2059 days and counting…
After winning the 2012 AFL Grand Final as part of the Sydney Swans team, I remember saying in an interview, ‘This is the ultimate prize in footy’.
I have a different ultimate prize now: One game.
Getting back on field and playing one senior AFL game with the Swans is the ultimate prize for me at the moment. That’s what I’ve had my sights set on from the moment my first ACL injury occurred in 2013. Ever since that moment, I’ve just wanted to get back out onto the field.
And I definitely don’t want to play just that one game and then retire. First and foremost, the aim is to get back. And then I want to go on and grow as a player again.
I first ruptured my ACL in a pre-season NAB Cup game against the Gold Coast in 2013. Here is the timeline of the medical procedures since then.
March 2013: 1st ACL reconstruction (traditional)
July 2013: Arthroscope
August 2013: 2nd ACL reconstruction (LARS)
March 2014: ACL rupture in a reserves practice match
March 2014: Arthroscope
September 2014: 3rd ACL reconstruction (LARS)
November 2014: Arthroscope
March 2015: Bone Graft
November 2015: 4th ACL reconstruction (LARS)
December 2015: Arthroscope
February 2016: Bone Graft/1st stage reconstruction
May 2016: 5th ACL reconstruction (traditional)
In all of that, probably the worst time was the end of 2015 where I got an infection. I had a LARS hybrid reconstruction in November 2015, and then ten days later it blew up. Then I had to have a couple of procedures to look after my health rather than to look after my knee.
It was during that period that two surgeons said to me, ‘You’re no chance of getting back there, you’re not going to play any footy again let alone play AFL’.
They actually said, ‘You’d be stupid to continue on, your chances of playing again are very, very slim and you’d be better off looking after your health than playing’.
That just spurred me on.
People have asked how I maintained my positivity in the five years since I’ve played a senior game. The answer is that I’ve had a lot of people supporting me emotionally and physically. I don’t think there was ever a time when despair won.
There have been moments of darkness when I’ve thought to myself, ‘Is it really worth it?’. But I’ve always been reasonably stubborn, and if someone says I can’t do something, then I like to show that I can do it. So I think that’s been a really big motivating factor for me.
One thing I have to admit is that I’ve found it hard to watch the game at times. I’ve seen the boys play in two grand finals and lose them both, and that was hard. The biggest time you miss the game is if you’re in the rooms before they run out and you get that feeling that you’re not a part of it, that you’re just watching on.
So I’ve always just taken a bit of a back seat. But it can also be frustrating watching from the stands because you know you can’t do anything to try and help the guys out.
DUNGEONS AND RECONS
The rehab dungeon. We make jokes about the dungeon a fair bit. It’s a rehab room at the club that’s recently been redone when they did the SCG change rooms up a bit. But it used to be four walls with no natural light, right down in the depths of pretty much nowhere.
The dungeon was a pretty small room with a few bikes, cross-trainers and grinders which I’ve spent a lot of time on. There was nothing on the wall except a TV. I’d like to do the sums on it and see how many hours I’ve spent down there, and count the litres of sweat that I’ve let out.
Anyway they’ve redone it now. There’s glass on two sides which is nice. You can actually see out. You’re not looking at much. You’re pretty much just looking at the warm-up area, so it’s not exactly a harbour view. But at least it’s a bit of a change to the dungeon.
It’s more than 2,000 days now since I played in that AFL grand final. I’m not sure if anyone over the history of the game has ever spent longer out of the game than me and come back and played.
Geelong’s Daniel Menzel spent over 1400 days out of the game and had four knee reconstructions. He reached out to me, and we’ve caught up a few times when I’ve been in Melbourne.
He’s been a sounding board for me and a huge source of support. The first time I met him we sat down and had a coffee and just talked about the feelings I’d had at various points in my rehab and he’s always been like, ‘Yeah, I remember when I felt like that’. We just sort of bounce off each other and it gives you a huge amount of support when you’re speaking to someone who’s been through exactly the same thing as you.
They actually said, ‘You’d be stupid to continue on, your chances of playing again are very, very slim and you’d be better off looking after your health’.
You can speak to guys who’ve been through injuries and stuff, but there’s no comparison to someone who’s been through it repeatedly. I keep a close eye on how Daniel’s going now and it obviously gives me a lot of confidence the way he’s been able to come back and have an impact in the game.
There are a few other guys I talk to as well. I’ve got a connection now with anyone who’s done their ACL. I’ll text them and ask if they need support or anything. There are a few of us in the AFL that have had multiple reconstructions. We could form some sort of club – not that it’s a club you’d want to be a part of!
