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UNDRAFTED at the end of his final year with the Bendigo Pioneers in 1996, Nathan Thompson went on to forge a 179-game AFL career with Hawthorn and North Melbourne that has its roots playing as a ruckman in a Western Bulldogs' practice match in early 1997.
In the first of a two-part Time at the Top feature looking back on his AFL career, Thompson reflects on his seven years with Hawthorn.
LUKE WEST: Thommo, you were a late pick by Hawthorn in the 1997 AFL Draft. How did you get on the radar of the Hawks?
NATHAN THOMPSON: A mate of mine, Mark Potter, who was also an ex-Bendigo Pioneer as a wingman went to Williamstown in 1997 and after he'd been to a few training runs he told me they didn't have a ruckman, so why don't I head down there for a run as well.
"So I went down, trained a couple of times and they were obviously desperate for a ruckman because they put a contract to me straight away, so that was it, I was going to play that year for Williamstown.
"Fortunately, Williamstown had an alignment with the Western Bulldogs, who had started their practice matches and needed a fill-in ruckman to play against one of their early draft picks.
"I think I played three practice games with Terry Wallace and the Western Bulldogs. I did really well in the first one and there was a guy from Hawthorn in the stands watching.
"So I then went and played a few practice games for Hawthorn and they had one supplementary spot available, which was basically the old top-up list that they don't have any more.
"What it basically meant was I couldn't get elevated to play seniors, but if they had an injury in the reserves I could come in as a top-up, otherwise I'd play for Williamstown in the VFL.
"I had a bit of luck in that Hawthorn had a few injuries and I ended up playing most of that 1997 year in their reserves in the ruck and at the end of the year I got taken at pick 82 out of 85 in the draft.
"So there was certainly no silver spoon treatment for me. I very much went in the back door, but ended up having an extended stay."
So you were a ruckman in those formative years rather than the key forward you would later become well known for.
"Ruck was my best position back then, albeit I definitely wasn't big enough... I was only six-foot-four, maybe at a pinch six-foot-five and you're playing against guys like Scott Wynd who is six-foot-10.
"I was a completely different style of ruckman. I was more of a ruck-rover playing in the ruck, but I had a really good leap and was able to read the ball well across the ground, so I had a bit of a different aspect, which worked well as a different option for the club."
You must have made a strong impression early on the club given you were picked for your first game in round two of 1998 against Port Adelaide at Waverley Park. What are your recollections of your debut?
"I was coming off a good year in 1997 on the supplementary list. By memory, I think I finished top five in the Hawthorn reserves best and fairest and had a few breakout games where I had played in the ruck and taken 15 to 18 marks and kicked a couple of goals.
"I had probably shown the coaches enough that there was something to work with.
"I was probably a typical country guy at the time - I didn't know a lot about fitness and health having always been a reasonably heavy-set youngster, which put a lot of clubs off.
"But I showed enough in that supplementary list year where I was able to get picked early in 1998 for the Port Adelaide game.
"Back then there was no rotation policy and I got two minutes on the ground.
"I basically ran out, did the warm-up and to be honest, I was white as a ghost and sh...... myself; it was such a big jump and I just wasn't ready maturity-wise.
"But I got out there for a couple of minutes, I think I had one kick, went back to the bench and didn't see any more minutes for the rest of the game and was just thinking, what am I doing here, the game is so much quicker and maybe I'm just a reserves player."
GAME NOTE - Port Adelaide won 17.10 (112) to 10.7 (67). Port's Scott Cummings kicked seven goals and was best-on-ground.
"It gave me a taste and I played one more game later in the year against Richmond (round 18) and same again... I think I had one handball and just three or four minutes on the ground in the third quarter.
"It makes it hard to prove yourself when you're barely on the ground, but it was good to just get out there and get a feel for the game and playing in front of a crowd."
That following year though in 1999 you became a regular playing 18 senior games. What clicked over the pre-season?
"We played the Western Bulldogs in the semi-final of the Ansett Cup out at Waverley and Paul Salmon was out injured. I hadn't played any of the pre-season games, but I came in to play against Scott Wynd and Luke Darcy.
"Considering my age, size and who I was going up against, I did really well. I held my own and kicked a nice goal and I think that was probably the moment when Ken Judge, who was the coach at the time, said this guy is worth persisting with.
