Essendon’s favourite son David Zaharakis retired this year following a 13-season, 226-game career that included an Anzac Day Medal plus a Bombers Best and Fairest Crichton Medal.
However, this story is not about him, well, not entirely. Rather it came from of a throwaway comment from the father of one of the brighter prospects in this year’s draft, who I have developed a close friendship with over the journey.
Errol Harris is a happy-go-lucky landscaper from Cairns in far north Queensland, whose cricket journey in his younger days took him to Brisbane where he tried to break into Allan Border’s side, then onto Hobart where he opened the batting with David Boon for Tasmania in the Sheffield Shield.
Three years ago, when his son Austin won the Troy Clarke Scholarship after being Queensland Under 16s MVP and was invited to board on the Gold Coast at age 15, Errol cold-called me after hearing me speak about underage football and the Suns Academy on my podcast.
Ever since then, I have had the fortune to vicariously follow the journey of a young footballer in the system competing with hundreds of other kids and facing the challenges that come with living far away from home at such a young age.
For my part, I’ve been able to help Errol to become better acquainted with the nuances of the AFL industry, from explaining how the draft works to the rule changes plus giving my perspectives from my daytime career as a teacher, while he shared his insights as a professional sportsman and frustrations of parenting from such a distance.
So it was when we were having a chat the other night knowing that the final decision for his son would come sometime in the next week (from the Suns) that he dropped a casual bombshell.
He told me that his grandfather was named Zaharakis. Actually, truth be told, we had both had a couple of beers by that time of night and he tripped over the pronunciation a little bit, so I swiftly forgot about it. Zakkaharris? Nah, couldn’t be.
Then he sent through a screenshot of his grandfather’s cemetery notice. John Zaharakis, birth 1894, death 1968, Cairns region. It turns out the old fella had anglicised his name when arriving in Australia as a Greek migrant, but since his name on his passport remained the same as the one he was born with, he was buried with his original surname.
For the record, David Zaharakis’ father, also named John, came to Australia over 50 years ago as a 5 year-old, eventually married a Queenslander, lived in Victoria for most of his life and the rest is history.
David and Austin have a shared Greek heritage through their fathers and their family connection to the state of Queensland, but they also share similar traits, being wiry-framed and blisteringly fast, deadly accurate by foot, able to set up offensive attacks along the flanks all day and punch above their weight. They also share a penchant for lairy hairstyles.
The elder John Zaharakis became John Harris and now his descendant, great-grandson Austin Harris, is getting ready for the business end of his long-awaited draft year, hoping to either be pre-listed by the Suns or picked in the draft.
Aussie, like his whole family, doesn’t know much about his Greek heritage, yet that isn’t what makes him unique among draft hopefuls, since on his mother’s side he is Thai and if he goes on to play AFL he will be only the second of that heritage to achieve that honour.
Harris was selected by Kevin Sheehan in the Under 19 All Australian team and made it into the elite 21-player AFL Academy. His performances for the Suns Academy in the NAB League, Suns Reserves in the VFL, plus cameos for Broadbeach in the QAFL and the exhibition game against Geelong Reserves with the invitational representative team have shown glimpses of his ability, yet the cancellation of most of his season has been unlucky.
He is mates with the chief rivals for the two Academy spots that have been designated on the Suns list, namely Suns Academy MVP and Broadbeach teammate, Bodhi Uwland, Mackay’s Will Bella (nephew of legendary rugby league player Marty) and NT Academy’s Ned Stevens.
His close friend and mentor Alex Davies, who also hails from Cairns and has an Asian mother, was a companion in the Academy until he was drafted last year and the pair played VFL together this year.
As this is being typed, Austin is in the Top End with Ned Stevens, fishing for Barramundi and learning from Indigenous rangers about hunting on country, keeping his mind off the coming list decisions that the Suns appear to be finalising next week.
It has been a year of growing into a man in more than one respect for Austin, who lost two teenage friends in the past year while he was away on the Gold Coast, with both tragedies hitting harder than anything on-field could.
Perhaps his biggest mentor this year has been fellow Cairns junior and Gold Coast Suns foundation player Jarrod Harbrow, who extended his career by a year in order to remain on the playing list as a playing coach with the VFL, ostensibly to support the emerging group of indigenous boys, but Aussie was also a beneficiary as he sought to glean as much as he could from the club legend.
There is little doubt that Austin Harris will be on an AFL list by the end of the draft period, but the champion Queensland junior may end up heading interstate to realise his dreams. Either way, the second coming of Zaharakis is a reality and no matter which club he ends up with, his biggest fan will always be his dad, my mate Errol.
P.S. Memo to Craig Cameron – Austin Harris, no matter what!