This Footy Player Met Her Heroes — Then Played Alongside Them

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It’s not often that people meet their sporting heroes, and even more uncommon to suddenly be competing alongside them. But in just her second footy season, explosive winger Amber Clarke is doing just that — finding her feet at Essendon Football Club and running with some of the best athletes in the AFLW.

The 18-year-old has impressed in her first two seasons at the elite level, but it was a junior athletics career prior to choosing footy that paved the foundations for her blistering speed on field.

“I grew up doing athletics. I started when I was five, for fun, but once I got to the age where you could take the competition further — that’s when I took it seriously,” she said.

Clarke found an affinity for track and chose to specialise in hurdles and sprints. Competing regularly at Nationals saw her collect a handful of gold medals, and four Australian Championship titles. She still holds the Girls Under 13 Australian record for 80m hurdles.

Whilst she was experiencing success on the track, watching the footy on the TV was all it took for another sport to capture a young Clarke’s imagination. Most of the boys she knew at school were already playing, so Clarke signed up with a local club — the Narre North Foxes.

“I thought it looked cool, so decided to join the local club and play with the boys,” Clarke said. “My first ever game of footy — I hadn’t had a single training session beforehand and got thrown into the game with no knowledge, without a proper understanding of the rules and with no experience.”

It didn’t faze her. Growing up at the Foxes, Clarke’s footy talents caught the attention of talent scouts, and at 14, she was selected to play for the Dandenong Stingrays in the Youth Talent League.

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The time well spent in the talent pathway saw Clarke’s junior footy career achieve giddy heights in 2022. The teenager produced a stunning season performance that resulted in best-on-ground honours in the Talent League Girls grand final — and both the Dandenong Stingrays and Talent League Girls Best and Fairest awards.

With success stacking up for her in both athletics and footy, and aspirations to compete for Australia, Clarke felt that she needed to consider her options and choose a focused path forward.

“It got to the point where I had to quit one sport if I wanted to get to the highest level. At the time footy was going better for me, so I quit athletics,” she reflected. “One of the hardest decisions I have had to make was letting go of the dream of competing at the Commonwealth Games.”

With her focus firmly set on playing footy at the elite level, Clarke put her trust in the 2022 AFLW Draft. The addition of the four expansion sides, including Essendon, to the competition meant plenty of opportunity for the young prospect.

“I had spoken to numerous clubs pre-Draft, so wasn’t sure where I could end up going, and at that point I didn’t mind — I just wanted to get selected,” she said.

“On Draft night, it had to be one of the most nervous nights of my life. I’ve never had so many nerves. So, when Bombers called my name out at pick 4, I was just stoked to be going there.”

Clarke’s pick was history-making for Essendon, the club’s first ever AFLW draftee, in the team’s inaugural season. Alongside six other draft picks, including fellow talent pathway peers Paige Scott and Mia Busch, the then 17-year-old began to realise her dream to play footy at the highest level — whilst still completing high school.

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“My first season was amazing. Obviously, most of us girls who got drafted in 2022 had to balance school and footy, which was definitely hard work, but we all got through it,” she said.

The Bombers had arguably the best season of the expansion sides — led by inaugural coach Natalie Wood, claiming four wins in the ten rounds of the home and away season, and finishing just outside finals contention in 10th place. Clarke was extremely grateful to have had the opportunity to play in all ten games but reflects that it wasn’t quite up to scratch in her eyes.

“It wasn’t quite the season I was hoping for, in terms of how I played. I felt like I had more to give but wasn’t able to show that on the field — hopefully with experience, that will come.”

Clarke couldn’t be in a better position to gain that experience, working alongside some of her footy heroes at the Hangar, Essendon’s elite training base. “Two players I idolised growing up — Maddy Prespakis and Bonnie Toogood — had both signed on with the Bombers, it was amazing to get to play alongside them,” Clarke said.

“It’s such a good experience being in an elite program. Girls of different ages, different backgrounds and histories, all together to play the sport at the highest level. Seeing the way different girls prepare themselves — it’s good to learn off those who have been in the system for a few years.”

Her second season with Essendon has seen Clarke settle into the playing group, find balance, and navigate challenges with confidence. Despite an initial injury setback during her preseason, she has remained focused on her steady development.

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“I felt better going into it — I had one season under my belt, so I felt more comfortable. I missed almost the whole of preseason with a hamstring tear, but once it healed that I was determined to have a good season,” Clarke said. “As a player I’ve improved in certain areas, but still have so much room for growth. As a team we’ve put our best foot forward and have had huge growth, which has helped me individually.”

Clarke’s diligence has paid off this year. Whilst juggling part-time work outside of footy and her first year at university, the young gun has made a solid impact on-field. In Essendon’s Round 6 match against the Geelong Cats, Clarke booted 2 majors to seal the win for her side — her strong performance earning the winger an AFLW Rising Star nomination.

“I’ve achieved one of my goals for this season and got a [Rising Star] nomination, but I’m still striving for more,” she said. “My team inspire me. I want to make them proud and do everything I can to help them out each week — so trying to be the best player I can be, will help drive that.”

Despite the accolades, Clarke is grounded by the impact that she makes beyond the game, knowing all to well the influence that athletes such as herself hold.

“I love seeing all the younger girls and boys so excited at our games. Particularly the girls who then will grow up and decide they want to play footy. I think AFLW games create a good atmosphere for the young ones — getting them involved will inspire them to do what they love,” she said.

“I’ve had some young kids say that they want to play like me and that they want to be like me when their older. For someone like me — who’s only 18, in my second year and not a huge standout player — it makes me so, so happy that kids have that respect and can see the effort we put in.”

Keep up with Jess on Instagram, and find out more about AFLW games on near you here.

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