Sock it to ‘em: Cat’s persistence pays off with grand chance
Sam Simpson's heart skipped a beat as assistant coach James Rahilly's number flashed up on his phone.
It was early in the week of the Collingwood semi-final and the lightly-built half forward knew this was no kiss-off or "keep-trying" message.
Four years spent building up the 64kg body he arrived at Geelong with - as well as assembling a VFL body of work - had culminated in this opportunity.
After two years without a senior game he had peeled off a superb 27-touch contest in his return to the AFL side in Round 6.
A ripped hamstring had cut short that six-game run but after only a single scratch match contest he knew he was back in the big time.
"Yeah, James Rahilly gave me a call and informed me. I knew it was good. When you are out of the side but his number comes up it's good," he said.
"To come in for a big game and my first final as well was great. The hamstring was frustrating, to say the least, so it was so good to get back into the side. I called mum and dad straight after the call and they were super-stoked."
Two weeks on from receiving that huge show of faith, Geelong father-son Simpson shapes as the fairytale story of the 2020 Grand Final.
Catch Fox Footy's Grand Final Week coverage on Kayo. Stream all the latest news and insight right up until first bounce plus halftime and full-time analysis from the Fox Footy commentary team. New to Kayo? Get your 14-day free trial & start streaming instantly >
SIMPSON'S RISE A 2020 FAIRYTALE
Marlion Pickett's heroics last year in his first AFL game will never be beaten but just 14 AFL games into an AFL career Simpson is ready for his moment.
He isn't just there as the last man standing - in a Geelong side brimming with good health his hard running and clever ball-winning ability means he is a weapon Richmond must stop.
Simpson is classified as an elite ball-winner as a general forward but his huge tank has also allowed him to thrive in a system full of two-way runners - and helped Patrick Dangerfield play full-time forward.
A kid from St Josephs who grew up hearing tales of his father's deeds was in the crowd when his idol Gary Ablett wheeled around the corner in the 2007 preliminary goal to break Collingwood hearts in a five-point loss.
He admits this wild ride has shocked him given he had spent all of the 2019 season as a perennial emergency and only got into the side in Round 6 this year.
"I didn't make a lot of rep sides growing up and it wasn't until I turned 18 that I got onto the Falcons list. So to get a few games in my first year was great, to get a taste of it. But then I spent a fair bit of time in the VFL and learnt a lot there. I really worked on my craft and got a bit of experience in different positions and thankfully I have been able to carry it to the next level.
"It seemed like every week last year I was in that boat (as an emergency) but I was getting really good feedback and you keep the faith and keep working hard and you take it into your own hands to break in."
"It is unbelievable to be in a Grand Final. It's all still sinking in but I was born in Geelong and followed the Cats and saw them in the golden era of '07, '09 and 11 and it so awesome to be in those shoes now and hopefully we can be part of something big."
LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON
Simpson doesn't just look like his old man, he plays exactly like him too as he charges across the turf attempting to create carnage from half forward.
"It's pretty funny, even when I was in juniors a lot of people would say I have a similar style and looked similar to him so even from an early age I was hearing that a lot, but it gets even stronger the older I get."
As his dad Sean said this week, it is time for him to write the football history he couldn't across 121 games.
Sean Simpson played in the 1992 Grand Final at exactly the same age as his son - 22 - but never got back to the same stage.
"I just say to him enjoy the experience, make sure you soak up the surroundings and look into the stands but make sure you are not happy to just be there," he says.
"The result means everything. I was only 22, and I thought we would get another opportunity. We had a pretty good side and we did play in 1994 and 1995 but I was an emergency for both. So for him this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."
Simpson could not have gone through a more Geelong-style apprenticeship at GMHBA Stadium, one his old man says he needed given his lightly built frame.
Sean Simpson was desperate not to push him into footy and he played three seasons of soccer from ages nine to 11.
He is the kind of laid-back, knockabout dad that has been happy to let his son tread his path instead of urge him to replicate his deeds.
"He was well off the good ones as a junior, the better guys were way ahead of him and I never really pressured him, when he started soccer I thought that's bruise-free, that will do me.
"But his mates all played footy so he started and he missed some Under-16 interleague squads but he was pretty resilient. I was just encouraging him to have fun as much as anything because I know the pressure of AFL Being a battler myself, you get more kicks up the bum than pats on the back. If he was going to go down this track, he needed to be prepared for that."
CHAT LIVE WITH MICK MCGUANE THURSDAY OCT 22, 12PM AEDT
When he finally broke into the Geelong Falcons side, Cats recruiter Stephen Wells sidled up to Sean pre-game.
"I said to Wellsy, "Who are you looking at?" He said, "I have come to look at your bloke".
Wells, as usual, was tucked behind a tree in his usual low-key recruiting spot.
But he invited Sam to training late in the year then as the Bulldogs and Hawthorn interviewed him, made clear the club didn't see him as a senior-listed player yet.
"He said we have decided to rookie-list him, not draft him outright," Sean Simpson recalls.
"I told him about the other interest and he explained that we are answerable to our members and if he's on a list for two years and he's clogging it up then he is out of the system. If he's a rookie he can develop at his own pace and stay in the system longer."
"And true to their word, they nurtured him."
Sam and wife Naomi will watch the game in a low-key family celebration with daughters Alana and Charlotte, aware he could not have landed at a better club.
The Geelong culture has shone through, from Tom Atkins dropping Simpson off for a hair cut only days before being dropped for him, to Joel Selwood driving him hard as they rehabbed together.
"He rehabbed his hamstring with Joel and you could just see when he came back he was bigger and stronger. Joel had pushed him," says Sean Simpson.
"Sam learned so much from that. It was just a life-changing experience."
Originally published as Sock it to 'em: Cat's persistence pays off with grand chance