Barrels, tick charts and footy diaries: Ben Hempel’s unflinching passion
By Jonty Ralphsmith
Ben Hempel is a 190-centimetre player from the Sandringham Dragons hoping to get AFL-listed in November. Born in 2004, 2022 is Ben’s top-age year and Jonty Ralphsmith will track his season in pursuit of that goal. He represented Vic-Metro’s under 17s side in 2021 but starts 2022 outside the squad but determined to earn his place back. Folk around the club perceive Ben as being invested, down-to-earth and happy for a chat. Below is the first instalment of his story ahead of the season opener against Oakleigh.
Lucky Ben Hempel is a damn good footballer.
The sort of player that could win you a game as a junior and give the team a lift when they seemed down and out.
That ability at least compensated for the headaches that his long-time junior coach David Connell got from his obsession with torpedoes
Ask anyone at Mordiallioc-Braeside who played alongside Ben or watched him with any frequency in 2013-14 and they will recall the ubiquitous gather, bounce and barrel.
It was not necessarily Ben’s inefficiency that led to turnovers and forced Connell ban the bounce and barrel from his team.
He was famous – or perhaps notorious – for how well he tended to execute them, but other kids were trying to mimic Ben’s play.
Ben was captain of Mordi-Brae in the four games he played there in 2021 but had the aura of a leader back then, well before captaincy became a permanent responsibility.
He was confident and always wanted to rev the team up and carry them. Kids wanted to follow him and Connell couldn’t have everyone kicking barrels.
Plus, kicking as far as possible after running down the wing was not the way to nurture Ben’s silky potential.
“He was a terrific young footballer who knew where to get the ball - he could get his own ball and he could get out on his own, Connell said.
“Ben was always a standout talent, he was a super, super athlete from a running point of view, you could see right from under 8s to under 9s that he was prepared to tuck the ball under his arm and take off.”
For a footy-mad kid, Ben was never short of inspiration and his club of choice aided that.
Ben has never been personally very close to either Blake Howes or Finn Callaghan, both a year above him at Mordi-Brae and St. Bede’s and now AFL-listed, but as he has gotten older there have been more and more comparisons to Callaghan, one year his senior, from those who know the pair.
Same school, same junior club, same NAB League club. Both are left footers built like a prototype AFL player and both are silky movers. Neither entered their draft season in the Vic Metro squad.
The major difference is that Hempel has not performed yet; until then, he knows potential ‘similarities’ are overstated.
Owen Lalor, who coached and taught Finn at St. Bedes last year and is doing likewise for Ben, is optimistic that Ben can follow in Finn’s footsteps.
I don't think we'll ever see a better athlete for a long time than Finn at this school and Ben’s close to the athlete of Finn,” Lalor said.
“I reckon Ben would’ve soaked up so much from watching how the last 12 months have unfolded for Finn and Blake.
“He’s got the attributes athletically and there is lots of lovely upside about him.
“There’s a business sense about him this year – he knows people are talking and he’s got a mission to get through this year and he wants to tick off as many things as he can to get there.
“He’s got a vibe that he’s on in a lot of aspects of his life.”
Both Ben and Finn were in the same house at school – McCristal, the red house. Finn’s locker was therefore just down the hall from Ben’s, giving Ben a front seat view for how Finn prepared and approached last year.
“He’s happy and content, he’s working hard academically and he’s throwing himself into the extracurricular stuff at school so they’re really good signs – that’s what Finn and Blake did,” Lalor added.
“I’ve really loved the attitude he’s showing to school at the moment.”
Watching the AFL Draft at his Parkdale home last year, he remembers thinking that the hard work starts now.
Really, the journey to that point started about 15 years earlier when Ben was learning to walk and first picked up a ball.
“There wasn’t many photos of ‘Benno’ when he was little without a footy in his hand,” Mum, Lynn recalled.
He has always had a boyish passion for the game.
His weeks were constructed around his weekends. Saturdays and Sundays were a time to show off what he had trained during the week.
And boy did he train.
