BIG READ: The little boy with big AFL dreams
GREG Armitage told himself he wouldn't get emotional when discussing his son's AFL exit.
But it's hard not to upon reflection.
The Mackay local spoke with son David this week ahead of the 31 year old's announcement on Thursday that he would be leaving the St Kilda Football Club after 169 games and 13 seasons.
"It's an odd thing being a football parent. It's a brutal industry,” Greg said of the AFL journey he lived adjacent to his son.
"There were times I just wished he'd gone on to be a carpenter.”
David was at one time touted as a potential captain of St Kilda, such was his presence on and off the football field.
Drafted with pick 9 in the 2006 National Draft, he had to bide his time in the Victorian Football League (VFL) during the Saints' period of finals dominance.
He debuted in Round 8, 2007 against Hawthorn in front of 36, 069 at the MCG but managed just 25 games in his first four seasons at the club.
It wasn't until 2011, the year after a heartbreaking double grand final defeat to Collingwood, that David cemented himself as a key cog in the St Kilda engine room.
"He was never the fastest. Never a good overhead mark. There wasn't a single thing that made him stand out,” Greg said.
"It was just a combination of mental toughness and physical resilience to play.”
From 2011-16 the Saints slid down the AFL ladder, but David rose to prominence in the eyes of teammates, coaches and fans.
In Round 6 2015, against the Western Bulldogs, he was the driving force in an incredible St Kilda comeback from 49 points down at half time. He finished with 45 disposals and a goal that day.
That year he averaged 28.4 disposals per game and also broke a club record for most contested possessions in a single home and away season, with 261.
At the peak of his playing powers, nothing could stop David from piling up the possessions.
Except perhaps himself.
In 2017 a groin injury limited him to just two matches; in 2018 he managed 15 while battling hamstring tendinitis.
That same injury kept David to just two games this season and perhaps ultimately, was what forced he and the Saints to go their separate ways.
On the eve of David's St Kilda exit, Greg offered a glimpse into the past and an insight into the lived experience of Mackay's most successful Aussie rules athlete.
SENIORS AT FOURTEEN
DAVID'S start in Aussie rules isn't a unique story. But the speed at which he progressed is.
"He got involved in football because his older brother Dylan was looking for a sport. (Dylan) was playing hockey but I didn't like the cliquishness and the way they treated him,” Greg said.
"I discovered there was an AFL competition here and he started playing for the Eastern Swans. David was the little brother who tagged along.”
But David quickly stepped out of his older brother's shadow.
At five he was playing in the Under-9s. By 13 he was part of an all-conquering Eastern Swans U15 premiershipwinning team and the following year made his senior debut, as a 14 year old, and kicked five goals against Bakers Creek.
"He's played football all his life - he probably can't remember not playing football. Because he showed a lot of talent right from the early days he was able to play up in age groups,” Greg said.
"The Swans had a very talented team . . . so (opposition teams) didn't pay David any respect in the forward pocket and he kept finding himself on his own. He could always find his own footy.”
For all his talent, the small in stature-Armitage struggled to get a look-in at representative level.
He represented the Country Kookaburras as a bottom-age player in Under-14s but was overlooked the following year because "they were worried about him getting knocked around too much” said Greg.
"The next year he grew about six inches. He shot up and was straight back into it.”
From there the path was laid bare for the talented teenager. David represented Queensland at Under-16 and Under-18 level, played in a 2005 QAFL grand final with Morningside and a year later was drafted by St Kilda.
"He went from maybe getting drafted, to maybe going in the second round, to my phone ringing on a regulra basis from player managers and various clubs in the lead-up to the Under-18 Championships,” Greg said.
"Two weeks before the Championships David was playing for Queensland in one of the warm-up matches and had a horrific head clash. His ear was three-quarters ripped off. They sowed it back on but with two weeks to the Championships we thought that's it, he'll miss it and he won't get drafted.
"Instead he played in a helmet. His picture was all over the Melbourne papers - he hated that helmet. He would tear it off at the end of each game.
"But his stock really rose.”
DRAFT DAY SLIDING DOORS
DRAFT day is perhaps the biggest sliding doors moment for both club and player.
The trajectory of a club can completely change based on which name they read out; a teenager's entire life is altered.
