Cooper Sharman spoke to almost every single club in the weeks and months after his performances under Rodney Eade at Balwyn sent recruiters scurrying out to grounds around the Eastern Football League to see what all the fuss was about.
But St Kilda was the only club that followed up ahead of the 2021 Mid-Season Rookie Draft, almost two years after the bolter from country New South Wales had faded as fast as he had emerged.
The Saints had been one of the 15 clubs that met with Sharman in 2019. Back then, everyone wanted to know about the athletic forward who had moved from Leeton to study accounting at Deakin University's Burwood campus, before quickly starring for the local powerhouse down the road.
It got to a point midway through that winter when Eade, who spent nearly two decades coaching the Western Bulldogs, Sydney and Gold Coast after playing in four premierships at Hawthorn, directed Sharman to the Oakleigh Chargers.
Sharman ended up playing in a NAB League premiership at Princes Park alongside soon-to-be No.1 picks in Matt Rowell and Jamarra Ugle-Hagan, future top-five picks Noah Anderson and Will Phillips, first-round selections in Fin Macrae and Conor Stone, plus the likes of Bailey Laurie, Reef McInnes and Trent Bianco.
But despite surging from nowhere amid an inferno of interest, Sharman was overlooked by all 18 clubs that November. He signed with VFL standalone side Coburg in a bid to keep his AFL dream alive via the pre-season supplemental selection period, the mid-season rookie draft or the national draft. Anything. But the 2020 season never started. It meant Sharman headed back to Leeton.
If it wasn't for a family connection at Woodville-West Torrens, Sharman may never have come back from the tiny town six hours north of Melbourne, five hours south of Sydney. The SANFL powerhouse called multiple times that year. Sharman didn't want to live with a 'What if?' feeling many know all too well.
By the time St Kilda's national recruiting manager Chris Toce was sitting opposite him inside Si Vera Kafe in St Clair, a few kilometres down the road from the Eagles' home ground, Sharman had proven he had the attributes to play at the highest level, even though he hadn't broken into the senior side yet. That was the view of Woodville-West Torrens senior coach Jade Sheedy, who was about to play him for the first time at league level. The Saints just needed to know one thing.
"St Kilda was the only club that got in contact when I was at Woodville. Chris came over in round four or five just before I was about to play my first senior game and wanted to know if I still had the drive to play AFL footy. That was the main thing. That was part of why he came over," Sharman told AFL.com.au at RSEA Park ahead of St Kilda's elimination final against Greater Western Sydney.
"We played against Port Adelaide and got smashed, so I didn't see much of it. But up until that mid-season draft, I played only a couple of senior games with Jack Hayes up forward alongside the Menzel brothers, it was a hard team to get into. But Chris Toce, James Gallagher and the Saints must have seen enough in me."
There wasn't much communication from the Saints after that low-key meeting until the day before the 2021 Mid-Season Rookie Draft. Sharman's manager, Winston Rous from Phoenix Management, told him to wait for a call. Before long, St Kilda's then-list manager Gallagher called to echo the same message Toce had asked: 'Do you want to play AFL footy?' The Saints needed to open another pick in the next 24 hours to take Sharman, and they did that, paving the way to select the raw forward with pick No.21 – the third last live pick.
Now more than two years on from that night, Sharman has played 30 games of League football and is about to play in his first final. But without Eade in his corner, Sharman doesn't think he would have had the confidence to explore what was possible beyond local footy.
"'Rocket' was the first one that believed in me and saw my raw talent and pushed me to go to that next level," Sharman said. "At that time, I definitely had aspirations to play high level footy but didn't think I was good enough for that. He had a big impact on putting my name out there, pushing me to go to Oakleigh."
Wearing a few bruises along the way has helped harden Sharman. The softly spoken but quietly confident country boy appreciates things others don't. He has had to pack up and move four times in the past few years to pursue a dream that constantly felt just out of reach. It is why he stops to smell the roses about the little things. This life didn't feel possible until it became a reality.
"Missing out on the draft hurt, because the build-up was so big. But looking back, I probably wasn't emotionally ready to be drafted at that time," he said.
"After the draft you go on to the next thing and I signed on with Coburg then COVID hit and the whole year of footy is wiped out. I thought maybe I'd missed the boat. I was 20 at the time, so there was still time, but I was wondering if there was going to be another chance. I moved back home and wasn't sure if I was going to come back to the city to play footy again.
Brett Ratten was a fan of Sharman and was rewarded for his early faith when the New South Welshman kicked 10 goals in the final month of the 2021 home and away season, including four against Fremantle in Hobart in the final round. The 193cm utility doubled his games experience in 2022 when he featured 10 times for the Saints, but things have changed this year.
Sharman wasn't in Ross Lyon's plans early, even despite the injury crisis at Moorabbin. No Max King. No Tim Membrey. No Jack Hayes. But still no room. He played the first three games of the season for Sandringham and was then the carryover emergency multiple times before he was picked to face North Melbourne in round eight.
He has featured in 15 AFL games this year, playing only once more in the VFL, the day after he was the sub against Sydney at the SCG. His ability to play multiple roles has clearly appealed to Lyon and the match committee inside Moorabbin. He has been used as a mobile target inside 50, a defensive forward and on a wing at different stages.
"I had some chats with Ross late in the pre-season around not pigeonholing myself as a forward. He said we were low on wingers and wanted me to have a solid block in the VFL so if someone goes down, I'm ready to play in that position," he said.
"I think the versatility was something the coaches valued. It may have hurt me, because it makes me the easy sub. But then again, versatility is probably the reason I got myself in the team. He really backs you in though once you have his trust. That gives you confidence to go out there and do your thing. It's nice to have that backing."
Sharman is one of four players at RSEA Park that was plucked out of the SANFL after being forced to do it the hard way. Cal Wilkie is the poster boy, rising from full-time accountant, part-time footballer to All-Australian last week. Tom Highmore and Hayes are the other two.
Just like Wilkie, Sharman is now a qualified accountant after passing his exams a couple of months ago. Wilkie has kept that phase of his life ticking over by spending some time working in the finance department at RSEA this year. Sharman will look at some similar work experience over the off-season, never taking his current job for granted, but always planning for what's to come down the track.
"It is amazing that four of us have a similar journey. We definitely talk about it quite often, just how lucky we are. We know what it is like to work on the outside world, what it's like to train at night, we've got a good perspective I think," he says.