“Pretty cool” is a description Mel Hickey returns to time and again, head shaking and smile beaming. The way it’s all come together, this football dream of hers, could scarcely have been more uplifting if she’d penned the script herself.

Way back she was a little girl in a Mildura front yard kicking a ball with her dad and two sisters, then to herself after she’d worn everyone else out. She’d high-five the tree leaves after booting an imaginary goal, invariably the winner of a grand final for her beloved Cats.

“I was Gary Ablett – senior!” Hickey says. “Shows my age!”

After a late start in the game (aged 24), seven premierships with Darebin, Victorian honours, multiple exhibition games, two knee reconstructions and two seasons in the game’s longed-for national competition (the first of them as an All-Australian defender), Mel Hickey is 33. And she’s finally where she belongs.

“I used to think just playing AFL was the dream, but now that this opportunity has come this genuinely is my childhood dream – pulling on the hoops. I haven’t been able to wipe the smile off my face.”

Nobody with her famous name has played for Geelong since the great Reg Hickey, her grandfather’s cousin, wore the blue and white hoops for the 245th and final time in 1940. He’d played in two premierships (one as playing-coach) and would coach another two back-to-back in the 1950s. Mel’s father was one of 10, her grandfather one of 11, yet even in this huge familial field, Reg Hickey was a beacon.

“He was spoken about as quite revered in our family, we all went for Geelong for that reason,” says Hickey, who remembers a photographic study of Reg kicking, his foot reaching the height of a door frame. “I’d come down here and watch games with my Dad and Pop and uncles, you’d look at the Hickey Stand name. They’re pretty cool memories.”

Playing for South Mildura her father wanted Sam Newman’s No.17 but it was taken, so had to settle for 18. Mel has worn it always, yet only discovered recently it was Reg’s number. The synergy is perfection.

As is her arrival from Melbourne as a readymade leader, on and off the field. After completing a bachelor of health science and post-grad studies in rehabilitation, Hickey has worked with people who’ve been bullied, sexually assaulted and exposed to all manner of horrors in the workplace, and others recuperating from injuries ranging from knee reconstructions to amputation.

After her own first knee injury, in 2011, she found herself hobbling around saying, “I’m back at work – you go back to work too!” She’ll combine playing with a mentoring role with her new teammates, using old-fashioned workbooks and the power of the written word to encourage goal-setting, confidence-building and empowerment.

“I love mentoring female athletes. As women we’re hard on ourselves, sometimes we’re our own worst enemies.”

Hickey brings a professionalism she credits with landing at Darebin almost a decade ago and being immersed in a culture that was ahead of its time. “Before it was cool to play football, we were already trying to get the most out of ourselves.”

Currently completing a second knee rehabilitation that will have her primed for Geelong’s 2018 AFLW debut, her thirst for improvement rages. “That’s another part of footy I love – it’s such a never-ending challenge, you can’t clock football. I’ve never had a perfect game where I’ve walked off feeling like I’ve executed everything, run to the right contests, made the right decision every time.

“There’s something elusive about that challenge in footy – you can still never be fit enough, you can never be skilled enough, I don’t think you can ever know enough about the game.”