BEN Sexton had yet to complete Year 10 at Catholic College Bendigo when he was drafted by Footscray in 1988.
He stayed in Bendigo for the next two years before making the move to start his AFL career with the Bulldogs in 1991 and it began with a bang - five goals on debut against Brisbane.
In the next edition of the Time at the Top series, Sandhurst's Sexton reflects on his 43 AFL games with the Bulldogs and Carlton.
LUKE WEST: Ben, what do you recall of the day back in 1988 and when you found out you had been drafted by Footscray?
"I remember I had spoken to a few clubs and had various contact, but Footscray was one of the clubs that had shown the most interest.
"The draft back then wasn't like it is today where it's on TV... I came from from school and my brother, Mick, who was in Year 12, was at home studying and told me that he was off to Carlton and I was off to Footscray.
"I thought there was a chance at the time that it could happen and I was really happy to be going there because the Footscray people I'd met and been dealing with in the process leading up were all good.
"I stayed in Bendigo for the next two years after being drafted, played with Sandhurst and finished school and then went down for the 1991 season."
What involvement did you have with Footscray in those two years where you stayed in Bendigo before heading down to start your league career?
"They invited me down to the odd game and just kept in touch. They didn't intrude too much in terms of training, they just let me finish school up here and play with Sandhurst.
"They were happy enough with that, which wouldn't happen these days when you're under their wing straight away... I was given free rein to finish up here before I went down."
Heading down when you did leading into the 1991 season must have been an interesting time at the club given Footscray wasn't far removed from the proposed merger with Fitzroy a year earlier.
"That was all still fresh and when I went down there the club was still going through the aftermath of all that. You could feel around the club that something big had just happened and that they were starting a new phase after they survived and took the option to go it alone.
"When I was still in Bendigo I was aware of it all going on and there was that little bit of uncertainty about what would happen to me if there was a merger.
"But also not long before I got down to the club one of the players, Ron James, had been killed in a water-skiing accident earlier in the year and the club was still reeling from that. It was certainly a bit surreal coming into a place where so much had happened in such a short time."
How did you handle the step up from senior football with Sandhurst to being put through your first AFL pre-season?
"I remember it being hard work. Anyone who has done an AFL pre-season will certainly remember the slog. It was a long, hot summer and just hard yakka.
"It was a steep learning curve on top of moving to Melbourne, which was a big thing for a country kid."
Terry Wheeler was your first coach at the Bulldogs. What was he like?
"I thought Terry was a really good coach for the time because they needed someone who had the ability to knit the players together and provide a dream for the future of the club.
"He had a really good motivational side and brought the players together well for a period where they were coming off so much turmoil as a club. He had the players behind him virtually the whole time that I was there.
"He liked to think outside the square with things like the famous parachute jump into Port Phillip Bay as part of a pre-season camp... I'm not sure how those sort of things make a big difference to your on-field ability as a footy team, but it was fun at the time and a good experience."
How did the early part of the 1991 season play out for you before you were picked to make your AFL debut in round nine?
"I started in the reserves and remember my first game was out at Waverley against Collingwood, which had won the flag the previous year.
"I spent most of the game playing on Michael Christian, who was a premiership player from the year before. I remember having an ordinary day, not getting near the footy and thinking that this man mountain I was playing on was way beyond the level that I was at.
"I really struggled that day and probably felt that I was two to three years away, but once you find some rhythm and have a couple of good games, all of a sudden you start thinking you can play at the next level and, fortunately, that happened reasonably quickly for me.
"But consolidating is another thing and that wasn't easy for me."
So your debut comes on a Saturday afternoon in May against Brisbane at the Western Oval and you kick five goals in a five-point win. What a dream start that must have been.
"It was a good start... we won the game and as far as a first game is concerned, it couldn't have gone any better.
"Brisbane didn't have a huge following, so there wasn't a big crowd there (10,585), but it certainly felt like a big one after kicking five and having a win. It was a pinch yourself sort of day that one."
What do you remember of the first of your five goals?
"I'm pretty sure it was a set-shot and it was probably a floater because I went down there as a fairly ordinary kick at goal.
"My kicking improved over the years I was down there, but when I came back to Sandhurst it slowly went downhill again."
GAME NOTE - Footscray won 15.11 (101) to 14.12 (96). Sexton booted 5.3 from nine kicks and took six marks.
