If you’d told Geelong star Tyson Stengle in March 2021 that he’d be playing in an AFL grand final just 16 months later, he’d have scarcely believed you.
March 16, 2021 was the day Stengle had his contract with the Adelaide Crows torn up after a series of off-field incidents.
After being touted as the competition’s next Eddie Betts, at just 22, Stengle looked set to be one of the latest in a long line of ‘What if?’ players whose immense potential had been wasted.
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With his AFL dream in tatters, Stengle turned to the club that had helped him initially forge a path into the big leagues: the Woodville-West Torrens Eagles in the SANFL.
Stengle had been a junior there before being drafted by Richmond in 2017, and with Betts and his wife Anna acting as Stengle’s pseudo managers, the club was more than happy to have him back.
”We got him into the club on the understanding that we were getting him into a structured environment where he had employment and a regular routine, which was really the key for him at that point in time in his life,” Eagles football director Dave Couzner told Wide World of Sports.
“He worked at the club in a training capacity in the football department and that was doing from match-day analysis to putting all the stats into the system. He worked heavily with Jay Sheedy, the senior coach, to do all of that.
“It created the structure and routine for him to be able to play good footy and that was the whole purpose of why we did it.”
Betts and his wife’s role in Stengle’s life is no secret, and it’s no surprise that Stengle has found his best football when re-united with Betts at Geelong this season, where he has blossomed into one of the AFL’s most damaging crumbing forwards.
“Having Eddie around at the club is really good and helps me as a person and as a footy player on the field as well,” Stengle told Wide World of Sports.
“Just having that family vibe around the club with him there helps me as well because obviously I’m away from Adelaide.”
Couzner found it hard to put in words just how pivotal the Betts family has been in Stengle getting his life back on track.
“They’re not only mentors, they’re almost like parents for Tyson. They have his best interests at heart,” he said.
“In my dealings with Anna, Tyson’s wellbeing is always the first point of conversation, footy is secondary, it always has been.
“To find people like that, they’re quite rare in society. They do it behind the scenes as well, they’re not there for the accolades, they just really care for the person.”
While Stengle is admittedly “stoked” to be playing on the biggest stage come Saturday, he said the journey back to the top hadn’t been easy.
When asked what he’d say if someone told him 12 months ago that he’d be playing in an AFL grand final, he said he’d “probably tell them they’re kidding themselves”.
“I didn’t even know if I was going to be on a list at this time last year. It’s pretty amazing to get into a grand final,” he recalled.
“It (being sacked by Adelaide) was pretty tough. I had to work at the footy club I was playing at, and they gave me a lot of help. I can’t thank them enough, the Eagles footy club.
“I was just striving to play good footy and I was just striving to win a premiership with them and we ended up doing that. That was my main focus and the rest I just let the rest sort itself out.”
Couzner and the Eagles were undoubtedly thrilled to get a talent such as Stengle through the door, but he stressed the most important aspect of the move at the time was to get some structure back in the troubled youngster’s life.
“We certainly wanted him so we were a very interested party, but our discussions with Anna and Eddie were about how it looked for Tyson,” he said.
“What were we creating? If it was just coming back to play footy, then that wasn’t the right thing for Tyson at the time.
“We needed to create the culture behind him and we have a pretty strong culture at the Woodville-West Torrens footy club where he had to come in and fit with that, and he did that with no issues at all.”
Five months had elapsed between Stengle being charged by the AFL for conduct unbecoming in October 2020 and his Crows sacking in March 2021 and Couzner said having his football future in flux for so long had left Stengle “shattered” when he arrived at the Eagles.
Couzner had the opportunity to present Stengle his Eagles guernsey prior to the start of his SANFL journey last season, and says it took no time for the youngster to fit in.
“Just to see the smile on his face, you could see he felt a part of the club,” he recalled.
“He came back in and fit in really well and that’s probably why he had the success he did that year.
“He is one of those guys that’s very quiet and shy and over time the more you work with him and the more you talk to him, the better he becomes.
“He is a person that relies on trust and if he trusts you you’ll get a lot out of him, if he doesn’t, he can tend to be very quiet and withdrawn.
“He definitely doesn’t promote himself and that’s a really good quality of Tyson.”
After a stellar season where he helped the Eagles win a second consecutive SANFL premiership, Stengle was handed an AFL lifeline by Geelong, who by that point had employed none other than Eddie Betts as an assistant.
It was the perfect match. Stengle has turned in a season for the ages, going from the state leagues to the AFL’s All-Australian team in his first year back after kicking 49 goals in 24 appearances, including three in last weekend’s preliminary final win over Brisbane.
“I’m not across every story in the AFL, but it must be a good one if it tops that one,” Geelong coach Chris Scott said of Stengle’s redemption story.
“That (the redemption story) wasn’t a thought bubble whenever we took him. That was a multi-year process to make sure that we could (not only) give him an opportunity to revitalise his football career … but to get (his) life back on track.
“That is one thing I look at with the way our club does things and I’m just full of admiration for it. We’ve got their back.
“If it didn’t work out for him, we would’ve done everything we could to make sure that his life was better for having been at Geelong.
“It’s nice when the football stuff works out … but there are some things that Geelong people should be proud of that we try not to promote too much.
“It’s one thing to say, ‘I think this could work’, it’s another thing to put the people around him to make sure that we follow through.
“We can say hand on heart if you come to our club, the football might not work out, but you’ll be better for it.
“The credit should go to Tyson, let’s be clear on that, he’s just been outstanding.
“The lesson for me is, you look around the league and you see and hear things around the comp and I think people rush to judgement way too much.”
As a result of his success at the club and lovable personality, Stengle has turned the Woodville-West Torrens into a Geelong supporter-base.
“We couldn’t be any more proud as a club,” Couzner said.
“I think everyone at the Woodville-West Torrens club is going for Geelong on the weekend.
“We just want to see Tyson succeed. He’s a fantastic lad and he’s a huge part of our club. Even though he’s over at Geelong, he’s still a favourite son of ours.
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“We’re just praying that he gets some success because he really does deserve it. He’s a kid that’s put in the work and he deserves everything that’s coming his way if he wins the flag.
“His talent’s always been there, it’s the stuff he’s had to do off the field that makes him a quality person now.”
Couzner admitted the club hopes to have Stengle back playing one day, but accepted the fact that that day may be over a decade away if he keeps up his current form.
“You know what? We’d be the first ones to say keep doing it because we love watching him play,” he said.
“He’s a kid that works hard at his craft and it’s just great to see him get the opportunities.”
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