The Swans’ academy helped Isaac Heeney reach the AFL. The childhood prodigy’s ‘ticker’ and love of a brutal on-field apprenticeship at age 16 helped him achieve superstardom, writes ROB FORSAITH.
Isaac Heeney refers to it as his ticker.
It’s the work rate he has exhibited since backyard battles with older brother and fellow rugby league fan Beau (touch footy would inevitably and hastily evolve).
It came to the fore as a 16-year-old outclassing grown and grumpy men throughout the Hunter region, nearly winning the Black Diamond Cup’s best and fairest award in a six-game season.
It was required when a stack of injuries, including a broken jaw suffered during a one-punch attack in Hong Kong, threatened to stall the prodigy’s rise after graduating from Sydney’s academy to their AFL side.
And it’s been on display this season, when Heeney’s career-best form has been rewarded with his first All-Australian blazer and a return to the league’s grandest stage.
Heeney doesn’t hesitate when asked what he might be doing if not for football.
“When I was young I wanted to be a veterinarian. That or, to be honest, playing rugby league. But I wouldn’t change this for the world,” the 26-year-old, a proud owner of dog Nala, tells CODE Sports in grand final week.
It underlines why the blonde-haired surfer with resting beam face is the poster boy for the Swans, but also their divisive recruitment tool. If not for the academy invite extended when Isaac was 12, there is every reason to believe he would now be the face of an NRL club.
The fact that so many Sydneysiders are familiar with Heeney’s story, regardless of whether they’ve watched a minute of AFL this season, is significant. But that’s a debate for another day – and as far removed from Heeney’s upbringing as imaginable.
A love of animals and an embrace of every sport on offer were the cornerstones of Heeney’s childhood. The Stockrington family farm is nestled between Newcastle, famed for its export of coal and Silverchair, and Cessnock, known in a sporting sense as the home of Andrew and Matty Johns.
Isaac’s early years were surrounded by horses. Dad Adam and mum Rochelle, both talented in their respective sports pursuits, were caretakers at the Lower Hunter Riding for the Disabled centre.
Then it was cattle, chickens, dogs, goats and pigs. The sprawling paddocks hosted all sorts of brotherly showdowns and shenanigans; tree climbing, swimming in the dam, bike riding, and jumping bikes into the dam.
Adam and Rochelle worked long hours in low-paying jobs. The priority was Isaac and Beau, and their sporting endeavours. They ferried the boys around to soccer, cricket, OzTag, rugby league and Aussie Rules commitments.
“We just loved it and I think they loved us being outside. They made sure we got to as many things as we could,” Isaac recalls.
Heeney’s first season of under 6s soccer featured 68 goals from 12 games. A batting average of 216 and five tries in the grand final of a rugby league school competition, are other examples of his brilliance.
The talent was mixed with hard work, even back then. When Heeney decided to concentrate on Australian Rules, he made a habit of bouncing the Sherrin while running around a 3km cross-country track marked out at home. There were ice baths in wheelie bins.
The decision to pursue an AFL career was obviously predicated on the Swans’ academy. But it was his parents’ driving that made his drive possible.
“A lot of effort from mum and dad to take half days off work, drive down to Sydney and back to Newcastle. Five hours of travel for about an hour, hour-and-a-half of training,” the 26-year-old reflects
“To do that once, twice a week was a massive commitment and I can’t thank them enough for it.”
The Swans’ academy put Heeney on a path to great success, but his Australian football career started as a six-year-old in Cardiff’s under 10s. Playing up an age division became a routine occurrence in ensuing years.
The 2012 season featured landmark success for the Swans and Heeney.
The latter celebrated his 16th birthday, senior debut for Cardiff, admission to the AFL-AIS program (meaning a trip to Europe), and a Jim Stynes scholarship awarded to help disadvantaged footballers reach the AFL (meaning a meeting with Prime Minister Julia Gillard).
The Black Diamond Cup sounds like a brutal league. For Heeney, a schoolkid with a mop of blonde hair and the sort of skills rarely sighted at that level, it certainly was.
“Me being little, I got lined up a fair bit,” Heeney admits.
“It was a pretty physical competition and I was pretty underdeveloped.
“I’m really lucky I jumped into a club like Cardiff. They allowed me to play up a few divisions then also had my back.
“A lot of guys would play rugby league then come into Aussie Rules. All they wanted to do – well – it was nearly like, ‘who could put the biggest shot on’ rather than ‘who could take the mark of the day’.
“I loved it. Absolutely loved it. It probably progressed my body work and physicality.”
Callan Buchan, now the vice president of the Hawks, vividly recounts the soon-to-be superstar being “about 60kg wringing wet” yet “a weapon from the get-go”.
“The main thing was just seeing that young little blonde kid running around and dominating men. It was pretty special,” Buchan says.
“He was just a freak ... being so little, he captured everyone’s eye with just how explosive he was when he got the ball. Then his decision-making, his ability to kick the ball with both feet and hit a target.
“It was just a forward’s dream. If you’d lead enough at him, he was going to nail you nine times out of 10.”
The academy accelerated Heeney’s footy education, such as when Paul Roos once deployed him as a tagger. The minutes of match simulation and actual games stacked up, while Heeney was starting to establish a rapport with some of the men he will run onto the MCG with in the 2022 AFL grand final.
Jared Crouch coached the Swans’ reserves in the 2014 NEAFL grand final. Heeney and fellow academy student Callum Mills were top-up players, joining Tom Mitchell and Ryan O’Keefe in the side.
