Every pre-season has one.
An unearthed gem “burning up the track”, a move of pure coaching genius, a jack set to explode out of the box come Round 1.
For the Saints, that pre-season hotshot was Ben Long, and with good reason, too.
The boy from the famous footballing family dripping with potential finally looked to have found his gear in earnest.
A spot at half-back – the position in which he thrived as a junior – was his again.
A consistent knock on Long throughout previous seasons was just that – his consistency – and the Darwin-born 22-year-old looked set to silence his doubters in 2020.
30 minutes into the new season, Ratten’s Long play was going to script, albeit in an empty theatre.
The new, free-flowing brand of footy Long had trademarked over the summer was on show, exemplified in a gliding speccy plucked from a North Melbourne kick-in.
An awkward landing on a twisting ankle, cue the intermission.
The moment the season was postponed, Ben Long had one thing on his mind.
The change rooms felt “weird” in the wake of the deflating loss.
As if the precursor of finally starting Season 2020 in an echoey, Marvel Stadium shell wasn’t enough, the customary post-match coaches’ pressers melded into an inconceivable revelation:
Footy was off.
For now, at least … but for Long and the other Saints, the rug had been torn out from underneath them after the most optimistic summer in a decade.
I asked when Ben thought about going home.
“A lot of the boys were thinking about how long we’ll be off, and what’ll happen to footy … I was more thinking of heading back home,” he smiled.
“As soon as I knew the season was actually stopping, I thought it’d probably be good to get out of Melbourne and get back up to Darwin as soon I could.”
Family is everything.
With ancestral roots stretching from central Australia to the Tiwi Islands, the Longs have called the NT’s capital home for three generations.
Ben uprooted his Territorian life at the age of 16, following in the footsteps of cousin Cyril Rioli and boarding at a prestigious private school in Melbourne.
Footy and the Victorian winter coincide with the dry season up north, meaning he hasn’t actually been back to Darwin at this time of year since 2014.
For all of us, COVID-19 has brought about unprecedented change.
From the financial realities of a global pandemic, to the very real health concerns, this virus has affected many in ways we might never have imagined.
A silver lining is that for many of us, it has fuelled a reconnection with family we may have lost or neglected in all the perceived busyness of life.
But Long’s urgency to be back home with his family speaks volumes of its importance to him.
“I just feel happy being back home with Mum and Dad,” he said.
“I’ve seen a few cousins and other family members, so it’s been awesome to reconnect with them. Mum and Dad are both pretty happy I’m back.”
“I forgot my PlayStation, so that was pretty disappointing.”
The Darwin in Long creeps out again, and the free spirit that’s allowed his footy to thrive comes to the fore.
As he reels off his packing checklist, runners are closely followed by thongs.
The equipment may be the same, but Long’s home gym setup is unlike any of his teammates, with a veritable arsenal of fishing spears within arm’s reach.
The soundtrack to Long’s isolation? Country music. Anything and everything country, he doesn’t discriminate.
The 22-year-old’s days are split between family, training, guitar practice and getting out on the water whenever he can.
The rugged, croc-infested northern coastline is a far cry from the bright lights of an AFL footballer’s life in Melbourne, but it’s home.
“It really hurts, to have a loss playing on your mind for what’s now a big break.”
It seems like a lifetime ago, but Round 1 still sticks in Long’s guts. So much so he brings it up again.
“We took good things out of that game as well, though,” he said.
“Mine and the team’s focus is just on keeping fit ‘cos it’s all we can do. It hurts, to finish the game and get Round 1 done … and it’s just a bit harder with that result.
“But we know we’ve got good depth in our side, we’ve had a good pre-season, and I reckon all of us know where we went wrong on game-day.
“I’m sure we’ll bounce back come Round 2 … whenever that may be.”
A new reality for everyone.
Long’s newfound maturity has struck many at the Saints in 2020, and it comes out again when he reflects on the new state of the world.
“You look at the reality of life and footy in a different way now,” he said.
“My reality is very different from when I was drafted to now being four years in. The game’s just completely stopped and the reality of earning money comes in now.
“I know as players we’ve taken a pay cut, but there are people losing their jobs who can’t afford to pay off their houses or support their family.
“For some blokes, it’s their last year on their contract and that’d always be on their mind – that they have a point to prove – and with some of this stuff that’s happening now, that feeling is just extended.
“Hopefully we all get through and we’ll be out there again soon.”