PAUL Puopolo’s story has been one of hard work and determination.
He arrived at Hawthorn as a mature-aged rookie from SANFL club Norwood before the 2011 season, and now five seasons on – and with two premiership medallions to his name – will play his 100th match against Fremantle at Aurora Stadium on Sunday.
The 27-year-old is now a regular in the dual reigning premiers’ line-up, a product of his work ethic.
Puopolo’s journey to the AFL has been an interesting one; a story of overcoming challenges to succeed which started in primary school, when his school didn’t have a football team.
“I went to a (primary) school were soccer was a pretty dominant sport,” Puopolo told hawthornfc.com.au.
“I had to go play for another school because my school didn’t have a football team.
“I had to join in with another school and pretend I went there and I made friends through there.
“It ended up that those guys I played school footy with when I was seven, I ended up playing footy with them at high school and Norwood at well.”
Puopolo was overlooked as an under-18s draft prospect after fracturing his back and being stuck on the sidelines for an extended period of time.
“It was something that you couldn’t play with, and it set me back three months,” he said.
“All I was doing was riding a stationary bike and trying to swim, which I’m not very good at.
“That made it a bit harder to get picked up, and I put on a bit of weight.
“Obviously not running and doing exercise makes it pretty hard when you’re still trying to eat as much as you can to fuel that energy.”
The setback helped motivate Puopolo, who realised he “had to be a bit lighter and a bit leaner” to get drafted.
He was playing at Norwood and working full time in civil construction, when Hawthorn came calling with pick 66 in the 2010 NAB AFL Draft.
“There was a lot of hard work to get there, a lot of sacrifices I had to make,” he said.
“To achieve that, I was really happy and that’s what keeps driving me. I know what it’s like to go back to the working world, obviously working pretty hard and trying to play footy was a really tough thing to do.”
Puopolo’s days consisted of work, followed by training – with a nap in between, if there was time.
“My day would start at seven o’clock, so I’d be at work at 7am and finish at 4pm, and from there straight to training,” he said.
“If I was lucky enough… if I got there a little bit early or finished work a bit early, I’d have a little sleep in the car before training from 5pm to 7.30pm.
“And then on the way home, going past my parents’ house for dinner, because it was so late to cook and it was so hard to get motivated to cook something when you’ve been working all day and training all day.”
Puopolo, who has an Italian background, says his family’s support was crucial in helping him get to where he is now.
Now he’s lending the same support to others through his role as an AFL multicultural ambassador role.
“I’m just trying to help young kids that came from that multicultural background, trying to get them involved in footy and help them grow as a person,” Puopolo said.
The 173-centimetre, tough as nails utility has done plenty of growing since he first arrived at the Hawks.
“I was very nervous to walk in the door, obviously seeing guys like Luke Hodge… I ended up watching the Geelong grand final (2008) when they won, and I looked up and saw Luke Hodge and was thinking, gee, it would be good to be playing alongside someone like that,” Puopolo said.
“I guess there wasn’t too much expectation on myself – I just came in and trained pretty hard and worked pretty hard.”
After a handful of games in the VFL, Puopolo debuted in Round 7 2011 – alongside Isaac Smith – and played every game for the remainder of the season.
He got his break as a small defender, before spending time in the midfield and settling in recent years as a defensive forward with an ability to hit the scoreboard.
While defence comes comfortably to Puopolo, he doesn’t matter what position he plays.
“I haven’t got a preferred position at the moment – I’m just happy to get a game wherever I can play at the moment,” he said.
That team focus still drives Puopolo, and after five consecutive wins, he can see the Hawks’ season starting to take wings as the club searches for a premiership trifecta.
“You can feel the season starting to build a bit, (we’re) getting pretty excited,” he said.
“The motivation came from the loss we had (2012 grand final) and I think that’s driven the group for the last couple of years.
“Tasting that success now, it’s something you want to keep achieving every year.”
In terms of his own future, Puopolo is taking things one week at a time, with one eye looking down the track.
“When I first got to the club… a few guys had 100 games next to their names, and I was thinking how exciting would that be to get there to achieve that,” he said.
“I just want to keep going as much as I can and keep playing.
“I’d love to be a 200-game player for the club.”