Sam Mitchell announced his impending retirement as an AFL player earlier this week. There are many who feel that he should have ended his stellar career with the Hawks and been chaired off the ground alongside fellow retiring icon Luke Hodge. In this perfect world scenario (at least from a Hawthorn perspective), they would have retired together, both former captains of the club, to assume pedestals as legends in Hawthorn’s Hall of Fame.
Instead, Mitchell’s last game will likely be played way out west, with him donning West Coast Eagles colours. The Hawks’ faithful will get a taste of how heartbroken Footscray fans felt when they watched their legend Doug Hawkins finish his playing career with Fitzroy. Not all fairytales have perfect endings though, especially when dealing with the cold hard reality of sport and Mitchell’s case is no exception.
Alastair Clarkson’s decision to shunt Sam Mitchell and fellow great Jordan Lewis out the door at the end of 2016 outraged most Hawks fans, an angst that flared up in response to the dismal start to the 2017 season. Many, if not most, questioned Clarkson’s wisdom. In retrospect, however, this difficult decision has proven to be spot on. It has ushered in a state of transition by allowing a whole host of ‘Hawklets’ to assume prominent roles within the team, a situation which has no doubt resulted in the teams’ turnaround in fortunes.
If one was a fly on the wall, it would be easy to surmise that Mitchell was a co-conspirator in his own departure by perhaps being able to see events before they unfolded and treading the best path to suit all parties. Whilst the decision to leave feathered his post football tenure by a move into coaching, this was irrelevant for he would have been inundated with coaching offers on retirement. It was more about his parting gift to the Hawks by fully supporting the ‘big picture’ view of the situation.
As a player, he epitomised everything we love about sport.
In his early days Mitchell was dealt a blow by being overlooked in the 2000 National Draft, disregarded for being too short and too slow. It flared his resolve and relentless desire to succeed and he took the path less trodden by joining Box Hill where he imposed his pedigree on the recruiters that had thus far been oblivious to his appeal.
It led to him being drafted to the Hawks in the 2001 draft, interestingly in the picks exchanged with Fremantle that brought Luke Hodge to Hawthorn as the number one pick.
On making his debut in 2002 his stand-out skill was his cleverness. He was a true bastion of purism, with a very similar playing style to former players Bob Skilton and Barry Cable. Mitchell’s evasive skills are a throwback to Skilton’s step, with his uncanny ability to extract the ball out of a phone box sized confined space. Whilst pub debates argued over which foot was his dominant one, his handball skills, like those of Barry Cable, were also precise. Hand and foot talents aside, Mitchell is just as well regarded for his toughness. We will all miss that dismissive, almost arrogant smile he has when opposition players lay cheap shots on him when in a close, tight pack.
Complementing his skills as a player is his ceaseless desire for knowledge; he is a true student of the game. This was evident at the end of 2012 after another dominant season saw him win the Peter Crimmins Medal and in retrospect, the Brownlow Medal. Many others in this predicament would have rested on their laurels. Instead, when Brett Ratten joined the Club as an Assistant Coach, he very publically challenged Mitchell to be better and Mitchell was very welcoming of Ratten’s guidance and sucked the marrow out of his wisdom. The following pre-season saw Mitchell work relentlessly on the outside game Ratten had insisted on him developing as well as focussing on different stoppage setups.
The fruits of Mitchell and Ratten’s labour were seen at the end of 2013 with Mitchell playing a pivotal role in Hawthorn’s win against Geelong in breaking the supposed ‘Kennett Curse’. His outside dominance, primarily rebounding off half back as a sublime quarterback, brought the Cats’ think-tank to tears with befuddlement and angst riddled frustration, so used to having Mitchell under lock and key in past clashes but seemingly having no answer to these new strings added to his bow.
In the Grand Final win against Fremantle, he was equally as definitive. This point seems lost when looking solely at stats from that game as they deem Mitchell to be disappointing but once more the Ratten effect was at play. Everybody knew that the Dockers’ notorious scragger Ryan Crowley would tightly tag Mitchell and this saw Sam assume the role as essentially a midfield decoy by sacrificing his own game to afford other team mates the ability to rise. The positions he took during stoppages during that game were so heady from a defensive sense, blocking and skewing the Fremantle midfielders whilst green lighting the Hawks.
Truly selfless, with everything for the team – this ethos combined with pre-eminent skills and footy smarts epitomises what a legendary career he has had. Take a bow Sam Mitchell, you will be missed and you’ll remain ‘Forever Hawthorn’ to me.