The path to AFL success is often paved with early failures and obstacles. No two journeys to the top level are the same.

Last year’s All Australian team was filled with the stars of the modern game, hailing from and representing all corners of the country.

One player might have taken the longest route to get to that stage to claim the blazer.

“It was pretty, pretty surreal standing next to a few of the players up there. You know, Tom Stewart, five-time All Australian, one of the all-time greats.”

St Kilda’s Callum Wilkie hasn’t taken anything in his career for granted. The 28-year-old South Australian was humbled by the All Australian honour, one of just 24 mature-age (20 years or older) draft picks to win the nod since 1993.

The St Kilda vice-captain also realised that it was just a small step in the path to ultimate success.

“It was a nice honour but, you know, it’s in the past,” Wilkie told ABC Sport last week.

“You just look at, ‘How can I get the team better?’ and get those results you want.”

Wilkie’s journey from being an under-the-radar mature-age rookie to one of the most reliable and consistent defenders of the century so far is one that defies the conventional narrative of footy pathways and factories.

Noted author Victor Hugo once wrote: “Perseverance, secret of all triumphs.”

Perseverance might just be Callum Wilkie’s middle name.

Two AFL players jump for the yellow football.

Callum Wilkie (right) doesn’t give up on a play.(AFL Photos via Getty Images: Darrian Traynor)

The draft year

Wilkie’s rise to the top might not have happened without his period below it.

In 2014, South Australia won the National Under 18 AFL Championships, triumphing over traditional foe Victoria Metro in the final game.

Wilkie was a staple in that side, but not in the role we know him for now.

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Wilkie played a lot of his junior footy as a key forward, a spearhead instead of the one given the role to stop them. The North Adelaide product started the championships listed at full forward before being swung back as the tournament progressed.

“I was really tall when I was young, so I was rucking, playing centre half forward when I was 15 or so,” Wilkie said.

Twelve members of that victorious South Australian side were picked up in that year’s draft, but Wilkie’s name was absent from recruiters’ mouths, which was no great surprise to Wilkie.

“I mean, I spoke to three or four clubs [but] I didn’t have a great year that year and … I was disappointed,” Wilkie said.

“Like every other kid that comes through the system, you want to play AFL. It was a dream for so long and I had a couple of years before that where I was really good and wanted to go on and play AFL.

“It obviously hurts but you just sort of have to go on.”

Despite the success of his sides, the numbers were as stacked against Wilkie as they are any junior player.

The system is a heartbreak machine.

Let’s take last year as an example. Nationwide there were about 27,000 17-year-old footy players. Approximately 1,700 played elite under-18s representative footy. About 160 played in the National Under 18 Championships.

Just 61 were selected last year in either the AFL Draft or the Rookie Draft. That’s about 0.2 per cent of all 27,000 players.

Those numbers illustrate just how hard it is to make the AFL. But missing the cut isn’t always the end of the story.

It certainly wasn’t for Callum Wilkie.

Nasiah Wanganeen-Milera of the Saints and Callum Wilkie of St Kilda try to stop Richmond's Dustin Martin during an AFL game.

Wilkie’s (right) job is to stop on-ball superstars such as Dustin Martin (centre).(Getty Images: Sarah Reed/AFL Photos)

Wilkie didn’t quit footy. Instead, he went back to North Adelaide and tried to rediscover that joy for the game.

“I just got back to enjoying playing footy with my best mates at North,” he said.

“Then Josh Carr came in.”

That process didn’t happen overnight — Wilkie said it took a year or two to refocus after being overlooked. Wilkie, like many other 18-year-olds, got on with life.

Still, there is a reason Wilkie is where he is now. He credits then-North Adelaide senior coach and current Port Adelaide assistant Josh Carr on getting him to where he is today.

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“Josh was pretty set on me being a defender and he saw that in me from the get-go,” he said.

“He had a lot of confidence in me playing my game and he probably really ignited my dream of playing out there when I had given up.”

“From the moment he sort of said that to I guess getting drafted I owe a lot to him. I always credit him when I do interviews because I don’t think I’d be playing AFL if it wasn’t him.”

