AFL 2024: From ‘scrawny kid’ to one half of Melbourne’s ‘it’ couple: The former carpenter putting Bombers in shape


The struggle has been worth it, for player and club.

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The Dons are among the best contested-ball teams this year, an area they had struggled in recent years. Durham’s insertion into the guts has played no small part. Only Merrett has won more contested possessions or clearances than the late bloomer.

Durham has never feared a scrap, even if he describes himself as “always that scrawny kid” growing up. He played his junior football on a wing, but has the mindset of a player who belongs in the centre square.

“I’m not afraid,” Durham said ahead of the Bombers’ annual Tackling Childhood Cancer Game, supported by official charity partner Challenge. “If you’re afraid, you probably get hurt more.”

Durham figures his love of the rough stuff comes from his uncle and the father of one of his Richmond VFL teammates who used to take him fishing and hunting.

Durham may have come through the traditional pathway but was often on the edge. Overlooked for previous squads with the Murray Bushrangers because he was too small, Durham played every game in his top-age year.

He was picked to play in a VFL practice game for Richmond in early 2020, only for the match to be called off as COVID-19 hit Australia, but it gave him hope he was not far off.

As the pandemic wreaked havoc, so driven was Durham he hit up a running coach Kelvin Lubeck, who runs a plumbing business in Seymour. Three times a week, Durham would follow a program of repeat sprints over 100, 200 and 300 metres in preparation for the two-kilometre time trial at the draft combine.

At a time when lockdowns and travel restrictions were in place in Melbourne, and grassroots football ground to a halt in Victoria, the idea of being drafted must have felt so distant.

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“When you’re doing it, you get into a groove and forget,” Durham said. “You’re doing it for nothing. You have to snap back and remind yourself what you’re doing it for.”

If Durham was down, Lubeck would pep him up by dropping how he knew of interested clubs.

“I don’t know how much is true, but it gets you going every now and then,” Durham laughed. “He was awesome with that.”

These sessions laid the foundation for his 2021 VFL campaign with Richmond, where he caught the eye of recruiters from Sydney and Essendon, both of whom interviewed Durham.

Durham’s Zoom chat with Essendon list boss Adrian Dodoro and recruiter Rob Forster-Knight took place in his shed at Seymour, leading both to think he was still on the tools. The 20-minute interview chat did not go well, Durham thought, and the Swans sounded keener.

“I got on the phone straight away to my manager and said, ‘Essendon won’t be interested, they didn’t give me much at all’,” Durham said.

“It just went so quick, and they were so punchy with questions and answers and moved on. Random stuff, then it was done.”

Anticipating the Swans to give him his big break, Durham was as surprised as anyone when Dodoro swooped with pick nine, three picks earlier than Sydney, in the mid-season draft.

Andrew McGrath, now vice captain, took him into his home upon drafting, teaching him how to be a professional.

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“I was very green coming into his house, never had Japanese or anything like that,” Durham said.

Salmon sashimi remains a step too far for Durham, but he has absorbed just about every other lesson from McGrath.

“I was a sponge going into the footy club, I always sat next to him,” Durham said. “The way he talked, even outside of footy, the way he interacted with people, with kids, just taking notes on everything.

“He’s an ultimate professional. I’d like to say I’ve learnt lot from him, but I can’t say I’ve learned the talking part off him. He’s a natural.”

Durham’s girlfriend Paris Bishop.

Durham’s girlfriend Paris Bishop.Credit: Getty Images

Durham is perhaps selling himself short. He connected with his girlfriend on Instagram before meeting in a bar. He did the asking. “I had to,” Durham said.

Though an irregular poster on Instagram, he still has 23,600 followers, a fraction of Bishop’s 171,000.

“I’m not really good on social media, she’s all over it,” Durham said. “We don’t really read into it [the publicity], we just stay in our own lane.”

Durham’s lane is on the field, where, after years of taking the road less travelled, he finally feels he belongs.

“The start of this year in the pre-season I felt I had put on a bit more size, and felt like I belonged in the team,” Durham said.

“At the start it was to try and get a game, earn your stripes a little bit. I feel like now I can make a stamp on the team with what I can do.”

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