How Sarah Perkins' rise to AFLW almost ended before it began

(Photo by Adam Trafford/AFL Media/Getty Images)

It's hard to imagine the Adelaide Crows without Sarah Perkins after only three AFLW games.

Her well-documented weight loss story, whilst inspirational, masks crucial elements of Perkins' journey to AFLW -- one that almost ended before it begun.

Perkins never considered playing football despite growing up around her brother Simon's football club. Her mother, Sandy, recalls Simon and his friends making her their soccer goalkeeper. "They'd piff the ball at her all the time [but] she was never scared. I cringed when they'd be kicking the ball at her."

Despite her courage and brilliant skills, Sandy was hesitant when Perkins asked if she could play football when she was 16. "I felt a little bit sick inside," Sandy admits. "I was worried about the hard knocks and things like that".

Perkins enlisted club leaders and now AFLW players, Meg Hutchins and Lou Wotton, to get Sandy over the line and once she had watched her play, realised that "Sarah could look after herself!"

Perkins slipped a disc that severely affected her hip when she was 13 and was told she'd never play contact sport again. "It was a bit tough. I gave away soccer and just focused on netball."

Her soccer coach told her she'd never make it as a footballer, and he was almost right. After a decorated junior representative career winning three National U18 Championships, Perkins went the way of many young people who find it difficult to combine adult schedules with weekly sporting commitments. Challenged by a more competitive senior league, and lacking a belief within herself and from her new coach that she was good enough, Perkins almost gave the game away.

However, the opportunity to coach with AFL Victoria's Youth Girls Academy kept her in the system even though she was limping through life as a player.

"At the time I probably wasn't enjoying my senior football but I still loved footy. I thought that I had a lot to bring so I thought if I could go back and help some junior girls to feel welcome, teach them some of my knowledge and pass it on to them. I thought they'd have more of a chance of playing AFL footy than I would, so if I could pass my knowledge on to them and see them do well -- that's what made it important to me."

A new club coach in 2014 armed with a PhD in strength and conditioning and a belief in Perkins had an immediate impact. A fitter Perkins finished third in the 2016 VFL goal kicking, with only AFLW marquee players Moana Hope and Katie Brennan ahead of her. A forward line role in the VFL Team of the Year ensued, and the drafting of Perkins seemed to be a fait accompli.

Famously, Perkins left in tears on draft day, unwanted by Victorian clubs who questioned her size and mobility. She immediately met with a dumbfounded Adelaide Coach Rebecca Goddard who wanted her signed before Perkins got on her plane home.

"I was pretty strong on free agency, that unless someone was absolutely outstanding from Victoria didn't get picked up, I was going to take the next best in South Australia or Northern Territory. When she didn't get picked up I thought straight away we've got to have a look at this," Goddard said.

Four months on and the undefeated Adelaide Crows sit atop the AFLW ladder, Perkins is thriving and is now well and truly entrenched in the game as the most celebrated key forward in the competition.

The Crows just love playing football for Goddard and for each other. Perkins' transformation clearly reflects this.

Sandy credits the club's culture and leaders, saying it's the happiest she's seen her daughter in a long time. "She just looks so beautiful. She's just so young and fresh again. Even when she's walking towards you she smiles, you don't have to say anything to make her smile. She just has that constant glow about her."

Perkins is clearly inspired by the club. "Having people like Chelsea Randall, Erin Phillips, Kellie Gibson, Abbey Holmes, Bec Goddard, I could name them all. They make you feel welcome. They'd bring you up to be happy."

She cites the impact of others' belief in her as critical, "To have people that believe in me is the main thing that's making me believe in myself and be happy with how I'm going".

However, it is the Crows who are inspired by Perkins by what she brings beyond her goal kicking exploits. Adelaide co-captain, Chelsea Randall, is full of admiration for what Perkins has to offer. "[She's] just an incredible person. You could tell that she was going to bring something to this group. She's just a genuine person, a beautiful soul, and once you connect with her she's just got that trust and loyalty with you, that she's 'yep, one eyed, I'm here for your guys no matter what' kind of thing."

Perkins' time as a coach is also paying dividends, with Goddard appreciating having a pseudo on field forward coach. "Her communication to the other forwards who are a bit greener, her football IQ is a massive bonus. Every week I love having a chat with her about the opposition."

Her leadership was also noted immediately, with Goddard seeing Perkins espousing many things she taught her young Academy charges. "You see her at training. She's the first to speak up about something. She's not in our leadership group but she polled really high. I wasn't surprised by that. She just brings a lot to the table and the girls love her. She's always the first out on the track, doing ground balls. Full forwards like to go and ping goals from 45 metres before warm up starts. That's not Perko!"

Randall agrees. "You could see that it was 'I'm here to be a part of this amazing group and bring everyone together' and she just has so many leadership qualities."

So why has Perkins kept going despite the challenges along the way? Simply, she loves the game. "I think it's just inclusive. You don't have to be a size 6 to play football. You can be whatever size you want to be really. You can be whatever age. You can be whatever diversity, sexuality. It's a safe place and it's an inclusive environment." Perkins said. "Anywhere that I've played it's been a family. It's just like being at home with mum".

Whilst we almost missed out on the enjoyment of watching Perkins turn out for the Crows, it's what she may have missed out on herself that's most crucial when you ask her what football brings to her.

"I play because I love AFL. It's a place I feel I belong and I feel I get the best out of myself when I'm playing."

Perkins' humility gives you the feeling that she couldn't care less about the fanfare, the newfound cult status, the gasps from an anticipating crowd, and the double page spreads in the Adelaide daily press.

For all that Perkins is bringing to football, it's what she brings to others that she wants to be known for. She understands the value in finding your place in the world and hopes her legacy will help others find theirs.

"I guess I'd like [my legacy] to be...I'm a pretty passionate person out on the field and that I'm a role model not only for young girls but any young person that wants to play our game and get involved."

Perhaps it's Goddard that sums up Perkins' journey best, "If and when the very sad day that she leaves the Crows happens, she walks away believing she can do anything she wants."