'Dragons Tales' is a series of indepth feature stories on some of our top prospects in 2021, exploring their junior careers, their upbringing, the ups and downs of the dealing with COVID complications and more, written by Jonty Ralphsmith. This week we will be focusing on half-forward Blake Howes.
During his lockdown, Blake Howes has spent more time in the kitchen.
With Mum, Lauren, he cooked a lasagne on the day of talking.
"I always like to have pasta the night before a game so it's good to know how it all works. I want to do some more cooking in the next few weeks," Howes said.
Carb loading is not uncommon, but dad, Andrew, has seen a shift in Blake's approach to his eating since he began working with his cousin and personal trainer, Mitchell.
“Mitch’s very big on dietary stuff so Blake’s become good on his diet, he won’t drink soft drink, he won’t have fish and chips," Andrew said.
"When we occasionally have fish and chips, he’ll have grilled fish in a wrap with salad so he’s already got that AFL dietary mindset.”
It's a subtle shift that Howes has made off-field that demonstrates the enterprising psyche and lofty expectations he has always possessed.
“A lot of people do say I’m pretty harsh on myself,” he says.
In his eyes, if he considers an element of his game to be ‘average’, it is not good enough.
“Part of me doesn’t want him to be so hard on himself but the other part of me is okay with that – I know that him being hard on himself is going to help him become the best player he possibly can be. He’s got so much talent but that attitude makes him work harder and harder moving forward," said forwards coach Danny Byrne.
A look into his bedroom perhaps gives an insight as to why.
Emblazoned across his walls are motivation for how good he wants his footy to be.
His under 16’s Vic Metro jumper – a carnival where he made the All-Australian side – reminds him of the level of footy he can produce.
Playing as a lead-up half forward for Heath Black’s men, Howes proved a nightmare match-up for opposition defenders averaging 12.7 disposals and 1.7 goals per game.
“He was an uncompromising sort of player that just kept in his shell. He made the top 50 and how much he improved from entering the program to then making All-Australian was just a great contribution from him. He was unassuming and listened to every word his coaches said,” Black said.
“He was willing to learn and the improvement was just impressive.”
Howes picks out a moment that turned his carnival around – at halftime at GMHBA Stadium against Vic Country in the first game.
“I was down in the rooms and probably had only had four touches up until halftime, and was thinking ‘f*ck, I’m playing pretty ordinary here’ and I wanted to have more impact and play better. Jacko [Kornberg] said ‘just keep being positive’ and I had a change of roles and played on the wing.
“I played a lot better in the second half and kicked a decent set shot goal in the last quarter which got the team in front. From that point on I was pretty confident in myself that I could do it at this level.”
Nat Fyfe Brownlow memorabilia hanging above his bed also acts as inspiration. Fyfe's power, marking and flashiness are traits Howes looks up to.
But those expectations consumed him in pressure in the first block of games. His impact on games was well below what he produced in Queensland in 2019. Once he let go of the nerves, playing for St. Bede’s, his performances were far stronger.
“The key for him to get more confidence is remembering what he can do,” said Kornberg.
“I’m someone who at times needs to be reminded that I’m definitely good enough.
“When I’m playing my best footy, I’m a pretty solid player so it’s just me believing in myself and ability that I’m good enough so it’s about having that strong mindset that if it is not going well for a period of a game, you’ve got to stick at it.”
With his evolving mindset came an increased commitment to his footy.
One moment stands out.
“There was a time when a lot of the boys were not having overly efficient pre-training craft so I mentioned to Jacko that could be something to improve upon.
“He came up to me and said: ‘I agree with what you’ve said about yourself, would you feel comfortable getting up in front of the group and chatting briefly about that?’
“So then I just spoke about it after the session and put it on the group to make more of an effort to get out on the track a little bit earlier to help improve ourselves as it would have a great impact on us later in the season.”
Public speaking, Howes admits, is not his strength. But given advice earlier in the year to develop his leadership, addressing the group was a chance for progress.
“When Jacko said that to me, I was a little bit nervous and wanted to say ‘nah, I don’t feel that comfortable’ but I was happy with myself that I accepted.
“As the year went on I got better out on the track, being a bit more vocal and having a bit more impact on the group and using my voice a bit more because I backed [that] what I had to say was of value.”
It was not the first time his standards were brought into question, either. But his ability to self-reflect this time, compared to 2019’s naivety, underscores his growth.
Howes found out after his dominant Under 16’s carnival that he was no sure thing to make the Dragons list, let alone the Vic Metro squad.
“Up until early February , he probably wasn’t around the mark for where we were thinking for our team of 30,” Kornberg said.
“It wasn’t until the intra-club games where we thought he’s well and truly deserving of a spot because we hadn’t seen that consistency of effort.”
In the final edition of this week's Dragons Tales, Blake talks about his friendship with fellow Dragons prospect Finn Callaghan.