verdict saw him suspended for the decider.
“I was really disappointed, but to see the lengths everyone went to to support me or help me get off my suspension was humbling… I felt loved.
“That was probably the silver lining to it all.”
While earning a berth in new Senior Coach Damien Hardwick’s side remains paramount, fatherhood will now take its share of the limelight with Tsitas and partner Indi welcoming their first son, Evander, last week.
Everything else is beyond the peripheral.
“I’ve also got to remind myself that I do have a family too and I need to dedicate time to them.
“They’re my two highest priorities. Everything else, cut it to the side, really hone in on these two things.”