You followed up with three goals the next week in a loss against North Melbourne at the MCG, and then in your next game came up against Carlton and your brother, Michael, in a game where Footscray almost managed to keep the Blues goal-less.
"That was a really wet day at the Western Oval and I remember as the game went on the big thing became trying to keep Carlton goal-less.
"It was one of those days where you had to drag your feet out of the mud and footy like that you just don't see any more.
"The crowd loved it though because we were flogging Carlton and they hadn't kicked a goal until late in the game when they got one, which ruined it a bit. But it was good to be able to beat Mick in the first game."
GAME NOTE - Footscray won 8.9 (57) to 1.10 (16). Carlton's only goal was kicked by Mark Arceri with 33 seconds left in the match.
Between 1991 and 1995 you were in and out of the Footscray team without nailing a position down. What do you put that down to on reflection?
"A mix of things, but at the end of the day, if I had have been a better player I wouldn't have been in and out of the side.
"It comes down to whether you're a good enough player to be knocking the door down and making yourself a senior player with no questions asked.
"As a fringe player you always think you should be playing seniors. I always seemed to play well in the reserves and I reckon I must have been the player who was the emergency most times.
"But when you're on the fringe you've got to make other people believe you can take the next step... whether you think you can makes no difference. You've got to knock the door down and I wasn't able to that.
"I probably only felt really comfortable in 1994 when I played every game until I injured my shoulder and then missed the rest of the season and lost momentum.
"Unfortunately, it was hard to get that momentum back. I played some good games where at times I was unlucky to be dropped, but there were other times when I thought I was lucky to be getting an opportunity."
What are your memories of the chance you got to play in a final, the 1995 qualifying final against Geelong?
"I remember it was a rough night and we really struggled. I don't think I played well, but we were all fairly ordinary that night.
"I remember at one stage Chris Grant was leading out and I put the ball wide of him and it ended up out of bounds and that summed up our night."
GAME NOTE - Geelong won 24.11 (155) to 10.13 (73).
"I've got some really good memories, but also some not-so-good memories of floggings, like that night.
"And I remember playing on Wayne Carey twice and getting flogged by him. Looking back, though, it's extraordinary to have been able to play on someone who was that good. In a very strange way, it was a career highlight to have been flogged by Wayne Carey."
You certainly wouldn't be on your own there.
How did your move come about at the end of the 1995 when you joined Carlton?
"In 1995 I had a disappointing year coming off a shoulder reconstruction.
"I played the first game of 1995 and thought I went pretty well, but got dropped and for the first time in my career I dropped my chin a little bit and got a bit unhappy and that ended up being reflected in the year I had.
"I had patches that year where my form in the reserves wasn't any good. I wasn't motivated and the club probably sensed that.
"Gary O'Sullivan and Shane O'Sullivan were brothers - Gary worked for Footscray and Shane for Carlton and I think they had a chat and decided that swapping me for James Cook wouldn't be a bad idea.
"At that stage I had got stale at Footscray, and while I was sad to leave my team-mates because I liked all the guys, it wasn't doing me any good.
"So I went to Carlton where I had the chance to play with my brother Mick. I knew I'd be up against it because Carlton had just won the flag in 1995, but I thought I'd have a crack anyway.
"I had a two-year contact there; I had played well in the pre-season matches, but I remember David Parkin (coach) telling me after training before the first game they were bringing in Earl Spalding, which was hard to argue because he was a premiership player.
"David said I've done well, but Earl is coming in and after that I struggled. I did well in the reserves, got a few senior opportunities (four games), but Carlton was always keen to get their senior players in when they were available, so that didn't go well for me.
"At the end of that year I'd had enough and decided to finish up, move back to Bendigo, start up a business and play for Sandhurst."
How do you sum up your AFL experience?
"It was positive in that I got an opportunity that a lot of people don't get. I feel very privileged just to have played a few games."
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TIME AT THE TOP SERIES:
TIME AT THE TOP - Corey Jones' journey from Wycheproof to decade at North Melbourne
TIME AT THE TOP - Nathan Thompson's North Melbourne years
TIME AT THE TOP - Nathan Thompson's Hawthorn years
TIME AT THE TOP - Rick Ladson's journey from Bendigo to AFL premiership pinnacle
TIME AT THE TOP - Rowan Warfe's 110 AFL games with Fitzroy and Sydney
TIME AT THE TOP - Damien Lock's three years with Carlton
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