Highmore’s unconventional path to St Kilda
Tom Highmore’s unconventional journey to the AFL is one of persistence, perseverance and determination.
First nominating for the draft in 2016, Highmore was overlooked, and then overlooked again, and again, and then again.
A product of the GIANTS Academy Program in Canberra, Highmore was first touted as a potential draftee after impressing for the NSW/ACT RAMS as a sixteen-year-old.
Tipped to be the next star out of the GIANTS’ Academy program, Highmore’s rapid rise was dealt a significant blow when he suffered an unlikely setback early into his draft year.
“I was on the back foot early in 2016,” Highmore said.
“I got glandular fever which meant I was unable to train for a significant period and I missed a lot of football.
“From there I was probably playing catch up and couldn’t quite get my body right.
“I was lacking a little bit of fitness which probably reflected in my football, so I think I rushed back and wasn’t up to the standard required.”
After missing out on draft selection, the GIANTS invited Highmore to remain in the Academy program for a further year as an overage player, giving the now 19-year-old a second chance to prove he belonged in the AFL.
Determined to make the most of this second opportunity, Highmore started the year in fantastic form, selected to represent the Allies squad in the AFL’s Under 18 Championships in Victoria.
Despite playing consistent football, Highmore was again overlooked.
“I can’t speak highly enough about the GIANTS Academy program and what it did for my development,” Highmore said.
“I don’t consider myself unlucky, I know I wasn’t where I need to be and I didn’t deserve that opportunity, but I knew I had the ability, and my best football was at the standard needed.”
With his time in the GIANTS Academy now over, Highmore opted to continue his development with the Canberra Demons program in the NEAFL competition.
Running off half-back Highmore quickly developed a reputation as one of the NEAFL’s most consistent players, guiding Canberra to their first ever Preliminary Final in 2018, before backing up his impressive campaign with a career best season in 2019.
Promoted to the co-vice captaincy, Highmore was named in the NEAFL’s Team of the Year for the first time in his career and earnt his second consecutive Players’ Player Award.
Still harbouring the ambition to play at the highest level, Highmore opted to depart Canberra at the end of 2019, relocating to South Australia, where he signed with the South Adelaide Panthers in the SANFL.
“Leaving was something I’d been weighing up for a little while, but for me there was a real loyalty factor to Canberra,” Highmore said.
“I’d been a part of the club since its inception into the NEAFL, and I witnessed it grow into one of the strongest sides across NSW and the ACT.
“I was born and bred in Canberra and loved my time at the club and where it was heading but it just felt the time was right for me to seek a new opportunity, a new challenge and really push for that chance in the AFL.”
The 22-year-old wasted no time in adjusting to life in the SANFL competition, named in South Adelaide’s best players in each of the opening six rounds of the season before suffering a devastating ankle injury in round eight.
Following a long and intensive rehabilitation program, Highmore was cleared to return in time for South Adelaide’s finals campaign, re-establishing himself as a genuine mature-aged draft prospect.
Highmore says his previous years of draft heartbreak had kept him level-headed and humbled despite the media attention.
“In terms of the draft I never got ahead of myself,” he said.
“When you’re a mature aged prospect you’re almost forced to have a fair bit going on outside of football.
“Obviously when I got invited to the National Draft Combine, I started to think it was a realistic opportunity and that some clubs were interested.
“It was definitely the most substance I’d ever had in terms of interest, but I certainly wasn’t confident.”
With his housemates and best friend from Canberra alongside for support, Highmore says it’s difficult to describe the immense emotions of watching the draft unfold.
“I was in a state of shock,” Highmore recalled.
“I was simply overwhelmed, I’ve replayed the moment over and over and it still feels surreal.”
Inundated with support from Canberra and beyond, it was at that moment Highmore realised the true magnitude of his achievement.
“It felt like I’d had every birthday at once,” he said.
“I was pretty overwhelmed, but those couple of days after are a bit of a blur now, just a crazy rollercoaster of emotion.
“It meant a lot to me to be able to share that moment, and that feeling, with my family and closest friends who have ridden the ups and downs with me.
“It feels as though it means just as much to them as it does to me, and I think that’s the most special part.”
It was the culmination of years of hard work for the key-defender, who didn’t have long to reflect on his achievement, relocating to Melbourne three days after the draft.
“In the short time I have been here the strength of the club’s culture and positive environment is evident,” he said.
“It’s been tough work no doubt, but I’m really enjoying the transition.
“When I first came up, I went into a house with Jack Billings and Ben Paton, they took me under their wing, and I’ve been able to ask them a thousand questions.
“They’ve been instrumental for me early and then there’s obviously that Canberra connection with Jack (Steele).
“He called me the morning after and has been so helpful early, to see firsthand his professionalism and way he works is everything I aspire to be.”
The taste of life at the elite level inspires Highmore to place no limits on what he can achieve in 2021.
“My mindset is that there’s no limits on what I can achieve this year,” he said.
“If the opportunity to play AFL arises, I’ll be sure to take it with both hands, but if it doesn’t, I’ll continue to put my best foot forward and do everything I can until I get the chance.”
From a little boy who loved his football, to a heartbroken draftee, to a state football star, to finally, an AFL player, Highmore suggests that resilience and perseverance are two words that would best describe his journey so far.
“Resilience and perseverance are two traits that I think I’ve shown across the journey to where I am now,” he said.
“Every year I missed out on being selected only enhanced my hunger, I knew in my head I had to just keep that inner drive and inner belief even when other people are in your ear telling you you’re not good enough.
“Because at the end of the day if you don’t believe in yourself nobody will.
“While my journey has been unorthodox, hopefully it also shows that missing out on the draft as an 18 year old doesn’t have to mean it’s the end.
“Owing to those setbacks I know that where I am now, on and off the field, I am much more prepared for life in the AFL.”