Meet the Connor McDavid of the AFL: Canada’s Andrew McGrath

Andrew McGrath. (Jack Thomas/Getty)

Get to know this name: Andrew McGrath.

He’s the first Canadian to be selected with the No. 1 draft pick in the Australian Football League. Not only did he oust the best talent Australia has to offer, from all reports he’s set to become the Connor McDavid of “footy,” as the locals call it.


It’s 2 p.m. on a Thursday and the 18 year old is weary. McGrath has just returned home from his first foray into professional Australian rules football with a gruelling two-day camp at a Navy base along the coast of Victoria with 41 players from the Essendon Football Club. The bonding retreat’s objective was simple: Get to know your teammates through a gamut of problematic obstacles. The tests were physical as much as mental and included more obvious stumbling blocks such as abseiling, the beep test and crawling through thick sand. That progressed to trekking through a swamp and finally learning how to escape a simulation of a flooding boat.

Eight days ago, McGrath had no idea where his talents would take him. He sat shaking in his chair at the AFL National Draft, like most 18 year olds, praying that Essendon would scoop him up. In a pinch-yourself moment, his name was the first to be called out.

“It didn’t really feel real at all. I’m so honoured to be picked No. 1, I can’t really describe it,” said McGrath. “It was just a surreal experience.”

Since then, life has been travelling at light speed. McGrath has spoken to just about every Australian media outlet, appeared on TV and was called “Canada’s newest sporting hero” by the AFL. McGrath has embraced his new persona and the tag of being the country’s best under-18 footballer and has taken it in stride. “It’s all part of it. I’m just trying to enjoy it. You only get drafted once.”

McGrath lived in Mississauga, Ont., until he was five years old. He says he doesn’t recall too much of his life back then but fondly remembers the cold winters, playing two seasons of soccer and watching his cousins play hockey. His father Michael landed a job in Australia and moved his family to the other side of the world where summers are scorching and winters are mild.

When he started school he picked up the oval-shaped ball and started playing footy like the rest of his peers, partly curious, partly as a coping mechanism. Football to McGrath was a love that developed between the age of eight and 15, but it wasn’t his only sporting vice. He was also naturally gifted at athletics. His time was divided into two seasons: football in the winter, athletics in the summer. And for a seven-year period, that arrangement worked. But then something happened. He became elite at both, qualifying for state selection.

Although McGrath loved football, he was racking up accolades in athletics. He excelled at high jump, triple jump and long jump before he found his calling in hurdles. He became the Australian under-14 champion in high jump and was the national champion in the 200-metre hurdles. McGrath was preparing for a shot at the 400-metre hurdles at the 2015 World Youth Championships when he decided to pull out.

“I had to choose between playing footy or doing an athletics pre-season during winter,” McGrath said. “I knew I couldn’t commit to that, so I went with footy. Athletics was important for me, and it taught me a lot about sport that I’ve taken into my footy.”

Sandringham Dragons head coach Jeremy Barnard got to know McGrath for two years through their elite football pathway program. The words affable, circumspect and hardworking were words he used to sum up the young man’s persona. During McGrath’s 2016 season, the final year before AFL draft consideration, Barnard said he had the perfect year for development. He started off just OK and had to work on his game.

It wasn’t until seven weeks in that Barnard saw AFL qualities in McGrath when he was shifted from defence into the midfield where he completely obliterated the opposition with 40 touches. What separated McGrath from the rest of the pack was his elite pace, agility, straight line speed and speed off the angle — highly critical for a 360 degree game. Not only could he play a lockdown role in defence, but the five-foot-nine speedster could play outside midfield or an in-and-under hard ball game.

“He didn’t shy away from the hard work and feedback we gave him which was a real credit to him,” said Barnard. “His versatility and ability to make good decisions under pressure will hold him in good stead going forward.”

Barnard believes Essendon is getting a ready-made player. Not one that needs to be mollycoddled or pushed, but someone who can make an impact, someone with true ideals and beliefs. There’s going to be a transition period for McGrath when he needs to get up to speed on the rigours of the AFL where midfielders can run up to 20 kilometres a game. Barnard’s understanding of McGrath leads him to believe that if there’s extra work to be done, he’ll be the guy running laps well after the lights at Essendon’s high performance centre are switched off.

Adrian Dodoro has spent more than 20 years at the helm of Essendon’s national recruiting program, culling dead wood and unearthing young talent. Dodoro started eyeing McGrath when he was 16 years old and knew then he boasted alluring traits. Selecting McGrath with their No. 1 pick ultimately became a no-brainer.

“He has all the attributes to be a very good modern day player — speed, agility, game awareness. Another side is professionalism and he should be a leader on our club,” said Dodoro. “We think he’ll make an impact next year but we are not going to put any expectations on him being a first-year player. He should debut next year, everything going well with a good pre-season, and no injuries.”

McGrath will have to wait until March 25, 2017 to see if he’s selected to play in the opening round for the red and black. Until then, he’ll do 80 per cent of the pre-season, a restricted program for rookies to nullify injuries and progress development. As the reality of AFL life starts to sink in — the long days in the gym, gruelling time trials in the Melbourne heat — McGrath, the boy from Mississauga, will most likely do what he’s always done and roll up his sleeves in an attempt to become a generational player in the AFL.

“Everything has felt like a dream that I haven’t woken up from. Now we’re getting stuck into it a bit and I’m getting more comfortable, finding my feet as the days progress,” McGrath said. “The pinnacle of that excitement has kind of passed and I’m ready to get stuck into hard work.”

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