“Some of the academy boys were good, solid players at that level. The ability to be clean under pressure when you step up is what separated the ones who went further,” Crouch explains.
“Isaac was definitely a one-touch clean player.”
Heeney’s final season with Cardiff was 2013. The youngster managed six games between the AIS-AFL tour, rep footy, academy duties and NEAFL matches. Yet he polled 14 votes, falling one vote short of winning the Elliott Davey medal awarded to the league’s best and fairest.
“He was bloody unlucky. He didn’t get to play a lot of games,” Buchan notes.
There will be a group of at least 20 from the Hawks heading to the MCG on Saturday. Heeney’s connection to the club remains genuine.
“When he’s injured or got a bye, he’ll come up to local Cardiff Hawks games, whether it’s seniors or juniors. The way he interacts with the kids is just awesome,” Buchan says.
“He’ll have a line-up of kids and parents wanting to chat to him ... he spends half the time getting photos taken but he still loves coming.”
Heeney trails only Lance Franklin when it comes to celebrity status among the Swans’ squad, but there are seemingly none of the trappings associated with fame.
Teammates say there are no free coffees accepted or queue jumping, that Heeney is generous with his time regardless of whether it’s the SCG or the sea. It is hard to find any sort of chink in the armour.
“He loves looking at himself in the mirror, pretty happy with his rig. If I had that rig, I wouldn’t have a shirt on either,” Tom McCartin quips.
Crouch suggests Heeney has “flown on a bit from Jude Bolton” in that “everybody loves them”.
“Just a genuine country kid. He’s great with kids, great with fans … incredibly friendly,” he adds.
Oliver Florent has coined the nickname ‘brick head’ for Heeney because “he’s just very dense sometimes”.
“We’ve got a few ongoing jokes, we give each other a fair bit of shit here and there. But in terms of dirt, there is none,” Florent expands.
“I look up to Isaac for how he goes about his footy, how professional and competitive he is. He makes very hard things look easy on the field. That’s because he puts in the hours, that’s why he’s so great.”
Heeney has battled a diverse range of setbacks since joining Sydney: glandular fever, ankle surgery, knee surgery. Last year, he broke his thumb while returning from a broken hand.
The trademark grin has rarely waned. Even while recovering from the injury he sustained when assaulted while getting into a taxi on the other side of the world after his first AFL season.
Plates and screws were inserted to mend the broken jaw in Hong Kong after the 2015 attack. Soon after, Swans teammates on the footy trip were dining on steaks as Heeney sipped a milkshake.
“It was a strange one. Obviously started out as a great trip with the boys,” he explains with typical enthusiasm.
“Then obviously a bit of mistaken identity. Wrong place, wrong time.
“I was actually eating steak about a week later and running not long after, so it wasn’t serious at all. I was just very lucky.”
This season has been refreshingly different on the injury front. Heeney has played every match possible.
The dynamo, who finished with five goals and three Brownlow votes when Sydney hosted Geelong in round two, believes it’s a matter of luck more than anything else. Perhaps the cliché about luck and hard work has something to it.
“I’ve always been a hard worker. That’s something I’ve always prided myself on,” he says.
“Growing up, my brother was more skilful than me. So I had to get one up on him. And that was just, what I call my ticker. My work rate.
“I knew it’d turn for me.”
Heeney, capable of hurting sides as a marking forward, crumbing forward or midfield warrior, signed a six-year contract extension in March.
It remains hard to imagine the utility ever switching clubs. It is also hard to imagine him switching codes, although Heeney convinced his mother that was on the cards in 2021. Rochelle’s shocked response (“f--k me drunk, it’s the dumbarse game!”) is the highlight of the FM radio prank.
“She’s finally forgiven me. If I do it again, she’ll probably disown me,” Isaac laughs.
“I’m fully expecting a stitch up from her sometime soon.”
The Sydney Roosters fan’s love of rugby league is not as passionate as when he idolised Anthony Minichiello. But this season’s easing of biosecurity restrictions mean the Swans and Roosters are again able to mingle as Moore Park precinct neighbours.
“I haven’t got to Allianz yet. It looks amazing,” Heeney says.
“It’s good we’re side-by-side and can bounce off Robbo (Roosters coach Trent Robinson) every now and then. Two successful clubs next to each other.”
Heeney and Roosters skipper James Tedesco’s areas of expertise are different, but they’re cut from the same cloth in one obvious sense.
“He’s a bloody hard worker,” Heeney says.
“Teddy’s a legend. Humble. Really nice fella.”
Heeney capped his second AFL season with a grand final loss to Western Bulldogs. The goal-kicking ace’s excitement about Saturday is palpable, but he is keen to avoid “getting caught up in the emotion and significance of it all”.
“Embrace the moment. Live in the moment, but don’t waste too much energy before the game,” he says of lessons from 2016.
Heeney isn’t short of energy. Surfing and fishing remain go-to escape from footy, although he can never switch off entirely.
“If you surf in Sydney, you’re almost always getting dropped in,” he quips.
“Surfing is my number one. My happy time away from the club … surfing and fishing go hand in hand. If it’s flat, I’ll fish. If there’s a bit of swell around, I’ll surf.”
Heeney’s love of fishing was another gift from his old man. They can now look forward to father-son fishing trips in the off-season after Isaac gifted his tinnie to Adam.
“Whenever I come home we can shoot up the rivers and catch some fish for dinner,” Isaac says.
“Nice little bonding time. They live on property, so I’ve also helped them out with a quad bike and motorbike. Nothing else in the pipeline at the moment but if we win the grand final, who knows?”
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