Air Force's loss has been Lions' gain with Justin Clarke

THERE was a time when Justin Clarke was cursing his 195cm frame.

He may be now using it to his advantage out on the footy field with the Brisbane Lions, appearing as though he could hold down centre half-back for the next decade.

But if he had been just a few centimetres shorter, Clarke may not have even considered an AFL career - taking off in a far different direction.

Gifted academically, as well as physically, the kid from the 1200-hectare cropping farm in the small community of Booleroo, three hours north of Adelaide, had dreamed of becoming a pilot in the Air Force.

Clarke said it was a "massive" disappointment when he found out in 2010 while studying Year 11 that he was simply too tall. Air Force regulations state a person must be no more than 193cm for entry.

"When I got my pilot's license I caught the flying bug and I wanted to pursue it," the 19-year-old recalled this week.

"I passed all the academic stuff, but then they weren't sure whether I was too tall or not ... And then I got a call back saying unfortunately you are.

"I guess it was a let down, but I knew I had plenty of options."

At that stage, Clarke, though, still didn't consider footy at the highest level being one of them.

Though his talents were clearly meant for greater stages than the small country grounds of the Northern Areas Football Association at the foot of the Flinders Ranges, he had to take some convincing.

His goal then was to go on and study aerospace engineering.

And in order to complete Year 12 without too many disruptions, he resisted offers from SANFL club North Adelaide to join it for the 2011 season - except for one reserves game during the holidays.

"With school being paramount to me ... I wanted to be at home as much as possible and not travel the three hours to Adelaide and then three hours home again for training and games," he said.

"So I made a decision to stay at home and play all of my footy in 2011 at home (with club BMW - Booleroo Melrose Wilmington). But, from that one reserves game, I had recruiters come to the local BMW club games. I was incredibly lucky."

Among of a host of AFL talent scouts who made the long journey out to watch him in action for BMW during its finals series, were those from the Lions.

They would later recommend he nominate for the draft before inviting him to Brisbane to train for a week in the lead-up to the 2011 rookie draft.

Clarke remembers he "really struggled".

"I had been working at the silos at home for a month prior to that, so hadn't been able to do any fitness stuff," he said.

Despite that, the Lions selected him at No.4 pick in the rookie draft.

Now fully committed to his footy, Clarke spent a year in the reserves and packed on 15kg of muscle to that large frame - all the while studying electrical engineering through Charles Darwin University - before making his senior debut against Sydney in round six this year.

He played his best game last week when grabbing 22 possessions and taking 12 marks in wet conditions at the Gabba against the powerful West Coast attack.

Today he will again join veteran Daniel Merrett in the Lions' defence as it does battle with Essendon's tall timber of Michael Hurley, Stewart Crameri and Paddy Ryder.

While the second-placed Bombers have brought in Ryder and Brent Stanton for the clash at Etihad Stadium, the Lions, sitting 15th with a 2-5 record, have welcomed back experienced utility Brent Staker after recovering from his second knee reconstruction for goalsneak Josh Green.

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