If I am to be honest to myself in reflection, I never loved playing AFL football.

I cannot remember ever waking up on Saturday morning, jumping out of my skin to play the game.  

Don’t get me wrong, I love the game. I love the strategy of the game.

I love the camaraderie of the team environment. I love what football brings out in a person on their good days, and their bad.

In all honesty, I am a football tragic.  However, I never loved playing, and I never really got all that excited about supporting a team.

Even today I can easily watch the analytical programs on TV or forward movement clips, stoppage analysis and game tape.

But in the 10 years since leaving the game, I think I have been to five live AFL games and would have struggled to have watched that many on TV at home.

Photos from my time in the AFL bring mixed feelings – it was a far cry from the dreams of what I hoped my AFL career would develop into.

I believe in every way you look at it, my career was a dismal failure.  It was the best thing that ever happened to me.

I was four years old when my family and I relocated from England to Australia.  My parents were big believers that if we were to live in Australia then it was important that we truly integrate into the community.  One way of doing this was playing AFL footy.

I was hooked on the game as a kid.  I loved playing it. I always had a football in my hand.  

My brother and I would play football in our backyard every night after school; it was great fun and between us a real competition.

I ended up developing through my teenage years,  eventually playing through the junior ranks with the Sandringham Dragons.  

As a kid, whenever someone would ask what I wanted to be when I grew older, I would always say an AFL player during the winter months and then an Australian cricketer in summer.

When I turned 16 though, cricket began to pass me by, so I shifted my entire focus towards football.

I really gave footy everything, and it wasn’t long before I started getting selected for representative teams.  

Always in a back pocket and slipped in as an emergency.  Never the star of the show in the rep teams.  I was always first to training.  Best prepared. Ate the right foods, drank the right fluids, I was just not good enough at the rep level until I realised I had to do more than everyone else to be good.  

I knew I could read the play. I knew the game. However I was horribly slow, lanky and a typical 16/17 year old pimply faced kid. Being laser focussed on a goal, has always come naturally to me.  I can stick in when needed.  

I realised I needed to be quicker and stronger and hit harder.  

The day after my final game for the Dragons in my U17 year, I started private sprint training in Dendy park in Brighton.  

Pulling a weighted sled with stall gift runners was my summer.  

I did that 2 times per week, pre-season 3 times per week and summer sport (volleyball) at Wesley College 3 times per week.  

All that training turned in to a good year of football, being selected as an All Australian U18, Vic Metro Best and Fairest and drafted by the Adelaide Crows at pick 14 in the 2003 AFL Draft.

Just like every draft prospect who has attended the draft, I remember absolutely everything.  It is one of the more bizarre days of a young person’s life.  

I finished my final high school exam two weeks prior.  

All my friends left for Byron Bay to go to Schoolies on that day.

I was one of the 10 players invited to the draft, which was held at Melbourne Park.

I was lucky to be invited to the draft.  

In 2003 it was not televised.  Most players sat at home, trying to stream online or wait for a phone call.  That would be horrible.

At least I and 9 others were able to sit in the room and watch it all take place.  

The first round went extremely fast.  Within approximately 5 minutes I had gone from being a recently graduated high school kid to a draftee moving to Adelaide.

Fergus Watts

I immediately got taken away by one of the event officials to get my photo taken by the media; did my first TV interview which was cool at the time, and then the Crows player development manager eventually found me to ask what time I wanted to hop on a flight the next day to report for training.  

10am the next morning I had said goodbye to my girlfriend, family and was on a plane.  

I am not sure I really had time to think about anything; I just went and 24 hours later I was in running drills with Wayne Carey, Mark Riccuito and Andrew Mcleod!

As I mentioned, I view my career as a complete “football” failure.

Two clubs in Adelaide and St. Kilda ended up parting ways with their first round selections for me. Clubs and more important fans, don’t like that!

I felt like I let the game down – from my teammates to coaching and the wider supporter groups.

At the time it didn’t really bother me too much because I gave it everything I had.

I trained hard, ate right, didn’t drink much, rehabbed well.  

I really tried to be the most professional player I could be. I studied my game. I hassled my coaches.  

I did everything I could. Injuries didn’t help me.  I had a very bad recurring ankle injury (12 operations in 18 months) as well as Osteitis Pubis that kept me out for a while.  

A combination of being painfully slow when I got drafted, the game becoming significantly faster between 2004-2007 and a range of injuries that slowed me down further and kept me out of the game for a while, all came together to a point where I could no longer cut it at the elite level.  

I can blame any factor, but at the end of the day I was a decent VFL/SANFL footballer, but I was not good enough at AFL level.

That is all it came down to.  No other excuse. Just not up to it.

I mention it didn’t bother me at the time and that is true.  

However I realised a number of years later how much of a profound effect it did have on me.  A failure in my life long dream affected me for a long time.  

It took me a while to realise it, but when I did realise it I knew I had to get over it and get over it fast.  

There are too many past players that don’t deal with the emotional baggage that comes with a failed career.  I wasn’t going to be one of them.

Alongside this the truth is, my four years in the AFL was the best thing that ever happened to me.  It was one of the greatest life experiences I could ever have.

I learned more about myself in 4 years, while playing AFL football, than a lot of people often do in the real world in 15 years.

While all my mates were off at University, I was a professional athlete dealing with all the positives and negatives that come with playing AFL football.

