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BENDIGO'S Rick Ladson says he was shocked when taken in the first round of the AFL National Draft in 2001 as a 17-year-old by Hawthorn.
But the Hawks' faith in Ladson paid off seven years later when he was a member of the 2008 premiership team.
In the fourth installment of the Time at the Top series, Ladson reflects on his 125 game AFL career with the Hawks.
LUKE WEST: Laddo, you were part of the famous 2001 AFL super draft. Did you have any inkling where you could be headed in the lead-up?
RICK LADSON: "I was bottom age, so even though I had played Vic Country and been part of the AIS, which puts you in a really good position to be drafted, I went into it with not a great belief that I'd get picked up and that if I did it would be probably late in the draft.
"The draft wasn't on the telly that year, it was on the wireless. Even though I didn't think I'd get picked up I still had some family and friends around for a barbecue in the backyard just in case.
"I remember getting a phone call from my manager Todd Viney, who told me I'd been picked up by the Hawks at No.16, which was prior to it coming on the wireless, and then going back inside to tell the family the news, so that's how it went down on draft day."
Given you weren't overly confident of your chances of being picked up, how big a shock did it come to be selected in the first round?
"Looking back, I was playing some really good football (with the Bendigo Pioneers) for my age and size. I was 60 kilograms wringing wet... what weighed the most on me was my big mop of curly hair.
"I had elite kicking skills and I suppose when you get into the AFL system that's why you're relied upon to kick the ball in.
"Fortunately, the club saw some attributes in me to take me that early, but there's no doubt I was shocked."
Tell us about that first pre-season you endured and how you coped given your light frame.
"Well, I lifted my first weight, that's for sure. Up until then with my footy I'd never been in the gym, I would just run and work hard on the training track.
"I remember getting down to training at Hawthorn and basically just started off by lifting the 20 kilogram bar.
"Fast forward a few years and that's when I started to put on a bit of size through different training.
"Going into the gym in those early days was quite daunting when you're seeing squat racks with no room for any more weight plates on them, so it was certainly an eye-opener."
Did you consider yourself any chance of being physically ready to play AFL football in your first season at the Hawks?
"Again, I had no expectation due to my size... you go into the gym and see some absolute monsters like Tony Woods, who was really strong, Crawf (Shane Crawford) was just an animal in there, Ben Dixon was massive and Jon Hay and Nick Holland were just throwing weights around in there.
"I remember thinking, I've got some work to do, so I didn't have any expectation of playing early and I was just head down to put some size on and keep working on building my fitness."
What were your first impressions of coach Peter Schwab?
"He was really good with the group and really cared a lot for the players.
"He made the transition for the guys like myself and Hodgey (No.1 pick Luke Hodge) quite seamless because in those early days it was such an eye-opener.
"Looking back, it was old school footy... kick long down the line and not as much structure to the game as what there is now.
"A few years later the game changed massively with Clarko's (Alastair Clarkson) thinking and in some ways it was very much like playing in two different eras."
Daniel Elstone was also drafted to Hawthorn from the Pioneers that year. Did it make the transition easier having Daniel there as well given you had already been team-mates?
"Absolutely. I remember Daniel picking me up and taking me to our first training session and we ended up living together briefly with a host family, along with Hodgey, which helped the transition as well.
"It was definitely handy having a fellow team-mate from the Pioneers days in Bendigo and he was awesome for me early."
What was a young Luke Hodge like as a housemate in those days?
"We were raw country boys down in the big smoke. He was a reasonably puffy sort of lad when he got down there, whereas I was skinny, so we certainly got an eye-opener with skin folds and things like that. We both had the highest at the club there for a while, but we were both completely different body shapes.
"Hodgey was great and you could see from the outset that what you see is what you get and his approach is what made him what he is today.
"We had some good fun living together and also playing some good footy together at Box Hill in that first year, so it was nice to come through with him.
"I was actually going to debut in the same game as he and Mitch (Sam Mitchell) did, but I did my knee 10 minutes after I got told at training and I missed the rest of the season."
Who was your debut game meant to be against?
"It was going to be against the team I barracked for, Richmond (round five, 2002)... I was stoked that I was going to get the chance to play against Matty Knights.
