In 2007 Dayne Zorko captained the Queensland Scorpions at the Australian Under-17 carnival in Melbourne. At 175cm he was the smallest member of the side but still a man among boys, having already finished school and begun work as a bricklayer on the Gold Coast.

It was a carnival where retiring Brisbane Lions draftee Daniel Rich, playing for Western Australia as a bottom-ager, won All-Australian honours in a side that won the division one title.

Queensland, coached by Danny Craven, former St.Kilda and Brisbane Bears player, adopted Queensland football stalwart and soon-to-be Queensland Football Hall of Famer, didn’t win a game in division two.

Zorko was named Queensland’s Most Valuable Player by carnival organisers but was beaten by Ben Gibson, son of ex-Fitzroy and Brisbane player Michael Gibson, for the Scorpions top award, as voted by Craven and a coaching staff that included ex-Geelong captain Damien Bourke, ex-St.Kilda defender Jamie Shanahan, and ex-Brisbane teammate Ray Windsor.

Five Queenslanders were drafted. In the National Draft Brendan Whitecross went to Hawthorn at pick #29 and Sam Reid joined the Western Bulldogs at pick #35, while James Mulligan (Bulldogs), Rhys Magin (Essendon) and Jake Spencer (Melbourne) got a chance as rookies. Zorko was overlooked.

It was the first of a string of setbacks for Zorko, whose father was born in what was then Yugoslavia, fled the country by boat with his parents aged “six or seven” and discovered AFL football living first in Melbourne before settling on the Gold Coast.

Sixteen years on it is a setback long forgotten by a man who has made a wonderful AFL career out of proving the critics wrong. From the early football scrapheap he’s become not just a great player with the Brisbane Lions but a great player across the entire AFL. And a player who will post his 250th AFL game in Saturday’s grand final against Collingwood.

Was it the right collective call by AFL recruiters in 2007 or the wrong call?

Craven, who played 58 games with St.Kilda and Brisbane despite being even shorter at 162cm, says “probably right at the time” before adding “if everyone got a chance he would have found a way – as he subsequently has – but at the time, when they drafted so few, he probably hadn’t done enough – especially given he was an unfashionable size.”

Mark Browning, former Sydney Swans champion and Queensland football talent chief, admitted Zorko “wasn’t the best listener” at the time and “was always a bit of a lad”.

It was reflective code from both men for “too small and not quite dedicated enough”. Or at least not as dedicated as the ever-combative pocket dynamo he would later become. And there was no easy or quick fix.

For three years, as a host of other Queenslanders broke into the AFL, Zorko had to be content being a standout in the local competition. He was a State representative and club captain who won the Broadbeach best & fairest in 2008-09-10 but was overlooked in the AFL draft each year.

Even in 2009, as the Gold Coast Suns started putting together a local training squad ahead of their entry to the AFL in 2011, some early interest went nowhere. He was overlooked again.

At the end of 2010, flooded with offers from interstate, he nearly left for the challenge of playing at a higher level in Adelaide. But with the help of newly-appointed Broadbeach coach Matt Angus and local fitness guru Gary Fox he stayed and put together a 2011 season that simply demanded an AFL opportunity.

Fox, who had been a member of the inaugural Brisbane Bears’ fitness staff in 1987, moving from Melbourne to Brisbane with coach Peter Knights, knew Zorko well. His son John had played with him at Surfers Paradise juniors. He took him on as a special project.

“He (Zorko) had a lot of things going for him but he was too small, too angry and had chronic groin problems. He was always heavily tagged at local level and wasn’t fit enough to deal with it,” Fox recalled.

So, with a full commitment from Zorko, he made it priority #1 to get him super-fit. Instead of starting Broadbeach pre-season training in February Zorko started in November. According to Fox, he accepted that if he was going to be smaller than his opponents he had to be fitter. He over-dosed of sustained running.

Angus, a West Australian football stalwart, took charge of Broadbeach in 2011. He knew the Zorko story well and says of the 2010 version “he didn’t have the fitness or temperament” to play at AFL level. “And it seemed like AFL recruiters had taken a position on him. He was too small,” Angus said.

But the 2011 version of Zorko was entirely different. So committed was he that relieved him of the Broadbeach captaincy to allow him to focus on his personal crusade to prove AFL recruiters wrong.

“He was a different person. He’d surrendered to Foxy over the summer and from day one it was reflected in his performance. He was outstanding. We played the Lions Reserves early in the season and he put on a clinic. I remember Vossy (Michael Voss) was Lions coach at the time and it sparked some interest with him.”

But Zorko’s big break came in June when Queensland, coached by Jason Cotter, played Western Australia at Mandurah, south of Perth. Rob Kerr, Lions recruiting and list manager at the time, made the trip west primarily to watch Irishman Niall McKeever, who was in his second season with the club but had not yet played at AFL level.

“I wanted to see him (McKeever) play at a higher level. At three-quarter time WA were well clear until this cheeky little fella (Zorko) played one of best quarters of football I’ve ever seen. He picked the team up and all but carried them over the line. They lost by a goal but Zorko had 30 (possessions) and kicked four (goals).

“He did everything you wanted an AFL player to do … he attacked the ball hard, he followed up, he kicked it well, he tackled and pressured. He didn’t care who he was playing against – he was great.