Leaving school as a first round draft pick you feel bulletproof.  

Signing autographs at training a week later makes you feel better.  Then comes time for rejection.  

Not getting selected.  Playing reserve for the first time in my life.  Not being included in the final session of the week with the senior players.  

Getting overlooked by autograph hunters who want the ‘real players’, dealing with injury after injury, long days on the bike by yourself, or the ice bath reading the newspaper because the main session has gone home.  

This is not unique in football as most players have been through elements of this at some stage, but it is unique for an average 19 year old.  

I also went through 4 senior coaches in 4 years. 2 teams. 2 cities.  Missing finals. achieving finals.  Played in a losing SANFL Grand Final.  Broke Jaw, broke leg, ruptured ankle 3 times, dislocated ankle, OP, 2 AC join injuries, torn quad twice, among other things. 

When I wasn’t injured, I was an emergency which was almost just as bad.  It was a jam packed 4 years.

So you deal with all the highs and lows that come with it, but I wouldn’t trade it for the world.  

It was the best university degree I could have possibly had.  If I could do things differently, of course I would love to play more games and make more of an impact at the level, but to be fair I could never have seen myself playing for 10+ years either.

Footy simply wasn’t my calling, and I was nowhere near good enough.  So into the “real world” for me it was.

I had no idea what I wanted to do post-football. I left school thinking I wanted to be a sports scientist. Thank god I didn’t do that!

I met with anyone I could from any profession I could think of, just to get an understanding of what they did everyday.  

I ended up meeting a guy that worked in an advertising agency.  I liked it there, mainly for the fact that I didn’t have to wear a suit to work and music was playing in the office.  It seemed like a fun place, and I really enjoyed learning about the business.  I was lucky enough for him to give me a job.

When I started I knew nothing. I would go into meetings, write all the terminology down and leave the meeting to google the terms to know what they meant.  

As the weeks went by, I realised I did not have the skillset to work within an agency; I was no good at developing creative advertising campaigns or writing copy for marketing collateral.  

But what did really interest me was the dynamic within the business.  The actual business side of things; this was what I liked.  

I liked learning about our clients businesses and what made the people within our client list tick.  Why did they work there? What did it bring to their lives? What are they trying to achieve?  This is what got me excited.

I always thought, if you could take away the things that people hate doing and let them be great at what they enjoy doing, that would have to make people lives better.  

If you could then surround them with people who compliment them and make them better, then surely that would create something that was pretty good.

My vision was to connect like-minded businesses, and allow them to flourish in an environment where they could perform at their creative best.  I thanked the advertising firm, and left less than one year into the role.

In 2009 I founded Bastion Collective.  It took a good few years to figure out what we were doing and what we were trying to create, but we had some fun along the way figuring it out.  

One thing football taught me was that it is ok to fail.  In fact if you are not failing you are not trying hard enough.  

Most people are scared to fail and in turn they end up doing nothing.  Make mistakes. Make lots of them.  Embrace them and don’t be embarrassed by them.  Make them as big as you can and love it.  

Because only then will you be truly comfortable to take a chance on doing something you love.

Fighting other people’s negative opinions was another great lesson I learnt from my time in the AFL.  The reality is I have been abused by too many pissed off AFL fans, both from the Crows and the Saints, that no one’s negative opinions meant anything to me!

I remember leaving Adelaide, sitting in a café and getting sprayed verbally by an elderly lady.  

That was rough but not an isolated incident.  Especially in Adelaide, I have many more stories of copping sprays after I decided to leave the club.  Fair enough too I reckon. Supporters have the right to be pissed off.  And they were (although I reckon I did them a favour in the end!).

So that’s how it all started for Bastion Collective… it was just an idea to bring together the best people in their field and surround them with people who can make them better.

Fergus Watts

Ask anyone that knows me, and they’ll tell you the same thing – Bastion isn’t my doing.

I’m not a communications expert, or a research guru; it’s our business partners and their hard-working individualised teams that deserve all the credit. They make Bastion what it is today.  

My only claim is that I have created an environment where these creative individuals know they will be nurtured, supported and given every opportunity to create a life for themselves.

I am really proud of what we’ve done and all the people that have come on the journey.  

It’s not in my character to reflect, but we have a Christmas party every year, with all of our 160+ staff in Australia when I stop and look around the group and take in all that we’ve done.

In the last 8 years we have acquired 8 communication agencies and founded another 7.  

We have acquired one of Australia’s leading e-sports franchises, Avant Gaming.  

We have opened offices in Melbourne, Sydney and the USA.  We have had many failures and got plenty wrong.. But we have great people who are all in it together and believe we are creating something that is great fun and will be special.

My belief is the more experience you can gain in life, the better prepared you will be when an opportunity arises for you to take.

I believe you should experience everything. Travel. Party, Train, eat well. Eat bad. Play an instrument. Lose money. Make money.

I like to think, that when my future kids experience something, I will have been through something similar at some point.  

Footballers are no different.. footballers in the system now should be experiencing everything and taking every opportunity from everyone they meet.  

Footballers get a great privilege to meet a huge cross section of people.  Take interest in people and their lives.  

Take experience from them and gather a range of skills.  Not just an elite footballer with a couple of certificates in some rubbish that the club makes you do.  

Fairytales end.  Mine did. Quickly. If you are going out, go out big. Learn from it and go again, just as hard.