Lenny Hayes was the last player picked at the end of 1995, when the NSW-ACT Rams were piecing together the squad that would play in the TAC Cup the next year. Or maybe he was the second last. Hayes was still just 15 back then, up against kids one or two years older than him, so he wasn’t exactly overlooked. But when the selectors asked themselves if they had missed anyone – or if any other kids were worth a look – his was the name that came up.

“There would have been 60 kids in the squad that year. Maybe even 65, and he was just about the last one in,” said David Noble, who coached the Rams that year and is now the General Manager of Football at the Brisbane Lions.

“I remember we just said, ‘is there anyone we should consider, who maybe we haven’t spoken much about or looked at too closely?’ Rod Carter was working with AFL NSW then, and he was the one who said ‘what about Lenny?’ so we thought ‘OK, let’s get him involved and let’s have a look at him.’

“We played him in about five or six games the next year leading into the finals and he was unbelievably skinny, but every time he came on he just seemed to do something: kick a goal, lay a tackle, find the ball around a stoppage. And he was quiet, but he had this amazing drive. The thing I liked about him was that while he was super competitive, it never spilled out to the point that he imposed himself on others or let it consume or dominate him. I don’t think it mattered where he came from, he had belief and he had that really quiet drive.”

It probably didn’t. But were it not for the Rams – and the chance to spend two-and-half years playing against the best kids in Victoria – Hayes isn’t sure how he would have worked out that he could be good enough to play in the AFL one day, that it was even a possibility. A Sydney kid, he used to go and watch the Swans play every second weekend with his father, his sister and a kid who lived across the road. His dad, a Victorian, made sure there was always a game on TV. But Hayes grew up in North Rocks, half an hour from the city in what these days is GIANTS territory. As a kid, he tried cricket, rugby league and union, signing on at Pennant Hills after that kid from over the road, a friend called Andrew Gillies, decided to play footy.

Hayes wrote in his book, Lenny: My Story, that meeting Mark McVeigh as a 13-year-old was a pivotal time in his life. Hayes was a hard working kid, but saw McVeigh, who came to play at the Demons with him, as really dedicated. He wrote about the small shove his mum gave him when she sensed his desire dip a little when he hit 14 and wasn’t improving as quickly as he wanted and wished he was, especially compared to someone like McVeigh. “She has always been my number one supporter, but when she felt I needed it she wouldn’t hesitate to give me a bit of a nudge,” he explained, “because she knew much I wanted to be good at footy.”

Lenny Hayes and Mark McVeigh (top row, second and third from right) in their Pennant Hills days.

In chasing McVeigh though, he also helped make his mate better. “No doubt. I think there was a lot of that,” said McVeigh, who travelled from the Central Coast to train and play with Pennant Hills. “I remember meeting him and he was just a quiet, nice kid. I didn’t know many people at all when I got there, and we connected really well and were drawn to each other really quickly. He went out of his way to befriend me and I think we got a lot out of each other.

“I enjoyed playing with him. We used to wax a fair bit on the field in the under-13s. But he also made me work hard because I wanted to match him as much as I could. We were lucky we had each other as kids playing footy in Sydney I suppose, because we pushed each other all the way through until we got drafted, and we never really stopped competing with each other.”

That helped. But having grown up in a place where not many kids had made it from before, it was the chance to play for the Rams that made Hayes think: well, maybe this could happen. He got games as a 16-year-old, and watched six kids from that team get drafted. He played in a grand final on the MCG the next year. And in his third year he won the Morrish Medal as the league best and fairest, and was drafted by St Kilda at pick 11. We all know what happened from there, before football brought him back to the GIANTS, to where it all started for him but to a club that was not in anyone’s imagination back then. He was a good player who bobbed up when the game in NSW was well placed to help him.

“I think what we were able to do was expose the kids to regular travel, and a level of competition and intensity that showed them what they needed to bring and let them see what was possible,” said Noble. “We made it more attainable. It became a realistic option and I think Lenny’s inner drive and belief would have told him: yep, that’s what I want to do, and I think I can do it. If anyone was going to make it on sheer work ethic it was Lenny, and even as a young kid he had a very clear understanding of process over outcome, he was very fixed on that. I think he would have been saying to himself: I believe I’m good enough.”

McVeigh agrees, and can remember talking with Hayes about wanting to prove they were just as good as the kids from Melbourne. “We were lucky. We had some really good coaches working with us, whether it be at Pennant Hills or the Rams. We had David Noble, Stevie Wright coached us for a while and we had Steve Taubert, people who’d played AFL football and were showing us what to do. And there were some really talented kids in those teams,” said McVeigh, who was drafted two spots ahead of Hayes in 1998, at No. 9 by Essendon. Nick Davis (Collingwood), Craig Bolton (Brisbane) and Ray Hall (Richmond) followed them.

Pennant Hills products Kieran Jack, Jarrad McVeigh and Lenny Hayes.

“But I think for us, we very much felt like no-one really drafted anyone from NSW back then. We felt like it was harder for us, so it motivated us. I remember Lenny and I making pacts about how we were going to get drafted and going to prove that kids from NSW can play. And we carried that all the way through, we had some real determination to show that.”

Now, they are back together as assistant coaches, not far from where they first met up. “It was something we always wanted to do, privately and quietly. We would have loved to have played footy together and as much as I loved Essendon and Lenny loved the Saints, we were hoping before our draft that the Swans would take us and keep us both together,” said McVeigh.

“That didn’t happen, but I remember having chats with Lenny before he came here about how good it would be if he came back and we could coach together. He had a lot to consider with his family but I think he was looking forward to coming back up close to home, and he liked what the GIANTS were doing. We’ve remained close all the way through so to have the chance to coach together, it’s something pretty awesome. As kids it’s never something we would have thought of, but with the way the game has grown up here, it’s given us that chance.

“He was just a quiet, humble kid. He was nice. He was hard-working and he loved footy and he loved his club at Pennant Hills. And he’s come back up here as exactly the same person.”