Cats' Stengle the AFL story of the year

·5-min read

Tyson Stengle has the world at his feet and the MCG crowd in the palm of his hand.

He flings his arms out wide, soaking in the moment before embracing his Geelong teammates.

It's the third quarter of an AFL preliminary final, he's kicked perhaps the most important goal of his life, and he's more aware than anyone what it's taken for him to get here.

In the space of 18 months, the crafty small forward has gone from career limbo to an All-Australian preparing for his first AFL grand final.

"I can't believe it at the moment but it'll probably sink in soon," Stengle told AAP.

"I've just got to stay level-headed and look towards the next week and just embrace every moment and it should be alright."

Adelaide cut ties with Stengle last March, in the wake of multiple off-field indiscretions.

A top-flight return always loomed, given Stengle's talent.

But before he could step back into the AFL world, he went home.

Woodville-West Torrens, the SANFL club that nurtured him as a teenager, welcomed him back with open arms - and Stengle sank into their embrace.

"In my mind, I was always pretty confident with my ability of playing footy," he said.

"It was just whether I could sort the off-field stuff out and whether I could get fit enough to come back and play at the level.

"Playing at the Eagles, they really helped me as a footy club, working there and obviously going out and playing on the weekend.

"My main thing on the weekend was just play well and then hopefully a club notices and I can hopefully get picked up.

"After I missed the mid-season draft my focus was to hopefully go far in the SANFL finals and then get picked up. It all worked out well in the end."

Stengle booted 44 goals in 19 games and had the perfect SANFL send-off, with three majors in a grand final victory.

Geelong firmed as the place to kickstart Stengle's career when Eddie Betts, long an older brother figure to the 23-year-old, joined as development coach in October last year.

Stengle lived with Betts and his family in Adelaide before his mentor departed for Carlton ahead of 2020 - and his time at the Crows started to sour.

Less than a month after Betts arrived at Kardinia Park, Stengle joined the Cats as a delisted free agent.

"When Eddie went there, it was a no-brainer," he said.

"Because I need family around me and for him to be around as a role model's been really good this year and helped me so much."

Few people are prouder of Stengle's rise than Betts.

"I told him 'you're creating history, you're the first person in history to be a delisted free agent and the next year make All-Australian,'" Betts told Triple M radio ahead of the preliminary final.

"His story's unbelievable ... He's played some great footy.

"He just needed great people around him, great culture.

"Coming down to Geelong, being a wonderful culture led by Joel Selwood, Tom Hawkins and Patrick Dangerfield, and he really blossomed in that."

Coach Chris Scott praises the influence of Betts and fellow development coach Shaun Grigg and takes pride in how Geelong and the "outstanding" Stengle have helped each other.

"I'm not across every story in the AFL but it must be a good one if it tops that one," Scott told reporters.

"That wasn't a thought-bubble whenever we took him, that was a multi-year process to make sure that we could give him an opportunity to revitalise his football career, and I know this sounds a bit trite ... but get (his) life back on track.

"That is one thing that I look at with the way our club does things and I'm full of admiration for it. We've got their back.

"So if it didn't work out for him, we would have done everything we could to make sure that his life was better for having been at Geelong."

Scott downplayed his own role, but the forward has thrived off his coach's backing, especially after going goalless in rounds two and three.

Stengle hasn't missed a game and has kicked 49 goals.

He enjoys life in Geelong, relishing the 10-minute trip to training that allows him to avoid a 6.30am alarm, while he's found his niche in the playing group.

Veteran Mitch Duncan calls Stengle "quiet, but very funny and quick-witted", while Zach Tuohy says he fits the Cats perfectly.

"You give a guy an opportunity to maybe right some of the wrongs and prove some naysayers wrong and he's grabbed it," Tuohy said.

Tuohy believes Stengle's love for the game shines through in his play, while defender Zach Guthrie says "when you see the ball rolling towards him, you feel like something's going to happen."

Stengle's first two goals against Brisbane: a right-foot banana from the right forward pocket and an instinctive snap from the left boundary, left the MCG crowd in raptures.

His third, on the run with the outside of his boot, was slightly more understated.

Stengle flashes a cheeky grin when asked which he enjoyed most.

"The snap from 45," he said.

"I just turned around and snapped it. I reckon it was a good one."

Stengle will have plenty of family and friends travelling from South Australia for the grand final against Sydney.

He's bracing himself for ticket requests and queries on places to stay - a prospect seemingly more stressful than the biggest game of his career.

"This one's going to be hotter than the SANFL one was," Stengle said.

"All grand finals are hard but we've just got to play well as a team.

"If we stick together as a team and play our system, I reckon we should be alright."