THIS year's training camp on the Sunshine Coast will be doubly special for Hawthorn's Brendan Whitecross.
For the 25-year-old Queenslander it means spending time back with his family, and for the first time in three seasons actually being on the training paddock in the pre-season.
After going down with an anterior cruciate ligament tear during the 2012 qualifying final against Collingwood, Whitecross came back stronger than ever the following season.
But cruel fate was to strike again, this time against Geelong in a 2013 preliminary final when Whitecross ruptured his ACL for a second time. The injury kept him out of the Hawks' 2014 campaign and another grand final.
The 88-gamer would wait more than 540 days for his next game of AFL footy.
"The really good thing about this pre-season is although I'm not back into full contact skills (due to a shoulder injury), I've been able to start with running, riding and weights from day one," he said.
"It will make a massive difference ... in past years I've been behind the eight-ball from the get-go."
Regarded as one of the strongest drafts in recent history, Whitecross was Hawthorn's second pick behind none other than Cyril Rioli.
Towards the end of last season, northern clubs, including Brisbane and Greater Western Sydney, had their sights on the talented midfielder, options Whitecross seriously considered.
A move to the Lions would have meant a return to where it all began, after being drafted by Hawthorn from Zillmere in 2007, but the young father decided to stay put.
With Hawthorn eyeing a fourth consecutive premiership, White
cross is hungry for a taste of grand final glory.
"At the end of the day my heart was still with Hawthorn," he said.
"If I stick around there's a really good chance of playing finals footy again."
Several young Queenslanders have impressed enough for AFL clubs to give them a shot in their senior ranks.
Giants player and former Sunshine Coaster Sam Reid was drafted to the Western Bulldogs from Zillmere in 2007, and last month former Caloundra Panther Eric Hipwood was picked up by the Lions in the national draft.
Whitecross feels Queensland talent is being nurtured by the Brisbane Lions and Gold Coast Suns' academies.
"It's still improving," he said.
"I think the best thing that's happening for Queensland is the academies at the moment.
"It's about developing young talent in Queensland and spending the right money on them.
"That will ensure when draft time comes around, Queensland has a strong contingent."
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