The Story of a Real Man

Wodonga football player who made it into the AFL with three children, becoming a father 3 days after his 17th birthday.

Herald Sun, November 26 2011

THEY told him he was too old. That he would never be able to live his AFL dream.

But at 29 years of age, just when Orren Stephenson had given up hope, he got the break that changed his life. Better late than never.

Stephenson made footy history this week as the oldest first-entry draft pick. Not bad for a country bloke whose story is not unlike so many others who fell in love with footy but got too caught up in a hectic life.

Stephenson’s remarkable rise started with a whirlwind romance with his childhood sweetheart, Whitney. He became a dad three days after his 17th birthday. A day later he got his P-plates.

By the time he’d finished his first apprenticeship, two more beautiful babies were added to the brood.

Life had been booted at this kid hard and long, but he made an impressive mark of it. Still, he couldn’t help but imagine what things might have been like if footy had come first. Thankfully, now he doesn’t have to.

On Thursday night he sat in front of the TV with his wife and kids to hear his name called in the AFL national draft. Premiers Geelong snapped up the ruckman at pick 78.

It was ironic, Stephenson said, because just when he was finally content to set aside the dream, it landed in his lap. “It was definitely something that stuck in my guts, something that I wanted to do,” he said. “But I certainly wasn’t expecting it this year.”

His footy future had looked in doubt when he was just 24. On a training camp at Carlton, coach Denis Pagan declared he was already too old.

“So I had pretty much shelved the idea of playing professionally and I was just enjoying the opportunities I had been given within local footy,” Stephenson said.

His wife Whitney said the knock-back gutted her husband, but she could always tell it hadn’t extinguished his passion for the game or the glimmer of hope that he might eventually make it.

“There was a glint in his eye,” she said. “You could see it every day. Footy was a part of him, it always has been.

“He loved the game but family has always come first, and that’s what has made him such a wonderful father, and so loyal.”

That quality has earned him just as much respect from long-time friends, including his St Michaels school mates who watched as he managed to adjust to life with a newborn daughter and still finish his HSC.

“I couldn’t have been prouder, seriously,” best mate Brian Cattell said. “He really put in, they both did, and now it’s paid off.

“He has been at the top of his game for a few years in the VFL, so it’s just a fantastic effort. I couldn’t have asked for a nicer friend.

“He is the type of bloke you can ring any time and know he will always be there. There is no job too big or small he won’t help you with. You can trust him, no questions asked.”

Past and present work colleagues speak just as highly of Stephenson, who first earned his ticket in the telecommunications industry then did a second apprenticeship as a sparky.

Tesltra business centre workmate Michael Cushing said Stephenson deserved his chance to prove himself as an AFL star. “It’s a dream he has had for years. You could always see how passionate he was about football,” he said. “He’s a great bloke and this is his chance to have a crack at it.”

But his proud parents, Mark and Jackie, probably know more than anybody just how deserved this 11th hour opportunity really is.

In 1998, when their son was just 16, he told them they were to become grandparents. His mum’s emotions are clear when recalling the story – the moment her eldest son stepped up to the plate and took responsibility for himself.

For many, she said, it could have been a slide into another ordinary life tarnished with uncertainty. But she knew it wasn’t to be that way for her boy, who crawled at four months, walked at eight, and was kicking a footy aged one.

“He has always given 100 per cent and that’s why he amazes me,” she said.

“There are not many young men I know who have juggled what he has. I am proud of him not just for being a father at such a young age but to also tackle an apprenticeship, to look after his family and then follow his footy career. That is something to be very proud of.”


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