Beyond the twice weekly training sessions for Mordialloc-Braeside were early wake ups to go for a jog or cycle, and the casual kick to kicks at the park with Dad, Colin.
After Ben was the last to leave club training at Walter Galt Reserve before the lights were switched off, Colin recalls driving around searching for a speck of light and a patch of grass.
They often wound up at Gerry Green Reserve, barely a kilometre from their house, as Parkdale trained until later. Ben even recalls once kicking in a small laneway using lighting from the nearby tennis complex.
“Nothing ever got in the way of footy,” Dad, Colin said, having coached Ben in his junior years.
“Whether we were away or had something else on, he would never miss a training or a game because he wanted to do something else.”
Even inside the house he trained.
The Hempels’ family roof looks like a Pat Cummins cricket kit after a long day in the field: a white background stained with red splotches, created by the shiny sherrin in the house.
One, sometimes two, sherrins were on the go inside which meant broken ornaments occasionally. It was always off Colin’s boot, though, so it was no expense to Ben.
“There were a lot of weeknights at the oval and every night without fail we would kick in that area there,” Colin said, pointing to the loungeroom which became a quasi-training facility when Ben was a kid, particularly during lockdown.
Chip kicks and handballs were a common pastime between father and son. It was where Ben began honing his skills on his opposite foot – as well as perfecting his left boot - wanting to emulate the skills of his older ambidextrous teammates.
Once, the ball landed in a pot and spoiled the dinner – there is conjecture about whether the meal was soup or pasta but it was typical Ben.
Dad learned the hard way not to doubt Ben’s ability: “One time we were trying to kick wrong foot snaps into the basketball ring (out the back),” Ben said.
“Dad goes ‘if you get the next one I’ll give you 200 bucks’ and it went in. I don’t think we told mum about that!”
At school he didn’t switch off from footy either: “All his writing pieces used to be about footy - from prep to grade six his stories would always be ‘I kicked a goal, such and such kicked a goal’,” Lynn said.
Formally, he started footy in U8s at Mordialloc-Braeside.
Footy diaries, tick charts, seemingly endless training sessions and an insatiable curiosity all highlight Ben’s zesty drive.
An endearing smile surfaces on Ben’s face as his proud parents lavish praise.
His parents always encouraged sport, but never pushed it. They wanted their kids to live a healthy lifestyle and make friends.
Ben’s twin sister plays netball and Ben settled on footy after trialling an array of sports: cricket, basketball, volleyball, athletics.
At his school athletics day at the start of the year, he took part in a smorgasbord of events and anchored the 4*100 metre relay to secure victory for his house.
He won student athlete of the year at St. Bede’s for his efforts and represented his school the following week at the interschool carnival.
Ben’s work ethic has always slanted more towards his sporting endeavours, primarily footy.
Ben himself brings up how important the balance between footy and school is. He has started the year on top of his homework, acknowledging the positive impact it has on him emotionally.
He remains as passionate about footy as ever but is learning to express it more maturely.
Take his footy diaries, for example.
He has kept them since he was in about year six always with several goals to achieve.
Initially there were the childish milestones: win the best and fairest, kick the most goals and such.
He would fill it after every training session, filling in how it went, and any extra fitness or skills-based work away from the club would also be recorded.
In the last couple of years, though, there has been more structure and nous to them. It includes notes not just about the sessions, but also about his preparation, how his body is feeling and areas for improvement and how he might achieve that.
There is an entry most nights, with his primary aim of reaching the AFL always on his mind as he fills it in. If there is something he has done in contradiction to that goal, he assesses whether there is a legitimate reason.
“I reckon it’s good to reflect at the end of the day – I turn off my phone before I go to bed and fill in my diary - it’s not a structured diary, I just write a date and about the day and you kind of flick through it and see how you’ve been going.”
Having a mum that is a wellbeing coordinator at a primary school benefits Ben as he seeks to immerse himself in the elite lifestyle more and more.
