Without question, 2021 will be remembered as Dylan Moore’s break-out season when, having waited and waited, he finally got the call-up and took what was surely his last chance.
To understand just how remarkable that progression was, we need to go back to September 2020 in the Barossa Valley.
He was 21, out of contract, with only 10 games to show for close to three seasons at Hawthorn, and none in football’s first COVID-hit year.
There was no VFL in which to push his case, only “scrimmage” matches against other hubbing or wandering clubs, often 14 v 14 affairs using cones to narrow the ground.
It was the best that could be mustered, but felt hollow and surreal. He could sense his dream career slipping through his fingers like sand.
Moore was playing well enough, but knew that bruise-free footy gave those watching little to go on.
Against GWS earlier in 2020, while based in Sydney, Hawthorn had to lend the Giants players just to make a game.
“I kicked a goal at one point, and next thing I swapped into a GWS jersey and was playing full-back for the Giants!” he laughs.
With three rounds left, he got the call-up.
A goal against St Kilda came from one of only six possessions; he scrounged just three more in another loss to the Bulldogs the following week, and expected to be dropped for the last game against Gold Coast. A Chad Wingard corky provided a final lifeline.
“I pretty much thought it was going to be my last game,” he recalls.
“I’ve been a fan of the club my whole life, and it felt like that was going to be the last time I pulled on the guernsey, and that would have been sad. There was a bit of pressure, but I kind of felt free too, just to try and play footy.”
Freed to roam further up the ground and play as a quasi-third wingman, he had 25 touches, five inside 50s, kicked a goal and earned a Brownlow vote from umpires who must almost have had to check the AFL Record to see who number 36 was.
And still, another two months would pass before his future became clear.
“I’d had my exit interview and been told I’d just have to wait,” Moore recalls of a period when he didn’t know if he would remain a footballer studying part-time, or become a full-time student (double degree in commerce and finance) looking for a new way to fill his weekends.
“It was challenging, a rollercoaster of emotions,” he said.
“I tried to keep myself as level-headed as I could. My mindset was, ‘I’ll be on the list next year’, so I trained and behaved like I was going to be on the list. I had that mindset that I haven’t been cut yet, so I’m still a Hawthorn footballer.”
Five days before pre-season began, he was told he’d be on the rookie list in 2021.
It sparked a new approach, one forged by the sense of belonging the Gold Coast game had imbued, and the raw wound of almost being cut.
“To hear that maybe you’re not as important as you’d like to be to this club, because you’ve nearly been delisted, that gave me fire in the belly to be like, ‘No, I belong, I can make an impact at this club.’”
And that he did, as a first injury-free pre-season became the springboard to a 20-game campaign that netted 27 goals (second with Jacob Koschitzke behind Luke Breust).
Moore’s career hangs by a thread no more, rather the 22-year-old is entrenched among the young crop offering hope that a new-look Hawthorn will soon be scaling familiar heights.
A jarred knee in the Round 18 draw against Melbourne eventually ended his season two games from the finish line, but by then his name had entered the conversation around those who play one of the modern game’s most difficult roles – the small forward tasked as much with hammering the opposition as peppering the scoreboard.
Consistency was clearly up (Moore kicked goals in all but four games); he puts this down to simple self-belief.
“I believe in myself – I’ve got that self-confidence, I feel that’s really important," he said.
“Awareness about where you belong and how you’re feeling. I’ve had a lot of sessions with our psychs trying to get that self-awareness, validation within yourself.
"I take notice of everything, but the people I respect and care for, they’re the ones whose points are valid and keep me mentally stable.”
Tellingly, less than a year after not knowing if he was still wanted, Moore ended the 2021 season feeling like he belonged among the group of emerging leaders who will drive the team’s rejuvenation.
He knows what he needs to do on the field, and is equally excited by helping to create a culture in which the club is a safe place where everyone feels comfortable being themselves.
“I feel like on and off the field I have a pretty clear role that I can play for the club. It’s taken four years, but I feel like I’m coming together now.”
He looks outside to the likes of Tom Papley and Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti for inspiration in the small forward role, yet knows that he and Tyler Brockman have the perfect role model right in front of them in their 239-game, 441-goal teammate Luke Breust.
By the end of his season, Moore was annoyed with himself if he didn’t kick a goal, “because every game Punky plays pretty much he kicks goals”.
The trio set little challenges – who could put on the most pressure acts in the forward line; who would lay the most tackles, etc.
“All our thoughts before the game are to get as much pressure on the footy as we can. We get reward, and our teammates get reward as well. We put a big price on that.”
As a former champion middle distance runner who won a mile race at Stawell in 2016, Moore loved the distraction of the Tokyo Olympics, especially with Australians prominent in the 800m and 1500m.
“I’m a big swimming fan as well – I’m not very good at swimming, but it’s fun to watch,” he said.
His work with Beyond Blue via Hawthorn’s Community Board was another meaningful takeout from a year in which the health and freedom we’re accustomed to continue to be challenged.
He has had family members and friends struggle with mental health, is desperate to see it normalised like any other illness, and has seen enough of the good in people to believe we can struggle together and emerge better for it.
“It’s a cliché, but I’m more grounded and grateful for what I’ve got now. To be nearly done with football shocked me I guess,” Moore said.
“Now it’s just like every game I play I try and play as if it’s my last, because I nearly played my last game 12 months ago.
“I’m just trying to take that aspect into my footy – when I walk into the club it’s how grateful I am for being here. I achieved more than I thought I could in 2021.
“Looking back in five, 10 years’ time, hopefully after we’ve won a couple of premierships.
"I feel like 2021 I’ve grown the most on and off the field. I’ll cherish this one forever.”