Patrick Cripps had just finished last among midfielders in the three-kilometre time trial at the 2013 AFL draft camp. He was carrying more kilos than a prospective AFL footballer should, much less one whom parlous Carlton would lavish their first pick on.
"I was shocking, I think I ran 11.55 over 3k at the draft camp. I was last out of the midfielders," Cripps said, recalling the poor dietary habits of his draft year, when the farm boy went to University in Perth, "ate whatever was in the fridge'', worked and played Colts for East Fremantle.
Cripps wasn't in AFL shape, to the point that Carlton's then chief executive Greg Swann, sighting the unflattering form of the future champion at the future Marvel Stadium, asked his (then) recruiting manager Shane Rogers: "Are you sure you want to draft that fat bloke?''
Are you sure you want to draft that fat bloke?
"Yep,'' Rogers replied.
Cripps, in his re-telling, had been having a great time in his first year out of school. Football was not yet the full-bore profession he would make it. The ruthless competitor was yet to emerge. "I used to go out most weekends, sort of like a normal 18-year-old.
Carlton co-captain Patrick Cripps this week.Credit:Eddie Jim
"I loved my footy but didn't have any grasp of what it took to, I suppose, be really professional.''
He wasn't quick and clearly lacked the requisite endurance running of a midfielder. But Cripps had two distinguishing traits. One was that he could get the ball like few players. Indeed, Rogers would liken Cripps' inside work to the game's former nonpareil inside midfielder, Greg "Diesel'' Williams, on the night he was drafted, a comment that caused mild consternation at Carlton.
Today, "Diesel'' gives Cripps pointers at training, ribbing his successor about the fact that he's never had 40 disposals in a game.
THE TALL SMALL
Cripps' other unusual attribute was his height for an inside mid. He was then about 190 centimetres, having sprouted from the age of 15. "I was about 170-175 (centimetres) … I was the smallest at my footy team and then probably 16 to 18 I shot up to about 190. And once I got to the club (Carlton), I grew another five centimetres.''
Cripps is the tallest bona-fide midfielder in the history of the game. On the field, he often stoops to conquer, since much of his game is played crouched over the ball, in a thicket of bodies. But when you stand next to him, his height is striking – exceeding that of many noted and imposing key forwards, including his sometime mentor Jonathan Brown (194).
As Cripps explained, he developed a small man's game, which he continued to play as he sprouted into a key-position body, having hit puberty late. "Everyone says 'you're big for a midfielder' but I felt like, I still feel like I've got all the traits of a small mid, just from growing up.''
He said he had always played around the ball, with stints in other positions. Today, as the AFL's towering extractor, he's learning to bring "taller'' attributes, such as taking marks up forward, to his game. "I'm getting there now, slowly.''
It is easily forgotten now that Cripps was viewed as a risky pick. When Rogers met Cripps in Perth for close to an hour and a half back in August of his draft year, the recruiter bluntly asked him if he would stay in Melbourne if the Blues called out his name. The concern was that the lad from Northampton, a five-hour drive north of Perth, would go west at the first opportunity.
No, Cripps told Rogers. If you pick me, I'm staying for the long haul.
Cripps had been "mad Eagles growing up" but his time boarding in Perth at Aquinas College, where he spent two years, prepared him for relocation to Melbourne. "Two out of 18 teams, you've got a chance to stay at home. So, really, you're going to be going interstate, and I had been to boarding school. I wasn't that scared about moving interstate.
"I was hoping on draft night that Carlton were going to draft me, because I knew I was around that mark.''
He broke his leg in his first season at Carlton, didn't play a senior game and "floated through my first year''. Then, "the penny dropped'' and, with guidance from Chris Judd, defender Michael Jamison and dietary advice from Andrew Walker, he began to develop the rigor and self-improvement that has defined his first 99 games.
I do play a physical game. If I don't play that, I'm not playing footy.
"I dropped five kilos in my first off-season. So I went from, like 94 to 89 kilos, and just rebuilt my body from there.''
As a player, Cripps is trying to balance his prodigious inside game with more outside ball carrying – "finding a happy medium''. His running has greatly improved since the draft camp dawdle, now reflected in respectable two-kilometre time trials.