He has never expressly gone to mum seeking anything but maternal love and support she, as any mother, was all too willing to give, nor has she directly counselled Ben’s mindset.
But she did give Ben a gratitude diary for Christmas in 2021, wanting Ben to take a step back and appreciate: an important message after lockdowns caused inexorable despair of everything that was missing.
Filling it in, Ben realises how much there is to be grateful for: being at school, having footy in his life, not being injured, having a supportive network of friends and loving family.
Ben’s nutrition further affirms his commitment.
He rarely goes out for meals with friends, preferring mum’s home-cooked suppers over fatty fast food.
A family visit to a dietician at the beginning of 2021 informed Ben of what he could do to optimise his body and told his family what they would do to assist him.
Eating whole foods was the key takeaway. Ben has protein shakes but prefers eating food that will sustainably enhance his physique.
Cooked lunches for school and hot breakfasts at least thrice a week have been part of Ben’s life ever since.
Eating healthily is one thing on Hempel’s tick chart in his room.
He introduced the chart off his own volition during the Vic-Metro under 17s carnival in 2021, pedantic to ensure he prepared to be selected.
By admission, he underperformed as a raw, running halfback at the carnival, consistent with a frustrating theme that he struggled to play his best footy throughout the year.
The chart was and remains a system for Hempel to guide himself off field for on field gains.
Eight hours of sleep is another item charted. That means missing out on some big nights out – a big sacrifice for any year 12, particularly one who thrives on having fun with his mates, denied of doing that for much of the two preceding years.
After a chat with his parents, he concluded he could balance professionalism and fun by going out but being home by 11.00, rather than several hours later. A happy medium.
“I’m trying to go different places to my friends, they can afford to go out very weekend but if I’ve come this far, I’m not gonna piss it all down the wall for a couple of nights out – there’s not really any point,” he said.
Sufficient liquid intake is also listed, alongside gym. Sandy’s head of high performance, Lachie Butler, is frequently hit with questions from Ben – about rest, preparation, recovery and more.
These mechanisms supported Ben during Covid. He kept himself accountable.
While he does not pretend he has maintained absolute fitness and game sense, he knows his work has him reasonably placed.
Getting a home gym setup during this time also ensured he remained in shape and spasmodic training sessions with ex-Sandy coach Josh Bourke maintained his touch and enhanced his kicking.
With best mate Jasper Moodie, the son of Dragons assistant coach Nick, Ben sought Bourke’s help for a skills-based point-of-difference during the hiatus.
“He’s a beautifully powerful kick but struggled a little bit with touch and I spent time with him – and his capacity to learn and listen was fantastic – improving his finesse to nuance his kicking,” Bourke said.
“As good a kick as he was, he’s improved out of sight – he now has the ability to take weight off and put weight on and that makes you a more dangerous player and a better teammate.
“I’m confident this year he’ll show that he’s more efficient.
“When you combine that with his raw and rare athletic attributes – the combination of speed and ability to compete and launch up in the air – he’s set up well.”
Ben’s physical condition was not where he would have liked it to be at the start of 2022 after an Achilles injury halted his training for about six weeks from December 1, he says – Ben’s precise recollection of dates, names and footy games is another clear indication of his affinity.
The injury at least provided Ben with a means to excuse himself from peer pressure during the annual summer trip to the family houseboat in Eildon.
Each year he enjoys wakeboarding and waterskiing but after an accident stalled him for a month with badly bruised knees last year, Ben said ahead of Christmas he was not going to take that risk for frivolous fun – to the relief of the skipper of the boat.
“If things don’t go right for Ben on the wakeboard, it’s always the driver’s fault so the poor driver always knows when they’re driving for Ben that they’re going to blamed,” Lynn said, offering an insight into Ben’s mischievous cheek.
Ben brought free weights and a footy up to Eildon to enable him to train at the local park so he would retain some fitness despite the injury.
His return to structured training in 2022 was a baptism of fire: a Connors’ Sports two-day camp at Sorrento.
Ben stayed with his manager, Paul Connors, and Western Bulldogs 2020 number one pick Jamarra Ugle-Hagan.