"I remember Schwaby pulling me aside before training and saying they were going to go with me that week rotating off the bench in a forward pocket and maybe up on the wing.
"It was a Saturday afternoon against Richmond at the MCG and I'm thinking, how good is this. I grew up barracking for Richmond and dad was a mad Richmond man.
"Then 10 minutes after Schwaby had told me I slid to take a mark and tore the lateral meniscus off the bone, so I had to get that reattached and missed the rest of the year."
Fast forward to round six of 2003 and with your knee healed came your debut game. What are your most vivid recollections of that day against Carlton at Princes Park?
"One of the first things that always springs to mind is it was Jade Rawlings' 100th game and he had always been one of those players in the early days helping me out where he could, and along with Daniel Harford, he was a bit of a father figure to me down there.
"We had a pretty good win (the Hawks prevailed 74-63); I remember it getting fairly close towards the end and playing on Trent Sporn.
"I played at half-forward and ran around like a headless chook... I remember thinking just how small I felt out there, so I had to find ways to utilise my skill level and running capacity.
"One of the best memories I have from the day is in the changerooms afterwards, signing the song and the media lady coming over and saying, we've got someone here to talk to you, and it was Adam Bourke (Bendigo Advertiser sports reporter), so Bourkey did my first post-match interview.
"It was just a great day. Having mum and dad and the family there was special and it was good to get that first game out of the way."
GAME NOTE - Ladson had 12 disposals, five marks and kicked one behind in the win.
How did you hold up physically in those early games?
"In those first few years when I got hit I certainly got hit and sometimes got injuries out of it. I remember hurting a shoulder later that year in 2003 that was purely because my body still wasn't up to it size-wise yet."
Could you have envisaged when the untried Alastair Clarkson arrived ahead of the 2005 season he would become the coaching great that he has?
"He came with some good wraps on him. I was still fairly young and raw and for me, it was what it was.
"When he came in he made an impact straight away. When he was announced as coach most of us were away, so he made us fly back to meet with him and that showed from the start how ruthless he could be.
"You could tell early he had the makings of being a fantastic coach and he had the ability to get on the same level as the players immediately in terms of understanding who everyone was away from football.
"At that point in time though you couldn't have known he was going to go on and win all these flags (four) and be one of the greatest coaches of all time."
Can you take us to the first final you played in, the 2007 elimination final against Adelaide. It's the game best remembered for Buddy Franklin's long goal in the dying stages that gave the Hawks a three-point win. You were a crucial part of that play delivering the ball to Buddy. What are your recollections?
"We had been working really hard with Clarko the previous two years on our craft and gamestyle and that 2007-08 period was a bit of a breakout for me only missing two games across those two years.
"We were underdogs going into that elimination final, but we were playing good football.
"It got towards the end of the game and I remember the crowd sounding like there was about 90,000. The ground was absolutely humming and big Bud turned one on kicking seven goals.
"Adelaide was flooding late in the game and I remember the ball going out of bounds on the full. Crawf got it, looked over at me and winked because I was starting to come down from the backline.
"So he switch kicked to me and then one of the things Clarko always use to say was if you see a target, hit it.
"I knew there wasn't long left, maybe about 30 seconds, but I hit big Bud and he then went back and slotted it to put us in front. It was a great game to be part of."
GAME NOTE - Hawthorn won 15.15 (105) to 15.12 (102) in front of a crowd of 36,534 at Docklands. Ladson had 22 disposals.
As memorable as that win over the Crows was, the following year you were part of something very special, the upset grand final win over Geelong. If you could pick just one standout moment from the 2008 premiership, what would it be?
"There's so many one per center moments that I think back on like Cyril's (Rioli) tackle out on the wing, but I think Stuart Dew's few minutes in the third quarter... I had front row seats from half-back watching what he did, and I'll never forget Crawf's face after we won as well.
"At the end of the day, there's so many experiences I'm grateful for over the journey and to be a part of the pinnacle is really quite humbling after growing up in North Bendigo to then go on and be part of something really special."
GAME NOTE - Hawthorn beat Geelong 18.7 (115) to 11.23 (89). Playing in his 99th game Ladson had 14 disposals and kicked the sealing goal in the final term.
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