THERE are plenty of talented young footballers today still nursing bruised egos and crushed dreams after being overlooked at Thursday night's national draft. Luke Dahlhaus knows the score. This time a year ago, he was one of them.
"I remember this whole time last year I was shitting myself waiting for draft day to come," he says. "Then I was shattered. The few days after the draft were some of the worst I've had. But then a week later was one of the best moments of my life."
Such are the swings and roundabouts of pursuing a career as an AFL footballer. No sooner had Dahlhaus got his head around the massive disappointment, he was picked up by the Western Bulldogs in the rookie draft. And since then, it's been largely a fairytale.
The pocket-sized teen with the dreadlocks began the season in the VFL at the Bulldogs' feeder club Williamstown. Two games later, he had been promoted to the firsts. His AFL debut finally came in round 12 against St Kilda. Dahlhaus had an immediate impact on a side struggling for wins and some spark. And by round 19 he had picked up a Rising Star nomination.
"A lot of it comes down to hard work, but there's a little bit of luck involved, and hopefully it just falls your way," he says. ''I suppose it shows that the kids that don't get picked up have just got to keep trying. These days you can see kids and even mature-age players getting picked up out of the VFL. The main thing is just never give up."
But that determination hasn't merely won Dahlhaus a spot on an AFL list, his promotion from rookie to senior list player confirmed on Thursday night with his upgrading. At 19, and after only 11 senior games, the energetic little man already shapes as a bigger part of the Bulldogs' 2012 plans under new coach Brendan McCartney than could reasonably have been expected.
Asked if Dahlhaus has the potential to become a key player for the Dogs, veteran Bob Murphy doesn't hesitate. "I already think he is. The way he played when he came in was just so much what we needed," Murphy says.
"He's a real spark player. He's working his arse off at the moment to become a more consistent four-quarter player. But it's not like now he flashes in for a couple of moments a game. He bursts more than just about anyone at our club, I reckon."
Pace and explosiveness was never an issue for Dahlhaus when he played TAC Cup for Geelong Falcons, finishing third in last year's Morrish Medal. Disposal was, however, and he has worked assiduously on getting it right.
The value of doing so was never underlined better than in the 19-possession, two-goal performance in a side soundly beaten which earned Dahlhaus his Rising Star gong.
"I remember in the TAC Cup I was the worst for efficiency by hand and foot in the whole competition," he says. ''It's no wonder I didn't get picked up looking at that. I really wanted to work on it, and through those games with Willy I was hitting my targets and using my pace, so I was lucky enough to get a gig.
"I put in a fair bit of work in here [the gym] after every training session. I remember when I first got here, my left-hand handball was no good. Then in the Essendon game, my left hand got me a goal, so it just showed to me that hard work does pay off. When something like that comes off, it feels amazing."
Indeed, that round-21 game became something of a light bulb moment for Dahlhaus, the moment that confirmed to him that he really did belong in this company. "I think it really did sink in in that Essendon game. I kicked two goals, had a bit of the ball, and I remember thinking during the game, 'Jeez, you're actually having a bit of an influence here'. It's great just to have that confidence to know you should be at this level.
"I think when you're a rookie, and you're playing in the Willy reserves, some days you feel like you're out of it. You're wearing the kit, but you sort of don't feel part of it. But you start getting a game, you feel like mates with everyone, and that you belong. It's such a good feeling."
And one shared by the Western Bulldogs' most senior players. "When I first saw him, I saw the dreadlocks and the laid-back thing, looking like he's half-asleep, and my initial thought was, 'Here we go, a little grommet with surf wax in his hair, and he'll be sleeping in till 12," Murphy chuckles.
"I was deceived a bit at the start by his hair, and the fact he's too good-looking to be playing football, let's be honest. But underneath that, there's a really seriously competitive kid who was really hurt when he missed out on being drafted. And that's probably spurred him on to bigger and better things earlier than he might have."
It's not necessarily great comfort right now to the score of kids who missed out similarly on Thursday night. But Dahlhaus' story might at least provide some hope that a lifelong football dream doesn't have to be ended by the odd unexpected detour.
Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.