In the middle of the night in Mississauga, just outside of Toronto, a group of people who were previously huddled around a computer screen have exploded into rapturous cheers and hugs. This is the extended family of Andrew McGrath, watching as the Canadian-born Aussie got picked up as the number one pick in the 2017 AFL Draft.
“They somehow live-streamed the draft over in Canada at 3am or whatever ridiculous time it was, and they’re really happy about it,” McGrath laughed, decked out proudly in his Essendon Football Club training gear.
“They don’t know too much about footy but they sort of know what’s going on. A lot of my cousins that have been out here just love it.”
McGrath becomes the second Canadian to be listed by an AFL club after Mike Pyke, the trailblazing Premiership-winning ruckman for the Sydney Swans. Kendra Heil is another Canadian in the footballing ranks – she’s listed for Collingwood in the AFLW competition.
As with Pyke and Heil, McGrath’s journey into Australian football hasn’t been as straight-forward as most that run around in the big league. When he made his way to Australia with his family at age five, he – like those cousins back in Canada – had no understanding of the game these kids around him were playing – but he had to make friends somehow.
“At primary school everyone’s playing footy, and I was like ‘what is this game, I’ve never seen it before’ – I was big into soccer when I was over in Canada, and footy became sort of a coping mechanism to fit in,” he said.
“I was pretty athletic and I picked up the game pretty quickly and that’s sort of where footy started. I’ve loved it ever since.”
That athleticism, though, would cause some angst later on, when he had to make a choice between his sporting options.
“I guess it didn’t really hit until year ten, I used to do athletics pretty competitively as well and that was a big choice for me, whether I went down the path of footy or athletics,” he explained.
“When I was 16 I was tossing and turning about which way to go and I think once I made that decision it sort of kicked in this could happen, this is what I want to happen, so I set some goals and it’s worked out in the end.”
After a session at Essendon’s massive facility at Tullamarine in Melbourne’s west in the sweltering summer heat, McGrath told Canada Down Under he was enjoying his first weeks at the top level, both from a physical and educational perspective.
“It’s been amazing – obviously it’s pretty hard work and they hold us back a little bit as first-year players so we don’t break down,” he said.
“It’s just nice to be a part of it – you see why the good players are the good players, they work so hard and if you can just learn a little bit from each of them then that’s the way to do it – I’ve loved every second of it.”
The Essendon Football Club has suffered a few torrid years, with off-field issues dominating the headlines and putting a strain on everyone at the club. You could have almost expected there to be a dark cloud hanging remaining over the football side, but McGrath says that couldn’t be further from the truth.
“Everyone is just so focussed for the year – everyone’s forgotten about what’s happened and just moved forward and we’re a stronger group because of it,” he said.
“The focus within the group and the drive is just amazing, and it’s great to be a part of.”
McGrath’s goals for the year are simple and resolute. While the hype that comes with being the number one pick is enormous, he’s determined to let his hard work do the talking.
“I just want to train as well as I can and play as well as I can if I get the opportunity,” he said.
“The goal is to play as soon as I can and as soon as I’m ready to play, whenever the coaches think that is, I’ll put my hand up and take that opportunity and hopefully make the most of it.”
While he hasn’t made it back to Canada for a few years – with the pressures of his final years of high school and his football clearly weighing heavily, McGrath hopes to increase the occurances of flights over the Pacific – even if it will reduce any chance of getting a decent tan.
“We get nine weeks off I think, so I reckon I’ll head back every year now, but over the last few years I haven’t been back,” he said.
“But it’s always usually in our summer, so we cop the double winter.”
In addition to his football, McGrath is studying Arts at Monash University, but expressed an interest in transferring to Commerce, perhaps to follow his Dad, Mike McGrath – who is currently Managing Partner, CMO at PwC Australia- into the finance world.
There’s also been some confusion in media circles about just how to pronounce “McGrath”; whether to go with the hard ‘th’, as they generally do in North America , or the Australian way with what becomes a silent ‘t’.
In Canada, it certainly had the hard ‘th’. His Dad still uses that pronunciation.
“I’ve given up,” he said, with resignation.