JACK Higgins was 10 when he put a proposal to his dad, Greg. “If I can learn to kick on my left foot, can you get me a PlayStation 3?” he asked. Greg agreed to the deal, but under a couple of provisos: Jack had to be able to guide the ball down with one hand and he had to be a good kick, not just an average one.
Greg then watched as his son spent two or three hours every night after school at the park, kicking on his non-preferred left foot. Within a month, the then grade four student had his new gaming console and in the process had become a dual-sided player. “He’s always been incredibly self-motivated,” said Greg.
There can’t be a more dedicated player in this year’s AFL draft pool than Higgins, who identified a path towards the top years ago and has followed it meticulously. None of it has been by fluke.
Higgins has always been on the smaller side, so he long ago devised a plan to get ahead. “My saying has always been that they can be better than me, they can be taller, but I’m just going to outwork them no matter what. I’ve stuck by that,” he told AFL.com.au ahead of the NAB AFL Under-18 Championships, which start next week.
It started as an under-13, when Higgins played for East Malvern in Melbourne’s south-eastern suburbs. His coach there was leading AFL player agent Paul Connors, who sensed there was an inner determination in Higgins to improve. Connors suggested Higgins do some work with renowned sprint coach Bohdan Babijczuk, who Higgins has seen twice a week for the past few pre-seasons and who has helped him become sharper in movement.
In his early teens, Higgins started to ramp up his gym work, so signed up with Woodford Sports Science Consulting, where he has struck a great bond with personal trainer Christian Woodford.
The pieces to Higgins’ game were quickly being put in place. Then he started with the Oakleigh Chargers’ under-16s program, where he met coach Anthony Phillips. Phillips is the father of emerging Collingwood midfielder Tom and St Kilda’s Ed, who was drafted last year. He has also become a father figure to Higgins.
In recent summers, Jack has often headed down to Rye for running and touch sessions with the Phillips clan, and every week during the season he catches up with Phillips – he calls him ‘Ant Man’ – to go over clipped vision of his games to seek feedback.
Phillips, who is also the head coach of Caulfield Grammar’s first XVIII school side, has helped round off Higgins’ game from being a highly attacking small forward/midfielder to someone who loves to hold the ball in and do the little things. Recently Phillips was chuffed to see Higgins had registered 15 tackles in a game for Oakleigh at TAC Cup level.
“I took him on as a bit of another son, really, because we just click really well. He’s a very good listener and he learns,” said Phillips. “He hooked onto seeing what Ed and Tom were doing and really saw them as role models. He’s turned into a machine. He’s the most readymade kid I’ve seen.”
Catching up with Phillips is only part of Higgins’ weekly assortment of extra activities to hone his game. The 18-year-old does four weight sessions and two core sessions a week, he sees Babijczuk once, goes to pilates once and also does a recovery session.
In between that are plenty of hours doing ‘touch’, often in the corridors of his Caulfield home, where there’s rebound nets set up and football equipment at the ready. That’s all on top of his scheduled training days with the Chargers or Vic Metro squads.
“I don’t get sick of footy. I’ve always done it, I’ve always wanted to do it so I can’t get enough,” Higgins said.
Higgins has no qualms admitting footy is everything to him. When he has been on camp with the NAB AFL Academy, he has become known for waking at 5:30am and bouncing a footy against the wall in his room and kicking it to himself to get ready for the day. Often waking up his roommate in the process, he’d then leave the hotel and wander to the closest oval for some shots at goal before breakfast.
If he doesn’t get drafted he’d like to be an AFL umpire (he’s currently doing two days a week of work experience with the AFL’s umpiring department), and even if he does get picked up for a club it’s something he will keep in mind after his career. “I reckon I’d be fit enough,” he said.
When he was studying at Caulfield Grammar one of the only projects he enjoyed was an IT assignment where he made the topic about football statistics. One time he also ducked out of class, printed off 10 pictures of former West Coast and Carlton champion (and Caulfield graduate) Chris Judd, and stuck them up around the school. “I was a bit bored so I thought I’d put them up and post them in some quirky spots. I didn’t get caught,” he says.
Higgins decided school wasn’t for him at the end of last year, leaving Caulfield. He has been interviewed by all clubs and all have asked about that decision, and he knows plenty of them believe he’s done it just to focus on being drafted. He said that’s not the case.
“I’m not doing it at all just to focus on my footy. I was doing absolutely terribly at school and I wanted to do something out in the work force. Footy wasn’t in the picture when I was making that decision,” he said.
“I get asked a lot about it but it doesn’t frustrate me. I don’t really care. If I get drafted at pick 88 or whatever I’ll still be happy. For me, getting drafted is like wanting to get 99.95 on my ATAR. That’s how hard I’m working trying to get there.”
Higgins couldn’t have done much more. The 178cm prospect was named the best player at the under-16 national carnival in 2015, he played well for Vic Metro last year as a bottom-ager, and has averaged 25.7 disposals and kicked 10 goals this season in seven games at TAC Cup level.
He sees himself more as a small forward who can play in the midfield than the other way around, but it’s rare he doesn’t impact a game. His numbers are going to be hard to ignore at draft time as one of the best players in it.
“It’s pretty exciting that one day soon my name might be called out in the draft and then I’ll need to start from zero again,” he said. “I think some people will get a shock going into the AFL system and how hard you have to work, but I don’t think that’s going to be me.”