It’s easy to think that Jack Steele has had just about anything and everything go his way. Why would you think otherwise?
Consecutive All-Australian distinctions, a second Best & Fairest likely incoming, recognition as one of the best midfielders in the game, co-captaincy honours, undeniable good looks, a humble personality, heck, even a damn good smile… the list is near-endless.
But the quietly spoken Saint’s widespread admiration hasn’t been gifted to him on a silver platter. He’s had to work for it, and work bloody hard.
From humble beginnings
The fact is, Steele had never been first in the pecking order coming through the ranks as a youngster in Canberra. It’s something he was always well aware of, however.
Coming from the capital's laid-back suburbs – a place not renowned as an AFL heartland – with a non-football background to boot automatically pushed him out of frame compared to others his age.
He was never viewed as a leader and never held a leadership position at any level prior to his elevation to co-captain earlier this year, in part due to his reserved nature.
To this day, Steele doesn’t speak any more than he has to. He’s always polite, humble and generous with his time; on-field he’s a ruthless and fierce competitor, but he’s far from the most vocal. It's just part of who he is.
His footy did enough of the talking however to get him into the GIANTS Academy as a 13-year-old, but a dislocated kneecap in his first eligible draft year again saw him overlooked.
Further down the pecking order he went.
It was only after he was eventually drafted to GWS as a 19-year-old that his potential only started to be realised. But once again, Steele couldn’t crack in for any more than six straight games in the stacked line-up which made it to a preliminary final in 2016.
Former co-captain Callan Ward saw the initial signs of promise and admitted disappointment to Jarryn Geary in the Giants having lost him via the previous year’s trade period. Yet even after arriving at St Kilda, the 21-year-old Steele was far from the top rung.
A fractured foot and a physique not in the greatest nick, coupled with his love of food, quickly earned him the nickname ‘The Pig’. Being unable to impress early – as had been the case for his past few seasons – left him with a point to prove.
“He’s always striving to get better,” fellow Canberran, GWS Academy member and now Saints teammate Tom Highmore told saints.com.au.
“I think having been from Canberra… just having come from there he knows there’s always been people ahead of him. From a humble upbringing, he’s probably always just been underestimated and not thought of as highly as some of these other kids.
“Striving to get better... that’s just probably in his blood.”
It's Steele's turn now
Jack Steele is described by his teammates as a great many things.
Highmore labels him as the "ultimate professional", Callum Wilkie sees him as "the whole package" as both a player and a leader, while Tim Membrey couldn't be more complimentary of the "absolute effort (which) makes him the player that he is".
All players spoke highly of his on-field ability, his humility and his constant willingness to lead by example.
Steele's on-field talent, particularly over the past two seasons, has been unmistakeable, so too his competitiveness, courage and refusal to be second-best. An equal-third finish at last year's Brownlow Medal count and his maiden All-Australian blazer in 2020, alongside a drought-breaking finals berth for the Saints, was proof of his phenomenal ascension.
But the heroic Saint has always been a consistent performer in red, white and black.
It didn't take him long to earn a reputation as an uncompromising tackler, a dependable tagger – a role he put his hand up to do during Alan Richardson's time as senior coach – and a player who had capacity for great things. All were a direct product of hard work and self-belief.
Gradually, that belief started to permeate into his on-field output and character.
Brett Ratten saw that Steele had the potential to be more than just a well-respected tagger at the end of 2019. When he took the reins as senior coach, he gave the No. 9 the keys to unshackle himself and become a genuine two-way midfielder. It was up to Steele to put his shoulder to the wheel and rise to the challenge.
The end result has been evident, not just to the St Kilda faithful, but the wider AFL community at large.
“I think everyone’s started to take notice of Steeley. Last year in particular was where it all started to work for him and this year, I think his form’s been better than what it was last year, personally,” Seb Ross told saints.com.au.
“I think what goes unnoticed is when he was playing the roles for the team through 2016, 2017 and 2018, he was still a high-possession getter and a real key contributor to the footy club.
Taking the reins
Season 2021 amplified the bona fide on-baller's output to even more extraordinary levels.
There was no surprise when the 25-year-old was voted in co-captain of the club alongside Jarryn Geary, and in Steele's mind, he'd walked into the role at the right time. The club was on the rise, wins were on the regular and he had the Saints' most respected leader by his side as a mentor and friend.
The dream scenario didn't go according to plan, however. Geary played just three games as injury cruelly cut down his campaign, the Saints' inconsistent season entailed significant defeats amid rousing performances, while Steele was tasked with the enormous responsibility of leading his side through the challenging patches.
His first 10 games as captain yielded four losses of 50 points or more and a win-loss record of 4-6. The side was subject to intense scrutiny, which only worsened after a 111-point shellacking against the Western Bulldogs.
Looking back, Steele says it was good for the long run to "get thrown in the deep end", but admits he had doubts as to whether he fitted the mould of what was considered to be that of your traditional captain.
“I always just pigeon-holed that [being vocal] as being the captain; if you weren’t that then you can’t be captain,” Steele said.
“Gears (Jarryn Geary), Rooey (Nick Riewoldt), Phil Davis was my captain at the Giants, they were all different in their own right, but they spoke well, they were demanding, they were loud and they had a lot of respect.
“I just never thought I was going to be in that position, I suppose. It’s still a bit weird to be in this position, but there’s just so many different types of leadership. It’s just important to stick to your way and don't be someone or something that you’re not.”
Hard work pays off
Even with the red, white and black hitting several rough spots throughout the season, the skipper's colours were rarely lowered.
Match-winning displays against West Coast, Brisbane and Sydney were among his best, but he was just as strong in games where momentum was in favour of the opposition.
The stats speak for themselves. Half of Steele’s outings in 2021 finished with 30 touches or more, with four of those matches yielding perfect a perfect 10 votes from the AFL Coaches Association, and he was ranked as elite in all his major stats as an inside midfielder.
Steele is now in prime position to snare his second Trevor Barker Award on Friday night, is a genuine chance at this year's Brownlow Medal and only last fortnight snapped up his second All-Australian selection and was voted by his contemporaries as the AFL Players' Association's Most Courageous Player.
While numbers surrounding his game and the individual accolades paint one picture, his work behind the scenes to enhance his game shows another.
His growth as a leader in 2021 alone has been proof of his commitment to strive for improvement. Whereas in the first half of the year he leaned on Geary as a sounding board and was tentative in voicing his opinion, post-bye saw Steele back himself to the former's delight.
He was ferocious and attacking on-field, was uncompromising in dragging his side forward and found the courage to demand more from those around him. Steele also took the initiative to push himself out of his comfort zone throughout the year, asking coaches to directly address him in meetings so he could find and develop his voice.
Best of all, the well-regarded Saint hasn't lost any of the qualities which make him special both on and off the field. The ceiling is yet to be reached, and 2022 can't come quick enough for the young Canberran who has had to work his backside off to get to where he is now.
“Steeley's just so humble and he’s got time for absolutely everyone at the footy club. He’s just so loveable in that sense," Highmore told saints.com.au.
“Off-field he’s funny, he’s good for a laugh and a beer, but at the same time he’s the most competitive and driven bloke on the field.
“It’s all so deserved. To see how much hard work he puts in, I couldn’t be happier for him.”