Triple-premiership Geelong superstar Tom Hawkins has praised the Warrnambool and south-west communities for their unrelenting support at the club's jam-packed open training session at Reid Oval on Monday afternoon.
The 34-year-old Cats great, who is racing against time to be fit for round one after foot surgery, was a popular figure amongst fans who also enjoyed a photo with the 2022 premiership cup and a glimpse of their heroes on the training track.
The 2020 Coleman Medal winner, who kicked three goals in a dynamic 2022 grand final performance against Sydney, said visiting football-mad regional towns like Warrnambool was one of the most enjoyable parts of being an AFL player and role model.
"We've got a huge fan base down in the south-west of Victoria," he said on Monday night. "Warrnambool is the heartbeat of south-west Victoria so it's nice to get down here.
"We were talking before, once, twice a year we at least come down towards this area so as you can see by the turnout, and we got a glimpse of it visiting the schools, we've got a lot of wonderful people supporting us.
"It's an important part of the football club supporting places that support you, so it's really nice to be back down here."
The powerful goal kicker grew up in the country New South Wales town of Finley and said he understood how much the game meant for regional communities.
"Speaking from personal experience, as a young kid growing up in southern New South Wales, I still remember vividly the first time I ever had an interaction with an AFL player," he said.
"One of those players is now the senior coach at Adelaide and I still remember the impact it had on me and my friends and the community not only for them being there but the excitement and build-up when they were arriving. Over a long period of time you do see how important it is to come to these communities.
"For me as a player entering my 17th season, to see the impact we have on the community, it is really important. Players, staff and administrators genuinely enjoy getting down here."
The veteran said he was hopeful of returning to full training shortly with the eye of early season matches.
"It's progressing really well, I've been hard at it behind the scenes," he said. "There's always been an indication that it (the recovery) would be a bit slow, so I'm taking the right steps forward and continuing to increase my load.
"I ran (on Monday) in Geelong and made my way down post-training so just gradually building it up.
"I'm probably about two, three weeks away from joining the (main) group in a full-on capacity. I'm starting to move off-line, I've got those loads over the next few weeks so there will be that natural progression. At some stage I'll have a kick with the group maybe this week or next and build from there."
Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.