By sports editor Russell Bennett
“Anything that’s hard-earned feels even sweeter once you achieve it.”
After making his long-awaited AFL debut at the age of 21, with that statement it’s clear to see Officer favourite son Cal Porter possesses wisdom well beyond his years.
In speaking to the Gazette after the Bulldogs’ hard-fought five-point Round 8 win over the Gold Coast at Metricon Stadium last Thursday night, Porter spoke at length about just what his debut game meant to him – and the importance of the journey to get there.
Porter has had to prove himself time and again throughout his career so far, and it’s a challenge he relishes.
Having lived with the likes of Bulldogs team mates Ben Cavarra and Billy Gowers, who’ve forged their own less traditional paths into the AFL, Porter has learned countless invaluable life lessons already.
“Living with those guys and seeing their journeys gave me some great inspiration and some great perspective, just to know that if you think you’re doing it tough, there’s always someone who’s doing it just as hard,” he said.
“They gave me a lot of inspiration, guidance and advice, just to continue to believe in myself and to know that, regardless of when you get there, it’s not if it’s when.
“My friends and family helped a lot with that as well. I think that belief is what got me there in the end.
“That hard work I did to get there made it even sweeter than it would have been if I’d played (AFL footy) earlier.”
Porter finished with nine disposals, four tackles, and a seemingly endless number of pressure acts in just 56% game time as the Bulldogs prevailed over the impressive, rapidly-improving young Suns 7.9 (51) to 6.10 (46).
Crucially for his side’s cause, Porter played out the clash despite copping a knock to his shoulder earlier in the contest.
It caused what Bulldogs medical services manager Chris Bell described as “a minor grade AC injury”, which is set to see Porter miss the next one to two games as part of a no-risk approach.
But Porter relished every single second of his debut game and made sure he soaked it in, particularly given he lined up alongside great mate Cody Weightman. The Beaconsfield product and former Dandenong Stingray is also still in the formative stages of his own career.
“Cody has been super and I think it’s great we’ve ended up at the same place because even before we’d both been picked up, we’d done some training together and our parents’ houses are only five minutes apart,” Porter explained.
“We’d spent a lot of time together previously, so the fact we’ve ended up at the same club is just amazing. I’m sure Cody can attest to this, but it’s just such a great club to be at.
“The reactions I got from the boys – and the reactions Cody got – when they heard the news we were debuting were amazing, and even the Powerade shower in the song afterwards was one of the best feelings I’ve ever had. It’s something I could have never imagined.”
Porter said the culture of acceptance at the Bulldogs was key in helping him fit in so seamlessly into the group.
“We’ve got a lot of unique characters at the club, and I think that’s the message – that we accept everyone,” he said.
“Bevo (senior coach Luke Beveridge) is awesome with that – at just letting everyone be themselves. Him letting me get up and tell jokes and things like that is just another little part of it. It’s something I like to do and the boys get a kick out of it too. They’re little things like that which let me by myself and make me feel comfortable.”
Fittingly, it was after Porter told one of his trademark jokes to the group at training that he was given the news of his debut.
His laidback style and easy-going nature is testament to his quality upbringing, and his time spent honing his skills as a junior at Starling Road in Officer.
“It was a great place to play my junior footy and it’s really set me up to succeed at the next level,” he explained.
“I’ve got a lot of lifelong friendships from that club, and I’m sure I will from the Bulldogs as well – and that’s one of the things you cherish most about your footy career.”
Two of Porter’s biggest mentors within the Bulldogs’ playing group – fellow Gippy boy Josh Dunkley, and Tom Liberatore – have shown him what it takes to forge a career at the highest level, and now he’s hell-bent on taking his chance with both hands.
“Dunks was super with showing me what it takes to be an AFL footballer in terms of work-rate and how hard you have to work, and Libba has been awesome as well,” Porter said.
“He’s my favourite player to watch and to play with – he’s just so hard at it and in-and-under. He’s exactly the type of footballer I want to be, and he’s been really good off the field too. The more games I play, the more I can apply myself and the more time I can spend around those guys, hopefully I can play more and more like them as my career progresses because they’re great role models to have.”
Porter spoke about the frenetic pace and toughness of his debut game, and acknowledged it took a while for him to settle into the conditions.
But once he did, he made sure he soaked it all in.
“It’s something I’ve dreamed of ever since I was a little kid and I worked so hard to get there,” Porter said of his debut.
“I tried to have that balance of enjoying the game, but also knowing we had a job to do and a win to get.
“To win like that was great, and I couldn’t ask for much more out of my debut, to be honest. It was such a great win, and the boys really supported me out there and I got my hands on the footy a couple of times, which was nice as well.
“Nothing in my career up until this point has come easy, so it was only fitting that my first win came in a close contest. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Straight after the win over the Suns, Beveridge gave an insight into why Porter is held in such high regard at the club.
“(He’s a) very, very popular character at our football club. He’s such a great person,” he said.
“(He’s a) really caring, and a terrific team-mate. The 21 who played with him tonight couldn’t wait to take the field with him.
“We’ve got a lot of affection for everyone at our club, but Cal has got under everyone’s skin. He’s just such a terrific young fella.”