That said, Cripps does not intend to change the combative, collision style, which prompted Mick Malthouse, his first senior coach, to question Carlton's management of 24-year-old Cripps, and wondering if the Blues would wear out their warrior – often swathed in bandages – prematurely.
"I do play a physical game. If I don't play that, I'm not playing footy,'' he said. ''That's what makes me a player, a good player. There's a lot of techniques involved when you go hard at the contest, to protect yourself.''
Today, Cripps is the rock on which the new charismatic Carlton church is being rebuilt. He shares the captaincy with Sam Docherty, but remains the club's stand-out player, and is in the conversation as the game's premier player, even if he'll never have the power-skill combination of Dustin Martin or glide like Marcus Bontempelli.
Cripps is a natural small-talker, our interview interrupted as he converses casually with Adrian "Bear'' Gleeson, the 1987 premiership player, in the club cafe. "G'day Bear, good to see you.'' He has an understated country-lad affability that, as with Jonathan Brown and Luke Hodge, blends with a ruthless footballer who plays a highly physical game, albeit Cripps seldom crosses the brutality line as that pair did.
"He's ruthless and hard at the game but he's got the empathy and care,'' said Cripps' manager Matt Bain of TLA. "He comes from an amazing family.'' His parents, Brad and Cath, have leased their wheat canola crop farm near Northampton and settled in Perth, while his elder brother Daniel moved over to Melbourne and plays footy with Templestowe, his manager's team. Younger brother Josh is at Aquinas and can play a bit.
On his 100th game day, Cripps has entered that phase of a career when – having established himself as an elite player and leader – team success has superseded everything else, when the least of his concerns is what Stephen Coniglio might be paid if the Giant boards the Teague train.
Carlton fans should harbour little fear of him returning to Perth. "I've been through all the tough times trying to build the club up from a pretty low base,'' said Cripps, who has two years to run on his current deal. "You'd be mad to leave when things get exciting, wouldn't you?''
He agreed with my suggestion that Carlton's reliance upon him had reduced in recent weeks, as Ed Curnow and Marc Murphy returned to the midfield, at the behest of new coach David Teague. "That's definitely true.''
He does not shirk the "hard conversations'' with teammates any more than he would a contest, while acknowledging they're not easy if you're mates with those players. "Take it as a performance conversation,'' was his modus operandi for giving corrective feedback. "Not a relationship and personal conversation.''
Just as he's sought to balance ball-getting with ball-carrying, Cripps recognised that he needed to find an outlet, or escape, from a drive to succeed in football that could be "pretty extreme''.
So, he took up surfing last year, heading to Torquay regularly with his brother Daniel and the Curnow brothers, Ed and Charlie.
"It's such as pressure industry, you've got to do things outside of footy that take your mind off that. I love surfing, I've been getting into surfing a fair bit.''
Cripps can see another wave over the horizon, which is navy blue. "I'm really optimistic about next year. The reason for that is just the momentum we've built over the last eight rounds, like we go into every week believing we're a massive chance.''
He and his teammates reckon the Blues can play finals next year, a benchmark that Teague – wisely – wouldn't be tied to at his coronation on Thursday.
Cripps is riding a commercial wave, too. As the affable, photogenic leading player at Carlton – a dormant power with pent-up demand and a massive media footprint – he's already scored deals with Nike, Telstra and Hyundai, the latter a long-time club sponsor, while he has some arrangements with Loreal, shoe-maker Aquila and the AFL's Marvel Stadium.
Few AFL players would be more marketable.
"You get little independent things along the way. The last two years probably opened up a different world I didn't know existed,'' he said of the commercial opportunities that have arrived.
"To be honest, I didn't know how big a club it was until I got here … Carlton's huge.''
Cripps said he had been speaking to his father recently about his journey in football. "Six years ago, you wouldn't have dreamed to be in this position.''
Uncut, unfit and struggling to keep up with runners he would later lap in football's real race, Cripps wasn't the only one back then who didn't foresee him rising above the pack.
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