The more things change, the more they stay the same. Once again plying his trade on Melbourne's Olympic Boulevard -- and still swinging his leg through a ball -- former Collingwood player Flynn Appleby felt a sense of familiarity while down at Gosch's Paddock, trying to realise a dream many had attempted.
He was disrupting "a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to relax". Dragging Prokick coach and Rutgers alum Tim Gleeson out to help him during Melbourne's seemingly endless 2021 lockdown, just a stone's throw from his former AFL side's home base, Appleby was working hard to make some inroads in the American game. His hard work paid off not long after, when he secured a scholarship to play with the Rutgers Scarlet Knights in 2022.
But why abandon Australian rules at such a young age? Only months earlier, Appleby had produced a storming season as captain of North Melbourne's VFL side, claiming their best and fairest and a berth in the league's 2021 team of the season. This, coming after three seasons at Collingwood. The 23-year-old had proven he could play at a level beyond the second division, but his mind had shifted to beyond Arden Street, beyond Olympic Park, and a galaxy away from the 2,853 people in his hometown of Cohuna.
Eleven games and one goal weren't what he had in mind for his AFL career. Living in an attic wasn't in his plans, but that happened too. So, Appleby -- as he's prone to do when tough decisions need to be made -- went internal before recognizing his future was abroad.
"I sort of knew I was going to be touch and go for a new contract (at Collingwood)," he told ESPN. "I was proud of the way I finished but that's just how things pan out. There's always going to be people who come and go.
The boy from northern Victoria had long fantasized at the prospect of studying abroad, and thanks to Prokick Australia, had an immediate pathway to his next dream.
Appleby doesn't plan to be a spectator for long once he arrives on the campus of Big 10 school Rutgers University in Piscataway, New Jersey - just 64 kilometres from the bright lights of New York City. Reality dictates he will be initially with fellow Aussie Adam Korsak residing as one of the best punters in college football. Korsak's arrival back in Australia in January gave rise to Rutgers' interest and Appleby's eventual scholarship offer. As soon as he laid eyes on the Prokick prospect, Korsak knew Appleby was his perfect punting successor.
"From a skill point he does a lot of the things we do schematically," Korsak tells ESPN. "I could tell he was going to be a great fit for us into the future." While Korsak and Appleby will be in competition for the role, they have already established a bond beyond the gridiron, with the incumbent Aussie informing the newcomer just what's in store. College life will be fun, but Division I college football isn't a walk in the park.
Appleby has taken the advice to the extreme, even if it manufactures odd looks from outsiders. Regularly he has a football in hand inside pizza shops, cafes and restaurants. Often flipping the ball into the position from which he will punt while enjoying breakfast at South Yarra's Gilson. Whether outside or in the comfort of their respective homes, Appleby frequently coerces his friends into becoming part-time snappers, throwing the ball to him to allow ball drop practice; a critical element to the perfect punt.
"It's been a pretty busy ten months or so. I've learned a lot ... so, I'm really glad I made the decision to get involved with Prokick," he said.
Things weren't always so rosy for Appleby. After coming so close to a premiership medallion at Collingwood (he was named in the extended squad for the 2018 Grand Final), he found himself delisted just two seasons later. He sensed it was coming, so when Nathan Buckley called on the drive back to Cohuna it wasn't a shock.
"You just cop it on the chin and move on. At that point it was a week out from the draft, so looking at other opportunities to get drafted was the next thing on my mind - and where to go next," he said.
"There wasn't a big window to think about things too much. I'd prepared myself for that call and there's not much you can do at that point. It's more looking about what you can do next. We just pushed on after that."
It hurt him, as it would anyone watching their aspirations crushed. Arden St loomed as a potential AFL lifeline before North Melbourne opted to keep a list spot for the 2021 midseason draft. Then, Appleby was lost. He studied podiatry and maintained a casual job but fulfillment eluded him.
"He probably wouldn't admit it but it hit him pretty hard," close friend Cal Wellings told ESPN. "Since you are 16, you're in these elite programs. It's sort of your identity and to lose that, I think he was a bit lost for a while."
That is, until he committed to Australia's college football conveyor belt.
The power of his legs was apparent, as it had been during his time with Collingwood, and given he finds it easy to park whatever ego he may have to the side in order to understand how to improve, it's paved the way for Appleby to put his full self into punting - into everything required to make it in another sport, half a world away.
What do we need to do? How far? How high? Appelby was cerebral in approach to launching his new identity. No longer was a kick arriving at its deliberate destination enough. This was a new ball game, literally and figuratively. How he achieved a good punt weighed more in the minds of his coaching staff. A familiar feeling of frustration reigned during the transition from one football to the other. It has tempered since but ultimately remains part of Flynn Appleby, which his Prokick contemporaries bask in. 'Nice kick Flynn!' was often overheard after an errant kick. Rarely would he bite back but those who knew him intimately understood the anger bubbling internally. Not merely at the ribbing, rather his inability to live up to rising internal expectations.
Gleeson first met Appleby through a screen in Scottsdale, Arizona to assess Appleby's suitability. He passed, despite Gleeson's lack of awareness as to who the one-time Collingwood rookie was. Soon, he would know. More than he could ever have foreseen.
During the height of Melbourne's lockdown in late 2021, Appleby found himself desperate to adapt to his newly chosen sport. While most of his recently-minted teammates trained alone, the former Pie wanted more. That's where Gleeson truly entered the fold; joining his protege almost daily for two-hour punting sessions at Gosch's Paddock. The pair worked through various kicks and conditions as Appleby stoked an unrelenting desire to claim a football scholarship in the U.S. Despite an interrogation from patrolling police as to why Gleeson was outside his home, the pair continued, strengthening Appleby's skill set and their mutual bond.
"Initially, I was seeking more of the educational aspect. I didn't know a lot about college football at the time, I just knew I wanted to change my degree, move overseas and was still keen to compete. I had the desire to see what I could get out of myself physically from a sporting sense," he said.
"Once I got down there, I got an idea of the enormity of what college football is. I just think with the skills you learn playing Australian rules Football are absolutely transferrable. "
Kicking sessions were quickly followed by hot yoga in December of 2021. Almost every Tuesday and Thursday since, Appleby met Gleeson at his CBD apartment before the short walk to Move Yoga. The ritual provided Appleby with range of motion and flexibility while offering Gleeson an insight into the character he had before him. This was a young man willing to do anything to test his limits.
"I wanted to get as good at punting as I could in the shortest amount of time so I could get over and get started," Appleby told ESPN.
That comes as no surprise to those who watched his progression at Collingwood with one player describing Appleby as "one of the highest-disciplined trainers" he'd ever seen. Brenton Sanderson saw plenty of No. 31 in his role as the Magpies' then-forwards coach. It didn't shock the former Cat to find one of his former proteges ready to excel on the other side of the world.
"He's a fierce competitor that's number one," he said. "What was evident with Flynn, is he was never going to quit his dreams."
After seeing one fantasy disappear, Appleby is poised to embark on another. One dramatically less attainable than crossing the white line of the MCG. Through ruthless ambition and professional obsession, he is once again living his dream, born out of the ashes of another.