There comes a turning point in the life of every person. For Tom Papley, it was winning the 2012 premiership with his hometown club, the Bunyip Bulldogs. At the time, he'd started a plumbing apprenticeship and recently toured Barbados as an aggressive opening batsman. That flag changed everything.
Papley's two grandfathers, Jeff Bray and Max Papley, played together at South Melbourne in the 1960s, and their mateship is why his parents met. Football, and the Swans, are in his blood, and he can remember watching on as a nine-year-old, with his Dad at the MCG as we claimed the 2005 premiership, surrounded by the seventy-two-year-old tears of generational supporters.
'I was born and bred in South Melbourne, probably ten minutes galloping pace away from Lake Oval,' says Tom's grandfather, and 1966 Swans Best & Fairest winner, Max Papley.
'I was on my Mum's shoulders at the 1945 Grand Final, and I have wonderful memories of the Lake Oval. They trained at night with a lamp on top of the grandstand, and I used to stand behind the goals and kick the balls back to them.'
'One night, Harry Simpson said, 'Have you got a football son?' I think he saw that I had a rolled-up bit of paper tied together with string, and he gave me a Sherrin to take home. I was 10 or 11, and ran all the way home, only for Mum to give me a serve about stealing a football, and she made me take it back!' laughs Max.
Like his grandfather that night, Tom endured his share of disappointment on his quest for success. He missed selection in his draft year but, unsurprisingly, stuck at it. An extra season with the Gippsland Power alerted recruiters to his potential - Kinnear Beatson among them.
Papley first met Beatson appropriately decked out in his tradie attire. After receiving a call while working on stormwater drains in Buln Buln, he joined his pops in becoming a Blood, taken with the 14th selection in the 2016 rookie draft.
Swans legend & Brownlow Medalist Peter Bedford is certainly happy he did. 'Tommy's worked really hard to make it from the country, and he's just improved at every turn. He's always got a smile on his face, generates so much energy for the team, and deserves all the accolades he gets.'
'Kinnear Beatson and his recruiting staff have done really well with those rookie selections over the years, and they made the right call with Tommy.'
When Bedford joined the Swans from Port Melbourne, one of his favourite players was Max Papley. Much to his dismay, they never got to play a game together. He did, however, inherit his number eleven jumper.
'He left that year to go and captain-coach Williamstown, and I was so disappointed that I never got to play alongside him,' Bedford says. 'But fortunately, in 1970, we made the finals, and I got a telegram from Maxy wishing me luck, and he said, 'I knew that number 11 would come good; I should've stayed a few years longer. It was a nice touch.'
When that number became available in 2018, Tom seized the opportunity. He told Sydney Swans media, 'There are a few players like Peter Bedford, Stuart Maxfield, and obviously Max, my grandfather - there are a few good names on the locker room wall, and it's exactly why I changed to the number 11'.
'I play with real pride when I put it on, it's a good part of history, and I love running out in the number 11, just like my grandfather. My name will go up on the locker, so when that happens, I just can't wait to see it alongside Max's.'
Tomorrow, he'll play game number 150. Always a fan favourite, I asked a group of passionate Swans supporters this week to describe Tom Papley in a word. Their responses included: virtuoso, cheeky, spark, barometer, pedigree, electric, pure-bred, livewire, and passionate.
It's fitting that his milestone match arrives on the day the club celebrates its collaboration with Australia's leading national children's cancer charity, Redkite. Papley is a Swans Redkite ambassador, bringing joy to those that need it most, both on and off the field.
And that also includes his family. 'My wife Laraine put a lot of time into teaching him to kick both right and left foot when he was about 4 or 5,' Max recalls. 'She was amazing with him, and it did come naturally to Tom. We've had a lot of fun as a family with our sport, but there's a lot of luck involved in the pathway system.'
Tom credits John Longmire with encouraging him to always be himself, and although he's still just 26, Papley's career has been unique and outstanding. Since debuting in 2016, he's played in two Grand Finals and was selected in the 2017 AFL Players' Association 22-Under 22 team and the 2021 AFL All-Australian team. He kicked 5 goals for Victoria in the 2020 State Of Origin Bushfire Relief game, won the Swans' goalkicking twice, and has kicked 238 goals overall.
'He's just been terrific,' says Bedford. 'His energy really permeates the team, and I was just rapt when he decided to stay up in Sydney. When we're performing, he's a real barometer for us; he exudes confidence and provides a real stimulus for the other players to get up and about. I'm rapt he wears the number eleven.'
With a young and developing team, Papley has grown into the position he proudly occupies within the Swans' leadership group. The squad is notoriously close-knit, with the COVID-enforced bubbles of 2020/21 providing an unexpected opportunity for the youthful group to bond.
It also gave Bedford and the legendary Bob Skilton a rare chance to yarn with the current playing squad and staff.
'Bobby and I went to the Como Hotel on Chapel Street and spent the afternoon with the whole squad and staff. Bobby presented Callum Mills with his guernsey, and I presented Tommy's. Tom Harley fired off a few questions, and Bobby and I told a few stories. We took a lovely group photo afterward, and Tommy and the boys came up for a chat and told us they enjoyed hearing about our experiences,' Bedford recalls.
In many ways, Tom Papley represents the connection between past and present. Between South and Sydney. It's a link that's not lost on the dynamic forward, and when Bedford and his daughter toured Swans HQ at the Royal Hall of Industries earlier in the year, you'll never guess who suddenly appeared.
'Tommy came out of one of the rooms with that big smile on his face and came straight over to have a chat. Before you knew it, half a dozen of the boys were there,' Bedford recalls.
As Swans supporters, we've revelled in his rise, celebrated his celebrations, and embraced him as a favourite son. The Papleys, the Brays, the Rosses, and his entire family, watch on with pride.
'It really is a thrill to see Tom playing for the Swans,' Max says. 'There's a bit more to the whole story too, with Tom losing his other grandfather, a great mate of mine and the family's, and when Tom has a good day, I always think Jeff (Bray) would've loved to have seen this.'
'I usually speak with Tom once or twice a week, and we're very proud of him. We love it. We just bought a new size 1 Swans guernsey for our latest great-grandson. We go down the street to the supermarket, and people want to stop and talk to us about Tom or ask me if I'm related to Tom Papley, and I say, yeah, I certainly am!'
Tom Papley plays football with his heart firmly on his sleeve, and we all love him for it. His family history is stitched into the fabric of this club, and he's creating his own new and exceptional threads of meaning.
He once said of his recruitment, 'I had never seen Max cry in my life before my rookie draft, but he was bawling his eyes out that day. He could hardly get any words out! He was so proud of me. There's a photo floating around somewhere from that day of me wearing his old woolly South Melbourne guernsey.'
Now, that's an image for us all to savour. In fact, it's been a career to savour, and there’s plenty more to come.