Australia

How a soccer-playing AFL star from rugby league heartland was ‘pestered’ into his footy career

Playing at the MCG in front of 90,000 screaming fans is every Aussie rules-playing kid’s dream, but it is the last place you would find a soccer player from Biloela.

For more than a decade, Zac Smith dazzled Aussie rules fans with a skill set and athleticism unexpected for a 206-centimetre-tall ruckman in a sport he was never meant to play.

It took him from Biloela in central Queensland, a town smack bang in the middle of rugby league heartland, to the bright lights of the hallowed MCG turf and to every major Aussie rules ground in the country.

Smith’s 11-year career for the Gold Coast Suns and Geelong Cats ended in a lockdown-induced, empty Docklands Stadium on Saturday after the Suns’ loss to Sydney.

Growing up, Smith was not allowed to play league, and instead had his sights on a football career of a different kind.

Zac Smith when he was 12 or 13 playing soccer for central Queensland.(

Supplied: Zac Smith

)

A junior Queensland soccer representative, his football career turned a corner when he gave in to his high school teacher who begged the teenager to switch codes.

“I kept pestering him. I said ‘look, come and play for us in the ruck, AFL should be your game, it’s your sport’,” said Mike Hinds, the Aussie rules coach at North Rockhampton High.

“He didn’t do it. He just sort of scoffed at it. When he got to year 12 his mates said ‘yeah, give it a go Zac, come along and play’.

“He started in the ruck and the first game was pretty ordinary. The following week we played in Yeppoon and he dominated.”

Smith marks above Thornton
Smith, flying high against Greater Western Sydneys, is a foundation player for the Suns.(

AAP: Lukas Coch

)

AFL Capricornia development officer Brett Fragiacomo was umpiring the match that day and knew Smith was something special.

He invited the young talent to the AFL Queensland Rookie Search program.

“He only got three or four touches, but he was playing in the ruck, he was really quick and athletic, and he kept competing,” Fragiacomo said of Smith, then 202cm tall.

Brett Smith, Zac’s father, said from then on “it went completely crazy”.

“It was a dream, really. In a couple of years we were down in Brisbane and then he joined the Suns and the rest is history.”

Breaking ground

Smith grew, along with his career, and became one of the first players to sign with the Suns, turning down interest from other clubs to join the AFL newcomers in 2009.

He had only been playing the sport for two years.

He kicked the Suns’ first AFL score upon the club’s debut in 2011.

A bald AFL players in blue and red wrestles with a shorter player in orange as they look into the sky.
Max Gawn of the Demons (left) and Smith of the Suns tousle in August 2021.(

AAP: James Ross

)

“I had some clubs show their interest and this was when the Gold Coast football club was just an idea,” Smith said.

“They were really confident they were going to make it into the AFL in two years’ time and they offered me a three-year deal.

“Instead of getting drafted to another club I thought I needed a couple of years to develop my game, so I decided to sign.”

He played 65 matches across five seasons before leaving the competition’s youngest club to join one of its oldest, the Geelong Cats, for the 2016 season.

But the sunshine state beckoned again and Smith returned to the Suns for the 2020 season to mentor its younger players.

A player with a white and blue striped jersey holds a yellow football.
Zac Smith also played with the Geelong Cats.(

AAP: Julian Smith

)

Tall tales from a small town

His height proved a great asset on the footy field, but it also drew unwanted attention in his early years in Biloela.

Smith said his parents were often approached by disgruntled parents who were sceptical of his age in the local soccer team.

“Growing up in Bilo I was a striker — I was definitely a couple of feet taller than most of the other kids on the field — so it was pretty funny,” Smith said.

“I remember mum and dad telling me a story about how there were some parents who were actually angry as they thought I was a couple of years older.

“So, they had to prove my age by bringing my birth certificate to some games to prove that I was the same age as their kids.”

Smith was awarded the 2013 AFL Jim Stynes Medal for community leadership.

His sense of service is something Smith wants to continue post-retirement.

But for now, he is enjoying some down time with his wife Aimee and their two young children.


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