— Sydney Swans (@sydneyswans) May 5, 2020
COULDN’T DO IT WITHOUT THEM
I’ve always kept myself reasonably fit, but there was a period in 2013 where I was probably not in the best shape that I’ve ever been in. And there was a two-and-a-half-year period when I didn’t run, which was very, very hard.
I grew up doing athletics and when I got home, I’d go for a run. I’d always enjoyed it. It’s a release and it’s good for you, so those times were really frustrating.
With maturity and life experience, I definitely deal with frustration better now. I’ve become a lot more patient than I was say four or five years ago. For that I must thank my support network.
First and foremost outside the club would be my family, my girlfriend Merysa and all my friends. A lot of people ask me if I’ve spoken to sports psychologists, but Mum and Dad have been my sounding boards through this whole journey. Mum has been a huge support for me, ever since the early days when I got drafted, and I think dad only missed two or three of the 45 games I’ve played. He loved coming to watch me play.
Geelong’s Daniel Menzel spent over 1400 days out of the game and had four knee reconstructions. He reached out to me, and we’ve caught up a few times.
The club has been incredible. Throughout the journey I’ve been able to maintain a reasonable level of fitness, working closely with the fitness and conditioning staff at the club who have supported me all the way.
I suppose the number one person for me at the Swans would be Rhyce Shaw. We became pretty close in my first couple of years even though there’s a big age difference – I think he’s 10 or 11 years my senior. Rhyce played in that 2012 grand final win and retired in 2015.
Rhyce is the senior defence coach now but he was coaching the reserves before that. I’ve done a fair bit of work with him in coaching the twos, and that’s really helped me I think. I probably turned my back on football a little bit in 2013/14 and sort of just concentrated on what I was doing recovery-wise, but coming back into it and getting involved has really sort of helped. I never really lost the passion for footy and working with Rhyce definitely spurred me on.
I spoke a few years ago with the club about being delisted and then being taken through the rookie draft, which is what happened at the end of 2017. I’ve been on the senior list since 2011 when they drafted me. I’d always said to them that I was comfortable to be a rookie whenever they want. It doesn’t bother me because if I’m playing well enough, I know they’ll give me an opportunity to play.
The main thing is, the club still believes in me. And I hope I can reward their faith.
We’re a really close-knit group at the Swans and I think that relates to onfield success because we’d do anything for each other to back each other up and help each other out. It’s amazing our consistent output at the Swans over the years. The club culture has a lot to do with that.
THE MILLION DOLLAR QUESTION
One thing I got done in my time off was finish my uni degree. I started uni before I got drafted and I made that a focus and finished my uni degree, which is good. The degree is commerce with sports management and I started straight out of school.
I’ve also been lucky enough to do a lot of travelling. I went to the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil with a few mates, and I’ve been overseas to a couple of family weddings and those sorts of things which I probably wouldn’t have got the opportunity to do otherwise. So there have definitely been things happen that wouldn’t have happened if I’d been playing footy, and the club’s been really supportive in terms of giving me time off.
Someone said to me recently that there have been four different Australian prime ministers since I last played a senior game of AFL – Gillard, Rudd, Abbott and Turnbull. It’s amazing when you think about it in those terms.
The big question: when will I be back in the senior side?
Last year I played nine games in the reserves but I haven’t played this year because I’ve been struggling with a groin injury. I did all of the pre-season up until Christmas and then had an operation on my groin and had a couple of setbacks from that, so I’m just coming back from that at the moment.
I’m planning to play in the reserves in a couple of weeks and then we’ll see how we go from there.
The last reco was the 30th of May 2016, so it’s almost two years since my last knee operation and it feels good. It’s great not to be worrying about the knee. It was the other parts of my body that let me down towards the back end of last year and I’ve since had them rectified.
There have been times when I’ve thought that if my comeback doesn’t work out, I do always have that 2012 premiership and no one can ever take that away from me. I’m really fortunate to have come into the Swans at a good time and for them to give me an opportunity like they did.
There have been four different Australian prime ministers since I last played a senior game of AFL – Gillard, Rudd, Abbott and Turnbull.
But I want to get back there and taste it again. And I know in my mind I can play at that level because I have played on the biggest stage and performed, so I’m pretty certain that I am able to play at the level that’s required.
I’ve never kicked a ball to Buddy Franklin in a game – well, except maybe a couple of times when I kicked it to him out of defence in the grand final when he was playing for Hawthorn!
There are a lot of other players too at the Swans who I haven’t played with in a game. That’s an exciting element of my comeback as well.
My aims are firmly set on contributing to this season’s campaign in the AFL – hopefully sooner rather than later.
I do know that when I run out on an AFL ground again, all of the hours, the anguish and the despair will be worth it in the end.