From Carlton to Darley and everything in between, Jake Edwards has experienced the highs and lows of a footballer’s journey.
The storied path that has culminated in a spot on Geelong’s VFL list for 2016 is one the 28-year-old believes others can learn from.
With over 300 games of experience at the highest level shared between Edwards’ father, grandfather and great-grandfather, a similar career path for Edwards seemed like a foregone conclusion at a young age.
“When you look at the stats, I didn’t have much of a choice,” Edwards said.
“It was something that I really wanted to do as a young man. I had the opportunity and played four years at Carlton.”
The dream of playing AFL was achieved when Carlton selected Edwards with pick 36 in the 2005 AFL Draft but after four years and five games, it came to an abrupt end.
Being delisted at the conclusion of the 2009 season had a profound impact on the then 21-year-old.
“When I left the AFL system, I struggled quite a lot with certain mental and lifestyle issues where it got to a point where I had a bit of a meltdown,” Edwards said.
Taking a necessary step back from playing at the elite level in 2010 saw Edwards return home to ply his trade for the Darley Football Club in the Ballarat Football League.
“When I finished with Carlton in 2009, I went back home and played in the country in 2010. I probably had a little bit more to give, given that I was still so young,” Edwards said.
Edwards kicked 42 goals in 17 games for the Devils and at the end of the 2010 season, the fire to compete at the highest level was reignited.
A contract from VFL powerhouse Port Melbourne was seen as a chance for Edwards to restart his career at an elite level but the key forward/defender only had one thing in mind entering the 2011 season.
“I went there with the goal of winning a premiership,” he said.
The Borough were able to go through the season undefeated and claim their record 16th VFL premiership.
“It was probably the highlight of my career to date, just something that I didn’t really expect,” Edwards said.
“I was blessed to get that opportunity and its something that I’ll hold with me for a very long time.”
From his sole season in the blue and red, Edwards took away more than just a premiership medal, learning valuable life lessons from former Geelong coach Gary Ayres, who was at the helm during the Borough’s undefeated season.
“(Ayres) taught me a lot, not only about football but about being a young man off the field. He supported me in a lot of areas that I was going through, as a bit of a mentor.
“He is someone that I probably owe a lot to for my confidence as a person,” Edwards said.
Whilst the physical and mental effort associated with putting together a premiership campaign is ultimately worthwhile, the toll it took on Edwards, in combination with some external challenges, saw him step away from Port Melbourne after just one season.
“That bit of fire that I had in me probably extinguished. I personally felt that I probably just couldn’t give it mentally.”
Edwards has played some of his best football since returning to Darley in 2012, kicking 145 goals during the four-year period and earning four BFL ‘Team of the Year’ honours.
Playing in the AFL and VFL systems gave Edwards a wealth of experience to take to Darley but also saw him play each game with lofty expectations.
Relishing in the environment of being depended on, Edwards achieved the Ballarat league’s highest honour in 2013, taking out the Henderson Medal as the league best and fairest.
“To have a breakout season like that in such a good league really ignited my ability as a player, which was terrific,” Edwards said.
“When you do go back to local level, you do feel a lot of pressure to perform. Looking back now, its an achievement that I do hold dearly.”
Edwards looks back on his 2013 season fondly, but his most treasured memory from his time in Ballarat is last year’s premiership, the Devils’ first since entering the league in 1997.
“Individual things are brilliant, but last year winning a premiership is held a bit more closer than anything,” Edwards said.
Edwards’ family ties, which have played a big part in many of his other football decisions, saw his cousin and new Cats VFL coach Shane O’Bree, invite him down to join the Cats’ preseason.
“Shane really encouraged me to come down and I think Shane had the belief I could still mix it in the VFL,” Edwards said.
“I got a little bit of that spark again, that passion for a higher level of footy. I probably didn’t realise how much I missed the competitiveness of that higher level and intensity.
“It was something I quickly fell in love with and I was rapt that Shane put some belief in me.”
Earning himself a spot in the VFL squad for 2016, Edwards brings experience, leadership and versatility to the Bankers.
Academy and VFL Manager Troy Selwood has been impressed with Edwards’ preseason and looks forward to seeing him in Cats colours.
“We are very excited to acquire the services of Jake Edwards for the 2016 VFL Season,” Selwood said.
“Jake is an extremely versatile player – he has the capability to play key defence and as a mobile forward. He has demonstrated great leadership qualities over the preseason, has a unique story to tell, and I believe will be a fantastic mentor for emerging AFL & VFL listed players.”
Edwards’ ability to mentor others using his experiences is a big part of the former Blue’s life and is one of his passions outside of football.
“It’s a passion of mine to work with youth, given my experiences and what I went through. I try to take those experiences and give back a little bit more to the community in what I went through.
“I run a company called Outside the Locker Room, which is dedicated to working with local sporting clubs, mainly country football areas,” Edwards said.
OTLR is a program dedicated to working with young adults, giving them support and education that they need on issues such as drugs, alcohol, mental health and depression.
“Playing at Darley gave me the opportunity to realise that all the kids, even back in the local areas, go through the same issues that us as elder men go through,” Edwards said.
“Its something that I’m very passionate about. Footy is not everything, which is one thing I learnt pretty quickly but I had to learn it the hard way.
“My story is a little bit different, in terms of my path and what happened to me but I’m looking now to try and bring that experience back to all the younger kids playing today.”
The VFL Cats Training Squad head to Torquay this weekend for a Pre Season Training Camp. Announcements regarding a host of player signings and re-signings are planned to place during February in the lead up to the 2016 VFL Practice Match Series.