By 2018, Wilkie had become the best and fairest player in the North Adelaide SANFL premiership team, and one of the brightest lights outside of the AFL system.

By then, Wilkie’s draft time had finally come.

Wilkie’s game style

Making the AFL is one thing. As outlined above, about a third of all draftees fail to play a game.

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Wilkie, from his debut, has managed to reel off 114 consecutive games. That’s a St Kilda record, and good for the fifth all-time debut streak.

Being a top-notch tall defender in the modern AFL also takes a lot of work and a lot of prep.

More importantly, it takes being able to know yourself, your strengths and your weaknesses.

“You’ll find out what works best for you as a player and as a defender to be able to impact in those positions,” Wilkie said.

“I’m not the biggest key defender going around — I’m the smallest. So, just finding out what works for me is important.”

Wilkie is one of the best at knowing when to engage his opponent and when to peel off to play the role of the interceptor. The Saint is one of the best in the league at reading the flight of the ball and the tone of the play.

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Wilkie believes that positional versatility from his younger days has helped him better read the game as it unfolds.

“No doubt that’s probably held me in good stead — being able to play both ends of the ground,” he said.

“And I guess I think that probably more developed … a bit later when I realised I stopped growing. Everyone overshot me and I had to figure out a way to beat them.”

When preparing week to week, Wilkie balances the side that he is about to face, the team’s overarching game plan and his natural strengths as a player.

“[I’m] always looking at what the opposition’s strengths are and their individual strengths and how they like to play and how they change the contest. So, you sort of try and find that balance,” Wilkie said.

“It does change week to week a little bit, but mainly you sort of try and remember why you’re a good player.”

That self-confidence, belief and hard work are key to staying at the top of your game at AFL level.

After a poor game against Essendon, Wilkie recognised the steps required to bring his game back to its rightful level against Richmond the following week.

“Going into Richmond I did a lot of work with a lot of the other backs, [defensive assistant coach] Corey Enright and [development coach] Jake Batchelor during the week. Just going back to what my best positioning is and a lot of working on my hands,” Wilkie said.

“I watched some footage of me getting back to my best. The main thing is the body. Then going out to the park and getting high balls in and kicking to the hands. Just to feel that confidence of those repetitions.”

The results spoke for themselves. Wilkie snagged five intercept marks in the last quarter and 2 minutes of the game, and set up the match-sealing goal.

That offensive part of his game is often undersold, but he rates as one of the best ball-using key position defenders in the league.

Despite all the prep, some parts of the defensive process have to come from instinct.

“I guess the main thing in contests is being able to play the drop zone as quick as possible. Then you can face the fact whether you know you hold out,” Wilkie said.

“It’s funny — it’s one I can’t always articulate too well in terms of what my process goes through. It just sort of just happens.”

Wilkie also often gets tasked with playing the role of the “alpha” in the Saints defence. The alpha generally sits line between ball and goal surmising the situation around him, a kick deeper than a traditional spare defender.

The alpha has to be aware of every element of the unfolding play; of quick surges and sudden gains. Like a rugby league fullback, the alpha has to move and adjust and communicate to the rest of his defence around him.

Wilkie’s involvement in this role generally escapes traditional statistical measurement, but it has contributed strongly to St Kilda’s stellar defence in recent years. That included last year when they paced the league in a range of defensive measures.

Any success that the Saints will likely see this year will be built from the back.

As one of the Saints’ leaders, Wilkie has a firm eye on the hopes of the season ahead.

“For the team it’s just constant improvement. You know you never want to stay stagnant in this game. The game will quickly go by you,” he said.

“We’ve got a lot of young players and we’ve got a good mix of growth. I feel like we’re building a special brand and culture at this club and that’s when my role comes in as a leader — it’s to just support that and help everyone grow and just help everyone become better as a team.

“We just want to button down that system and be that team we want to be. You know that’s obviously playing finals. We want to be there.”

Wilkie’s long path to his mantle as one of the game’s best defenders took years of perseverance, graft and dedication to get here.

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