Growing up surrounded by a true blue footy community in inner northern Perth, Port Adelaide rookie Sam Powell-Pepper is one of the AFL’s latest success stories.
Before eventually debuting at the elite level this year, Powell-Pepper played for the Under-11 Mount Hawthorn Cardinals where he was mentored by junior coach Stephen Burke for six years.
He then joined East Perth Colts and was selected in the West Australian 16s state team.
“I joined a team with all the boys from primary school and they helped me quite a lot to get me to my games and training,” Powell-Pepper said.
“The coaching is really where it all starts and Stephen taught us good values and good team footy.
“He told us to always have fun and surround yourself with your good mates and to enjoy your footy.”
Burke said Powell-Pepper’s football career really kicked off with a fluke phone call, a dodgy bus ride and an outstanding performance in a junior Indigenous football tournament, the Nicky Winmar Cup.
“We found out there was an Indigenous competition being played with a week notice, so I rang up organisers and they agreed to pick him up after I told them how good a player Sam was,” he said.
“He slept over at our place, we woke up early, parked on the side of the freeway, probably illegally, and Sam jumped on the bus.
“He played in the cup and got selected as one of the best players on ground and that really got him noticed, not only in our district, but by state scouts.”
Burke said he always saw potential and tried to nurture Powell-Pepper, as he was always more athletic and built bigger than most other juniors.
“Sam’s a great learner, a great player to coach, like a sponge, he sucks in anything you say,” Burke said.
Powell-Pepper was fortunate enough to be surrounded by a passionate parent group at the Cardinals, including three former professional football players.
“He always had good footy head parents around him,” Burke said.
“He always talked to them and tried to extract knowledge and skills from those who played footy at league and AFL levels.”
Throughout his Mount Hawthorn career Powell-Pepper was selected in representative squads, including the state Indigenous squad and the Australian schoolboys squad to represent Australia in South Africa.
Mount Hawthorn Cardinals President Martin Lawrence said the Mount Hawthorn community got right behind Powell-Pepper to make sure he could achieve his goals and dreams.
“The club and families of the team helped him to fundraise and help him be able to get to these representative sides,” Lawrence said.
“As they say, it takes a village to raise a kid.”
In 2014 Powell-Pepper represented East Perth in a 16-a-side championship and was soon selected in the WA state academy based on his performance.
WA state 16s head coach, John Hancock, worked closely with Powell-Pepper when he was chosen as captain by the other players.
“Apart from his ability to play the game he was quite well respected by his peers,” Hancock said.
“He’s a proud individual who is passionate about his and his team’s performance.”
Playing alongside Powell-Pepper in the state squad since the age of 15, fellow AFL draftee Jake Waterman said the two became close mates when both were selected in the state leadership team.
“Sam is one of those guys who makes you and the team stand a little taller when you know he’s out there with you,” he said.
“He never said too much, but is a true leader through his actions.
“His commitment, hunger and work rate are top class and have been on show playing for Port Adelaide so far.”
Contracted to Port Adelaide as Number 18 draft pick in 2016, he kicked two goals in his Round 1 debut game against the Sydney Swans in March and was nominated as the Round 1 2017 Rising Star.
“It was a bit surreal actually because I wasn’t planning on playing that well,” he said.
“I thought I was just going to run around and get a few kicks.”
Eleven rounds into the 2017 season, Powell-Pepper tops the rising star leaderboard for clearances, contested possessions and total handballs.
He said from a young age he wanted to play at the AFL level, and that years of hard work and support were finally paying off.
“It’s a lot of pressure to stay in the side,” he said.
“You have to earn your spot and keep focus on footy.
“I’m staying healthy, keeping fit and getting paid for it.”
Powell-Pepper supporters home in Perth are keen for him to return to a Western Australian club, but he said he was content playing with the Power.
“I was very happy to get drafted by Port,” he said.
“They’re my next favourite team after the Eagles.”