“I went back to our (recruiting) staff and said ‘we’ve got to have a look at this guy’. Their initial response was ‘he’s too small’ but we kept going back and in the end he convinced us he was worth a chance,” Kerr said.

Browning, too, had lever lost faith. He was chipping away in the background, and finally he helped find a way. Not for the first time AFL Queensland, through then CEO Richard Griffiths, offered to help meet the costs of the Suns reject if the Lions would give him a chance.

Zorko, who had won a fourth Broadbeach B&F and the NEAFL Player of the Year Award, was zoned to the Suns, who had joined the AFL in 2011. The Lions had to trade for him, and in a three-way deal with Melbourne, they effectively gave up pick #34 for the unwanted Gold Coaster.

But still there was a hurdle. Having watched 34 players debut for the Lions during his four-year wait Zorko arrived at the Gabba fighting a debilitating case of osteitis-pubis, which was the trendy name at the time for recurring groin problems.

He watched as three new teammates get their chance – Ben Hudson, now the Lions VFL coach, Billy Longer, who soon became one of the famous ‘Go Home Five’, and Jack Crisp, who later was traded to Collingwood and will play against the Lions on Saturday.

Finally, on Saturday night, 12 May, Round 7 against Collingwood at the Gabba, Zorko made his AFL debut. He was the ‘new boy’ under coach Voss in a side which included Simon Black in his 302nd game, and Jonathan Brown in his 215th game. Plus Rich in his 69th game and McKeever in his 13th.

Three months beyond his 23rd birthday, wearing the #15 jumper that through the golden years had been the property of Mal Michael, Zorko started as the substitute and played only 43% game time for eight possessions in a 58-point loss. But he was away.

Twelve years on he’ll play against Collingwood again in his 250th game as the Lions, who beat Collingwood to win the 2002-03 premierships, look to end a 20-year premiership drought since then.

He’ll be hoping it is the crowning moment of a career in which for 12 years he has compensated for his career-delaying lack of centimetres with a competitiveness second to none. Quick and skilful, hard and uncompromising, a leader of a side that at the time lacked leadership, he’s been a star.


He’s missed just 16 games since his debut – six this year and three last year after just seven in his first 10 years – and will become the 10th Brisbane player to reach 250 games, the 279th AFL player all-time to 250 games and the third to reach this milestone in a grand final after Luke Hodge (2014) and Zach Tuohy (2022).

Despite being overlooked in the draft by every club in the competition in 2007-08-09-10 he will be the first player from the draft pool of 2011 to 250 games. Next best are Richmond/Gold Coast wingman Brandon Ellis (247), Geelong utility Mark Blicavs (246) and Fremantle draftee turned Brisbane teammate Lachie Neale (245).

Brisbane players ahead of Zorko on the club games list are Black (322), Marcus Ashcroft (318), Voss (289), Luke Power (282), Nigel Lappin (279), Rich (275), Shaun Hart (273), Darryl White (268) and Brown (256).

With 5246 career possessions Zorko ranks seventh behind Black (7580), Voss (6143), Lappin (5911), Power (5884), Ashcroft (5848) and Rich (5631). He’s 11th for goals with 224 and seventh for Brownlow Medal votes with 85.

And in perhaps the single biggest statistical achievement, Zorko’s has won five Merrett-Murray Medals - the equal of Voss, the club’s triple premiership captain and all-time best player.

Only 12 players among 13,096 in AFL history have won more club best & fairest awards. And he’s one of 20 players all-time who have won five, which puts him in a group that includes just 0.24% of all players. Or more succinctly, one quarter of one percent of players. It’s a superstar list.

AFL Club Best & Fairest Winners All-Time

9 – Kevin Murray (Fitz), Bob Skilton (SM)
8 – Leigh Matthews (Haw)
7 – Dick Reynolds (Ess), Bill Hutchison (Ess), Gary Dempsey (WB/NM), Scott West (WB)
6 – Nick Riewoldt (StK), Nathan Buckley (Coll), Matthew Pavlich (Frem), John Murphy (Fitz/SM), Gary Ablett Jnr (Geel/GC)
5 – Michael Voss (Bris), Dayne Zorko (Bris), Lachie Neale (Frem/Bris) John Nicholls (Carl), Len Thompson (Coll), Scott Pendlebury (5), James Hird (Ess), Alan Ruthven (Fitz), Garry Wilson (Fitz), Paul Roos (Fitz), Sam Mitchell (Haw), Brent Harvey (NM), Jack Dyer (Rich), Kevin Bartlett (Rich), Herbie Matthews (SM), Peter Bedford (SM), Norm Ware (WB), Ted Whitten Snr (WB), John Schulz (WB), Chris Judd (WC/Carl).

But all that counts for nothing this week. Like Neale, Zorko is one of 20 members of the five-plus B&F club who have never won an AFL premiership.

The former Lions captain and the current co-captain envy the likes of Bartlett, a five-time premiership player, and Leigh Matthews, Reynolds, Hutchison and Mitchell, who won four. And three-time premiership players Voss and Nicholls, two-time winners Ablett, Hird and Dyer, and one-time premiership players Judd and Pendlebury.

On Saturday it’s all about the premiership cup.