His time with Ugle-Hagan was fun and laid back. The pair are both easy going and got along, bantering off the field.
There were irresistible questions from Ben about what it is like to be on an AFL list, but rather than intensely quizzing for his own footy agenda, Hempel’s questions were conducive of a character with a deep-seeded curiosity about what it is like to live the dream.
Ben was relaxing with an AFL player: he just wanted to absorb the experience.
Through that he learnt: the challenges associated with juggling year twelve and everything that comes with it and footy, capitalising on training sessions and having the right mentality.
Watching and taking part in training sessions run by Daniel Giansaracusa with elite talent such as Luke McDonald, Archie Perkins and ex-Dragon Max King were another method of education.
“Seeing how those AFL players train – every kick and handball counts and every drill, they don’t do it half arsed they do it 100% - that’s what I need to do,” Ben said.
Hempel had five goals driving his improvement during preseason: demonstrating his leadership qualities, being selected in round one, breaking back into Vic Metro squad, playing for Vic Metro and getting drafted.
Since Christmas, he has sought to impart his experience and knowledge at training.
“I’ve gained a lot of confidence. It was all about taking that first step and I took a warmup for the first time and once you get going, you keep going."
He is also willing to have his voice heard, frequently answering questions that the coach puts to the group.
“I want to have more directional talk – everyone’s guilty of just talking shit but I want to give advice in drills like Sinner (Josh Sinn) did last year. And being loud at training and establishing a connection with a kid I hadn’t talked to are other things I’m starting to do.”
He may have missed an official title but Ben's still determined to grow in the leadership space.
At Mordi-Brae, Connell said he led by example with his energy and ability, while remaining one of the boys.
Like most, fitness underpins Ben’s own aspirations for preseason which he sees as key to achieving the material goals.
The injury corroded much of the fitness he built up prior to Christmas and he did not take part in either of Sandy’s official time trials.
A move onto the wing, discussed with Wayne Cripps in early February has provided Ben with even more impetus to get his fitness to unprecedented levels.
Hempel admits he went away from his funky skillset in his three NAB League games last year.
Playing off halfback, where he has played the bulk of his representative footy, Hempel was conscious of the stacked side Sandy possessed. He regrettably did not play with the confidence, flair and dare that got him to this point.
“Playing with those boys at that level, you go into your shell a little bit because you don’t want to be the one to f*ck it up, you don’t want to be the one to miss a kick that you’d take someone on or go for that kick.
“I was so focussed on playing on my man and not actually trying to get the ball and be me. I didn’t have as big an impact as I would have liked because I was always thinking – don’t let them kick a goal, don’t let them get a touch rather than playing my way.”
“I’m just going to do everything I can to get to the point those boys did.”
Coach and player both have the same end goal for Ben in November and hope a move up the field will help ease perceived pressure and allow him to weaponise his kicking and run and carry.
The highlights package might even look similar to those days in juniors at Walter Galt, but the kicks will be smarter, game sense and tactical awareness greater and there will be defensive accountability to accompany the offence.
And never far from Ben’s mind is the hunger to amend his quiet performances last year and get back among the best: “I think [getting back in the Vic Metro squad] is another goal every training session - my view on it is that it just gives me another thing to work towards every time I train, so I’m not just going out there to make round one selection, I’m also going there to make Metro selection again.”
He thinks he is ready to show more and he needs to be. Like Finn and Blake.
“Seeing them go this year from the same local club, they’ve always been the year above so they’re always the big dogs around the club to us and we’re the little boys playing British Bulldogs with them, getting decked,” Ben recalled.
“I’ve always looked up to them because it’s always been ‘Finn and Blake state team, Finn and Blake interleague’ so it’s made it more real to see them go (last) year.”
Watching the draft and seeing his mates get listed after playing and training alongside them, the starry-eyed boyishness again came to the fore in Ben: “I was just sitting there thinking ‘I hope that’s me next year’. I’m just going to do everything I can to get to the point those boys did.”