"I got picked for our round one game against Collingwood and I still remember copping an absolute spray at three quarter-time.
"It was a really tight game and I had tried to take a mark over the top of Mark Richardson, who I was playing in the ruck against.
"But he marked it in front of me, right in front of the coaches box. He kicked it to Sav Rocca, who then kicked a 70m goal and Kenny (Judge), who was very volatile, gave me one hell of a spray and I was dropped the next week.
"After a few good weeks in the reserves I came back in against Geelong (round six). Fish (Paul Salmon) played most of the game in the ruck, but (Geelong's) John Barnes, who was similar to me as a running ruckman, was giving us all sorts of grief.
"So I came on and did well and we won the game by a couple of points in an upset at Kardinia Park. That was my first real game as a senior player where I realised I was a chance of making something of it.
"I kicked three goals against Sydney the next week and from there, things started to take shape."
Later that year you became the answer to a trivia question - who was the last player to earn three Brownlow Medal votes in a game at Waverley?
You kicked six goals for the Hawks against the Swans that day, which looks to be your breakout game as a forward.
"Being the last game at Waverley, they were hanging from the rafters and that's one of my great memories.
"Another is from that year at Waverley as well when we had a massive comeback against St. Kilda (the Hawks won by 13 points after trailing the Saints by 63 points in the second quarter in round 12). I kicked three goals that day and had a hand in a couple of others to help us turn it around.
"That last game at Waverley against Sydney, they had Greg Stafford, who was an absolute monster in the ruck and played very tough.
"So what I did that day was start in the ruck, but I wasn't going to win many tap outs against Stafford, so I just had to crash into him as hard as I could.
"As soon as that first contest was over I'd sprint down to full-forward and we had a secondary ruckman do the work around the ground.
"It was just one of those games where our guys played well, I got some good opportunities and was kicking them out of my backside.
"I laugh with a few of my Kyneton mates that Sydney played in the last game at Waverley with Plugger Lockett at full-forward, but who kicked the most goals....
"Plugger kicked four on the day, but I remember thinking, how good is this... the greatest full-forward of all time has kicked four goals and down the other end I've managed to sneak six coming down from the ruck."
GAME NOTE - Hawthorn won 23.15 (153) to 11.2 (68). Thompson kicked 6.2 from eight kicks.
When did the transition come from ruck to playing full-time forward?
"It was always there to be honest because by far Paul Salmon was our best ruckman... he was an absolute champion.
"Unless it was a John Barnes situation where they needed a different style of ruckman or Fish was injured, I wasn't necessarily needed in the ruck.
"After I kicked those six goals against the Swans, that next year going into 2000 they really tried to turn me into a full-forward.
"I had a really good pre-season in 2000, but did my AC Joint in one of the last practice matches against Essendon, so that was really tough because I was flying.
"So for those first eight to 10 games that season I was playing with a bung shoulder because the club was happy for me to take the main defender, which would allow guys like Aaron Lord and others to get off the leash.
"I played a few good games in 2000, but my shoulder wasn't right.
"I remember a fun day was kicking six against the Doggies at the MCG (round seven), but there was some bad games too because I was struggling with my shoulder."
So how does the move to North Melbourne come about at the end of 2004?
"I started to have some issues with my mental health.
"I had finished third in the best and fairest in 2001 in a team that made the preliminary final, which I was very proud of.
"Then in 2002 I was full-forward in a team that struggled and I had an average year... I had a really bad ankle injury that year and didn't come good until the second half of the year from a fitness point of view.
"So over 2002-03-04 I was at a point where, unbeknownst to many, my life was in the toilet and it had got to the point where I was going to retire from footy.
"Some of the media outlets got wind of that and in mid-2004 I had a nervous breakdown just before we played Fremantle and that started a process where I needed to get help.
"That was a really tough time in life and footy because I was struggling, so after speaking to family I decided the only way I felt I could really continue to play was to get a fresh start.
"The decision at the time was a personal and selfish one to reinvigorate my footy and see if I could still do it and North Melbourne gave me a lifeline.
"It ended up a trade that worked out well for both clubs. North Melbourne desperately needed a forward and Hawthorn was going youth and ended up being able to pick up Jordan Lewis out of that trade."
TOMORROW - Thompson's North Melbourne days.
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