When the North Melbourne Football Club selected Tom Wilkinson with pick 41 in the 2018 Rookie Draft, it took a chance on a young man who had taken the long road to reach his AFL dream.
It also brought to bear some bittersweet memories for those long involved with the Aquinas Old Collegians Football Club.
Tom’s father Mark remains one of the club’s most beloved sons, and his absence deeply felt more than 20 years after his death in a car accident.
His number four jumper hangs in a frame in the club rooms as a reminder of his impact on the club, his name up and down the honour board a reminder of his talent.
Aquinas OCFC president Terry McEvoy said Mark had left a lasting legacy.
“It’s obvious the impact that Mark had on those around him and now, more than 20 years on, the respect that is still held for him,” he said
“It’s also great to see his son realising his dreams.”
Mark “Namma” Wilkinson joined Aquinas for the club’s inaugural season in 1981 having never played Aussie rules before, and promptly won the reserves best-and-fairest.
He was a natural, the sort of player who could turn up to pre-season on the eve of the first practice match and still star.
The sort of bloke who could jump out of a tree holding a ski rope and emerge from the water bare-footing behind a speeding boat with a smile on his face.
A natural on the field and among his peers, who remember him fondly.
“Of all the players I played with or saw play at Aquinas, I never saw anyone who enjoyed the pure joy of playing more than Namma,” Sean O’Loughlin said.
“He just loved playing the game.”
O’Loughlin, a walking repository of Aquinas footy club history, said Wilkinson was a good footballer and a better bloke.
“The way he played was an enjoyment of the unpredictability of football,” he said.
“I don’t know if I’m happy or sad reflecting over the last few days; happy to remember but sad to think ‘what if’.
“He was my father’s all time favorite player and it greatly affected Dad when he died.
“To paraphrase something Heffa wrote after his death: the ability to inspire others is a rare gift that Namma had.”
One of the people he inspired was a young Marcello Tarulli, who would go on to be arguably the club’s most decorated player.
“I was in awe of the man for not only his accomplishments on field but for what he represented off it,” Tarulli said.
“He could put his hand to anything, which I always thought was another brilliant characteristic of his.
“He was generous with his time for me and for a young person at the club at that time, I certainly viewed him as a most positive role model which has stayed with me to this day.”
Fellow teammate Dave Phelan said Wilkinson could have had his pick of well-paying southern suburbs clubs, but chose to travel out to Ringwood to train on the Aquinas bog-heap to play with his mates.
“After we lost the ‘95 grand final I said to Namma, ‘What are you going to do next year, retire?” Phelan said.
“He said no way, I just want to win another flag for this club.
“The club won that flag but it was without Namma.”
“He’s a special person with a special place in this club.”
Mark ‘Namma’ Wilkinson is the only player in Aquinas OCFC history to collect the following honours:
Win a Reserves B and F (1981)
Win a Senior B and F (1987)
Win a Reserves Premiership (1984)
Win a Senior Premiership (1987)
Represent Victoria VAFA (1988)
Win a Competition B and F (1987)