THE player most critical to Hawthorn's premiership prospects was small and slow. He couldn't compensate for those deficiencies with boundless stamina, either.
His teenage body wasn't sculpted like Michelangelo's statue of David. As a rule, short, relatively dumpy midfielders without leg speed aren't popular with AFL recruiters or coaches who know that, in the crapshoot of the draft, the odds heavily favour the larger and more athletic teens.
Yet, Sam Mitchell today ranks as his club's most decorated and indispensable player. The Hawks of 2012 have proved they can win without Buddy Franklin and Luke Hodge; it is unclear whether they would withstand the loss of Mitchell, who must be favoured to win his fourth club best-and-fairest award this year.
Franklin and Cyril Rioli do the improbable. Mitchell doesn't. It's his entire career that is improbable. Judged by the standard traits that allow footballers to play and succeed in the AFL, Mitchell wouldn't make it. This is why he wasn't drafted - not even as a rookie - as an 18-year-old and why he had to prove himself at Box Hill before the Hawks would deem him worthy of a third-round draft pick in the same draft in which Hodge was selected first.
We do not think of Mitchell as mysterious. He's a straight arrow, a conservative family man who's never displayed any eccentricities. He's not a recluse like Carlton great Bruce Doull, or a moody character in the Matthew Scarlett mould. Yet, there is a mystery at the heart of the Sam Mitchell story - namely, why is this 179-centimetre, one-paced fellow who was born without elite distance running ability so good?
The first and most obvious talent Mitchell has always owned was also the one that finally forced the Hawks to draft him (pick No. 36, in 2001). It is also the game's most important skill.
''He could win the ball,'' said John Hook, Hawthorn's long-serving football manager, recalling Mitchell's progression from the Eastern Ranges, to Box Hill reserves, Box Hill seniors (where he won the Liston Medal for competition best and fairest) and then Hawthorn. ''That's the reason he got drafted.'' Mitchell's first senior coach, Peter Schwab, called the midfielder ''an elite contested-ball winner'' with many of the attributes of dual Brownlow medallist and stoppage genius Greg Williams, whose early career path - overlooked by Carlton for his lack of pace - was similar to Mitchell.
Still, the Hawks selected another inside midfielder, Bendigo's Daniel Elstone, ahead of him in the bountiful 2001 draft. They chose Rick Ladson 20 places before Mitchell and Campbell Brown four spots before the kid who would hold up the 2008 premiership cup. Elstone, too, lacked pace and could get the ball at junior level. But he ''lacked tricks'', in coaching parlance, and didn't play a single game.
One-paced small men who can get the ball often perform well at the level immediately below the AFL, such as the VFL and SANFL. The speed and athleticism of the premier competition, though, often proves beyond them. Jeremy Clayton, a graduate of the VFL (North Ballarat) like Mitchell and about the same vintage, excelled in the VFL and as a Port Magpie won the Magarey Medal in South Australia's SANFL and four best and fairests. Clayton played just eight games for the Kangaroos.
What was the difference between Mitchell and the legion of sub-180 centimetre extractors, such as Clayton, Elstone et al? Mitchell's physical strength was certainly crucial, as Schwab and Hook observed, and he wasn't simply good at extracting - he was freakish.
Mitchell, however, had two hidden assets, one of which would become more evident in the course of his career as he worked steadily on his skills. He had excellent lateral movement - watch how often he dances sideways, evading tackles, as he exits the hurly-burly of a stoppage. The ability to move laterally compensates for the absence of leg speed.
The other asset, which has been developed gradually, was his ability to kick (and handball) on his non-preferred left side. In 2012, Mitchell stands as the only midfielder in the game who uses the ball roughly 50 per cent on his non-preferred boot. Among the AFL's top-100 kick-getters, no one else is higher than 40 per cent for kicking with the ''other'' foot.
Mitchell thus has a competitive advantage over the midfield pack that buys him time when he wins the ball. ''His left foot gives him an exit,'' explained one opposition assistant coach who has studied the Hawk extractor closely. ''He handballs both hands really well - that gives him two exits. You can't just play him on one shoulder.''
The dual-sided skills have been developed in the course of his time at Hawthorn. Schwab recalled telling Mitchell to kick on his right foot where possible. Mitchell's relentless drive to improve was such that he no longer has a dominant foot. ''He's almost turned himself into a left-foot kick,'' said Schwab.
Mitchell's aerobic fitness was respectable, but nothing like Simon Black's or Brett Ratten's. Again, it was his teeth-clenching determination to improve that delivered fitness and an improved body shape.
As with so many against-the-grain successes, some of the motivation may have sprung from a desire to prove others wrong. ''He's a determined bastard,'' Hook said. ''He's just worked on his game. He'd still be working on his game now. I think he was shitty that he never got drafted.''
The recruiters and coaches who dismissed or overlooked him weren't wrong, in the sense that the percentages don't favour small men who can't run fast or vast distances.
Mitchell defied the percentages because he was carrying concealed weapons. Foremost was a refusal to accept his limitations.