Hawthorn solidified its three-peat premiership success of a decade later when, on November 24, 2004, the club picked up Jarryd Roughead, Lance Franklin and Jordan Lewis with its first three selections.
Greg recalled David's draft day in 2006 and all the potential 'what-ifs' that took place.
As a proud Queenslander, David was an avid Brisbane Lions fan. That only grew when he moved to Brisbane and worked in the club merchandise shop at the Gabba whilst playing QAFL with Morningside.
"The Lions came to Mackay for a training run once,” Greg began.
"We were at Harrup Park - David wasn't with us. Annette my wife, she's pretty cheeky. She went up to Leigh Matthews and explained who we were. He said 'oh, I know David. He's a great kid'. She said, 'please draft him'.
"Leigh said he had nothing to do with the drafting.”
The Lions had pick 4 in that draft. They went with East Perth ruckman Matthew Leuenberger.
As an avid Richmond supporter, Greg would have loved to see his son in the famous yellow and black.
The Tigers had pick 8 and David was touted as a potential top 10 pick.
Instead Richmond moved back outside the top 10 in a swap with Collingwood and later selected a skinny tall forward from Tasmania by the name of Jack Riewoldt with pick 13.
"I still didn't think he was going to St Kilda. Collingwood had rung me (before the draft). They made the swap with Richmond,” Greg recalled.
The Magpies instead went with Ben Reid at eight, leaving St Kilda on the clock at pick 9.
The rest as they say, is history.
"When David got drafted the first person to contact him was Nick Riewoldt. David rang me and said, 'Dad guess who just rang me'; I said 'wow mate, you've made it',” Greg said.
"Then the next day my phone rang and it was Joe Riewoldt, Nick's dad. I went to school with Joe and played football with Joe.
"It seemed fitting.”
TOUGH TEAM TO CRACK
THE ST KILDA side of the mid to late-2000s remains one of the best teams in AFL history to never taste premiership success.
The Saints contested finals in six of the seven seasons between 2005-11 and played in three grand finals in two years; 2009-10. All defeats.
"When he got to St Kilda they had this midfield of Nick Dal Santo, Lenny Hayes, Luke Ball, Leigh Montagna . . . Robert Harvey was there. It was really hard personnel-wise for David to get into that team,” Greg said.
"He played a lot of VFL in those first four years. Then at crucial times when he was getting a good run of games he'd cop an injury; there was always head knocks when you play the style of football he plays.”
FOOTBALLER TO FATHER
GREG always kept a close eye on David's football career.
He was never "one of those” fathers - you know the ones, that live their dreams vicariously through their child.
But he knew what David's dream was and made sure he didn't lose sight of that.
"We discovered when he was about 14 or 15 that he was a really good middle distance runner. We knew he had a motor,” Greg said.
"One year, (player development officer) Jason Paul had a squad of U16/18 boys that would do a run every Sunday. Often I would get a call from David asking if he could skip the run that day.
"I wasn't a real sporting parent that pushed him. But he told me that's what he wanted to do and so I told him to do it.
"I never believed he would (become an AFL player). He sacrificed a lot through his teenage years to make that happen.
"I guess he made up for it.”
Playing AFL football was always David's dream.
Now as he prepares to close that chapter of his life, Greg wonders how his son might cope.
Pretty well, he thinks.
"You hear a lot about when players retire how they go through a difficult period of adjustment,” Greg said.
"I've been at the MCG on a Friday night watching David play in front of 85,000 people - I asked David's brother when we were up on Townsville how he thought (David) might adjust.
"David's not a very demonstrative sort of fellow with his emotions - it will be tricky. But he has a lot of options.
"He has a little fella now (son Parker). That's his main focus.”
'YOU'D HAVE TO BE HAPPY WITH THAT'
THIRTEEN seasons: 169 games, 98 goals and a long-standing place in the hearts of many St Kilda fans for his loyal service to the club.
Not a bad effort for a kid from Mackay who just wanted to live his dream.
"He would have been a 200-game footballer if he wasn't hit with injury. That's how I look at it,” Greg reflected.
"You've got to be blessed to play AFL for 13 years; 150 (games) - that's (St Kilda) life membership.
"We went down for that I think at the end of 2016 and David said to me that night, 'you'd have to be happy with that'.
"All said and done, I told him on Tuesday night when he rang me, 'I couldn't be more proud mate'.”