AFL Draft 2022: Harry Sheezel likely first-round draft pick to create history for Jewish community
Harry Sheezel is set to be the first Jew to play AFL in 20 years. The forward chats to DANIEL CHERNY about cultural barriers and his desire to be the role model who shows Jewish kids what is possible.
The 2021 census found that Victoria’s Jewish population is 46,645, most of whom live in Melbourne. Sport, and in particular football, has long been an important part of Jewish community life and culture.
A Jewish club, AJAX, has featured in the local amateur competition for more than six decades.
Jews have routinely served as AFL club directors and administrators. Think David Smorgon, Joseph Gutnick and Jeanne Pratt.
They have been in the media. They have worked as club doctors.
But on the field it has been few and far between. The most accomplished is Ian Synman, 1966 St Kilda premiership player. But across more than 125 years of VFL/AFL football, fewer than a dozen Jews have played even a single game. The most recent was Ezra Poyas, member of Richmond’s 2001 preliminary final side. North Melbourne’s veteran ruckman Todd Goldstein’s father is Jewish, however lineage in Orthodox Judaism runs through the maternal line, and Goldstein did not play his junior football with AJAX.
So that a kid from AJAX who recently graduated from Mount Scopus Memorial College – Australia’s largest Jewish day school – is set to become a top-five draft pick on Monday night, has generated waves of excitement within Melbourne’s Jewish community.
Harry Sheezel is 18, and in Jewish circles he is already a celebrity.
The crafty forward, also capable of running through the midfield, appears bound for North Melbourne inside the first four selections at the draft.
“You get these kids that you’ve just never seen come up to you and are like, ‘Oh, ‘you’re Harry Sheezel,’ I go to Scopus as well. You see these kids, they look at me how I used to look at Lance Franklin. And it’s just like, wow, like, I can be such a positive role model and an influence to these kids,” Sheezel says.
“It is sometimes a bit of pressure, like if you don’t perform, am I letting them down? But I think I have the belief that I think I can make it more positive than negative.
“I guess now it’s kind of real that it is going to happen. So now I can kind of relax a bit and just try to give back to the community and show them that it is possible. I think that’s the way I’m gonna look, I just want it to be more common, I think it definitely can be. There’s a lot of younger players coming up. I think if they see someone like me going all the way with it, then they’re inspired to do that as well.”
While football is a passion for many, sport tends to run a distant second, or even further back, to academic pursuits at Melbourne’s private Jewish schools. A handful of them, including Scopus, are invariably near the top of the VCE rankings, creating leading businesspeople, lawyers, doctors, politicians, you name it.
But trying to find a professional sportsperson from one of these schools? It’s like wandering for 40 years through the desert.
Domestic cricket stalwart Michael Klinger was the long-time beacon, with the opener eventually playing for Australia in Twenty20 late in his career.
The football drought has lasted the best part of two decades though. It is not to say there aren’t promising junior Jewish footballers; a handful have made the NAB League and VFL. But Sheezel’s view is that there have been cultural barriers preventing the development of Jewish players. He hopes that by breaking through, he can help open the floodgates.
“I’ve actually thought about this a bit. I think a lot of it comes from the player. I think obviously the passion is there,” Sheezel says.
“But the determination for a lot of Jewish people is just like, they don’t have that expectation. And they haven’t seen people do it. And then they don’t have the motivation, internal motivation, they don’t really know what it takes.
“Whereas I think I’ve worked really hard and even more than others to get to where I am. And I think it’s just like the combination of passion and dedication together. I think it’s probably not common in the Jewish religion, I think maybe people don’t get the support they need as well.
“Because people haven’t seen anyone do it. They just think it’s so hard. Like, ‘I can’t do it.’ I think it has to start from a young age, you’ve got to have first the passion. And then like, obviously, the skill and that but then dedication to go on with it. And to work hard. Like, I think that’s probably not common in the Jewish religion in terms of sport.”
Having grown up watching Alastair Clarkson’s Hawthorn sides, Sheezel is likely to soon be learning from the four-time premiership coach. But in a weird twist, it will be in blue and white stripes, not brown and gold.
Sheezel has his father Dean to thank for being a Hawks supporter who attended all four of the club’s grand finals from 2012 and 2015 (Harry cried after the 2012 loss to Sydney).
But he also owes it to Dean for showing him how to train.
“My dad was massive in my development early on, driving me to put in the extra work. We used to go to the park all the time. Go for extra runs. He was a great role model for me in terms of fitness. He did a lot of triathlons, a couple of Ironmans. So he was big for me,” Sheezel says.
“And then it kind of got to a stage where I was playing good footy. And I was getting the recognition, where that just kind of fuelled me even more and then it took over to like more internal motivation. And then I really took ownership of my career. And it really drove it even further.”
Sheezel recently spoke on a panel at the MCG alongside retired Richmond defender Bachar Houli as part of the Jolson-Houli Unity Cup, a football match which serves as an outreach program between Melbourne’s Jewish and Muslim communities.
In many ways, Houli can relate to what Sheezel is going through.
“He was so supportive.” Sheezel says of Houli.
“He kind of acted like he knew of my progress. He just seems like the guy that just always makes you feel so warm and welcomed, And yeah, what he’s done for his community is really inspiring, and something that I’ve probably aimed to do for the Jewish community.”