After being taken at pick 5 in the NAB draft last year, Braeden Campbell will make his debut for the Sydney Swans this weekend against the Brisbane Lions. This makes him the 11th player to debut for Senior side to have come through the QBE Swans Academy (11th or 12th, I’ll let him and his mate who wears number 21 argue about the specifics of it).

Though Braeden’s talent is exceptional, described as one of a kind, his story is typical of what the Academy hopes to achieve.

“I started playing footy when I was 11 years old,” he tells me.

“I came from a soccer background. I missed out on a few teams when I was younger with soccer and that’s when I decided to switch over to AFL and I haven’t looked back.”

This is where the Academy makes its mark. By turning talented athletes, the ones who sometimes fall through the cracks of other sports, into top tier Australian rules players. Braeden has fond memories of his early days in the program.

“My first memory of the academy was walking into the SCG and having all the gear out on tables and that’s when I met Chris Smith and all the other staff members there and that’s a memory I won’t ever forget.”

If one were to ask what impact the QBE Sydney Swans Academy has had over Sydney footy thus far, then I have a fair idea of what Exhibit A would be: Braeden Campbell’s left boot. Labelled by many as the best kick in his draft, and perhaps even one of the best kicks in the competition without having played a game yet, his kick tells you all you need to know about the improvement in New South Wales footy over the last decade.

“Being with the Swans Academy improved my footy because I had coaching staff like Jarrod Crouch and Nick Davis who told me all the basics there is to footy and all the advanced stuff, and all the off-field stuff with Chris Smith really helped my footy.”

01:57 Mins
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Campbell calls mum to break the news

Watch the moment Braeden Campbell called his Mum to tell her he would be making his AFL debut this weekend

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Gone are the days of being seen only as dogged defenders and taggers. Under the guidance of the Academy, NSW players are becoming as silk skilled as those from the traditional footy states. The crooked armed, round the corner rugby-style kicks we are used to seeing are being turned into perfectly poised, toe pointed, footy kicks.

For greater evidence of the Academy’s success, one need only think about the Swans changerooms from Braeden’s perspective. As he sits in locker 16, to his left he sees Nick Blakey, and Errol Gulden. To his right, two of his idols, Callum Mills and Isaac Heeney. Across from him, Sam Wicks, and to the left of Wicksy, his Pennant Hills teammate Marc Sheather,

It’s something that Braden says he notices every time he looks around the change rooms.   

“In the change rooms when you look around you sort of understand how well the programs going and how it feeds into the AFL system and how it makes all these great players”

When the QBE Sydney Swans Academy was established ten years ago, I’m unsure if there was a set number of players they hoped to unearth. At the time the scholarship program had provided somewhat of a pathway, but the consistency of training wasn’t there. To get an accurate view of NSW potential was hard to achieve.

What the Academy provides is a platform that the best kids in the state together on a regular basis. Those who go on to reach the top level become the role models and road map for the next crop coming through. When I ask Braeden how it feels to know that young kids will now be looking up to him, he shows the modesty of most seasoned veterans.

“I haven’t really thought about kids looking up to me too much, but now that I think about it I kind of like the feeling that young kids want to do what I’ve done and I’m really honoured to be that role to kids in the academy.”

The next Braeden Campbell is out there somewhere looking. But for now, let’s just enjoy the current journey which begins this Saturday night.