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By Nick Creely

A strong mindset is just as important for a footballer as having an elite set of skills – Aaron Darling has both in spades.

But for the 18-year-old draft prospect from the Crib Point Football Club, an unfortunate training accident has resulted in him having to face up to the likelihood he won’t play any football in 2017 – a bitter pill to swallow.

The Dandenong Stingrays product and AFL Academy member, who played 16-games last season as a bottom-ager in the TAC Cup, cruelly tore his ACL while doing a routine drill at training while with the Rays late last year.

He showed some exciting traits in his 2016 campaign, with his performance against Gippsland Power last year, in which he used his class to gather 21 disposals, highly impressive.

Prodigiously talented as a small-forward, Darling is seen as one of the country’s brightest prospects, but understands there is still a significantly long road ahead for him to be even back on the park doing what he does best.

“The knee’s getting there, it’s obviously a pretty long process, but it’s doing well – I’m just working on getting some strength and stability back into the leg before I start running again,” he told the Journal.

“I’ve got to give the graft in my knee a full twelve-months to heal and I’ll take the full-time and come back next pre-season ready to go – I’m not rushing back, I want to get back to my peak.

“I can only prepare for what I can control, so I can hope for the best really in terms of the draft – at this stage I can’t play this year so it’ll be hard to show the recruiters what I can do, so I’m just focusing on getting the body right and looking to go back as a 19-year-old at the Stingrays.”

But through the despair and loneliness that sometimes accompanies an injury that so many footballers have to overcome, Darling sees a silver-lining.

“I’m pretty fortunate I have a good mindset with injuries so I feel I’ve coped pretty well with it – I’ve been focusing on more of a coaching role with the Stingrays to pretty much improve myself as well – I feel like I understand footy a bit more, and that coaching and tactical side to it,” he explained.

“I see it as an opportunity to get bigger and stronger and to be a better footballer in the long-run – we’ll see what happens but I’m positive that this will benefit me.”

Darling said that his involvement as a member of the AFL Academy has drastically helped ramp up his recovery.

“The AFL Academy has been great – especially doing the knee, they have just been a big part of my rehab so far – it’s awesome to be able to call someone up whenever and talk about it, and just to be able to learn off them is great,” he said.

“There are some great people there, no doubt.”

As part of Darling’s involvement as one of 36 prospective draftees in the academy, he jetted off to Florida to take part in the high-performance training camp, further indication he is seen as a future AFL player.

And his surname is already known within AFL circles, with his cousin Jack playing for the West Coast Eagles.

The older Darling, who has played 128 games for the Eagles, and kicked 228 goals, has been a major influence on his younger namesake’s career to date.

“I haven’t spoken to Jack a whole lot about the knee – when I first did it, he just said to be elite with the rehab and that’ll take you far,” he said.

“But he’s been great and is a big influence on me in my footy for sure.”

Darling’s Stingrays kick off their TAC Cup season on Saturday March 25 against Gippsland Power in Morwell.

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