Dale’s armband, Sarah’s surname
Coming into AFL footy as an 18-year-old, you don’t expect a whole lot too early but I was pretty fit and a good size for a kid.
I’d had a good pre-season and was lucky enough to get the call-up for the first game in 2012, which was unreal. Even that game was pretty crazy – I kicked four goals and had a bit of an influence, then ended up with full-body cramp and had to be subbed out.
The highs and lows – it was like a window on what was to come.
I started getting cramps at half-time, was eating salt and vinegar chips in the rooms and doing hot-cold treatment to try and get the legs going. My calves were going, my hammys were going and when I’d stretch my calves or hammys, my quads would go. Whichever way I bent, something would cramp. Apparently it looked pretty funny but I just couldn’t extend my legs.
I’ve had a lot of life lessons since. I played 30 games out of a possible 36 in my first two years and life was going along perfectly – I was earning money and doing what I love. Then, the first knee happened.
It was a shock to me. I went up in a marking contest against Essendon with Dyson Heppell, who was my captain at Gippsland Power in the TAC Cup. We got tangled up and I felt something when I landed. He got up to play on, I went to chase him and I couldn’t.
They helped me off, took me down to the rooms, did the testing, then someone put a hand on my shoulder and said, ‘Sorry mate, you’ve done your ACL‘.
I made it back a year later, had played two games in the VFL and was close to getting a call-up. Exactly 12 months to the day – against Essendon again, this time in the VFL – I picked up the ball and went to make a cut but stuck my leg out too far. That one hurt. I knew exactly what I’d done.
That was probably the hardest one to deal with of the three, just knowing how hard I’d worked to get back, how strong I felt. I knew what I was in for and it wasn’t good. I was 21.
The third one was a year and three weeks later. I’d played well in the VFL, come back into the senior side and we’d beaten the Swans in Sydney the week before, in one of the best wins I’ve been part of. We were off to a flyer against St Kilda when I landed awkwardly taking a mark. It felt like a hyper-extension.
I limped off and down in the rooms, they did the test again. They looked up and me and said, ‘Mate, it’s gone’.
Because of the strength in my leg I could still run and change direction. I didn’t know how long I had left in footy – I was coming to the end of a contract and knew this meant another year out. I said, ‘If I can still run around I want to go back out there’. They said I couldn’t do any more damage and left it up to me. I love the game that much, I just wanted to be a part of it.
I went back out and ran around for another 10 minutes. My teammate Mitch Honeychurch came up to me on the half-forward flank and asked if I was alright. I said, ‘Nup, I’ve done my ACL again. It’s gone’. He asked me what the hell I was doing and I said, ‘I can still run!’
Just before half-time, I was going back with the flight for a mark, landed, went to step on my right leg and it just collapsed underneath me. Your muscles can do so much but once they relax, there’s no ligament there to hold it.
TRIUMPH & TRAGEDY
I had a fair few times after the third one where I thought I just couldn’t do it anymore. I questioned whether it was worth coming back again, just the amount of pain and hard yards you have to go through. And it’s not just you – it’s your teammates, your parents, your friends.
They had to take a quad graft for the third one because the hamstring grafts from the first two had given way. The quad was the strongest ligament they could put in there. The surgeon had to drill a bigger hole in my knee to make it fit. He said, ‘If you snap this one, I don’t think there’s anything stronger I can put in there’.
That was the end of 2015. Sarah and I had just got together. It was a new thing for her to go through, dealing with that absolute opposite of the excitement and thrill of watching me play. She got a look at the real lows of football pretty much from the start.
Mum’s been affected the most by my knee injuries. Her and Dad have been such a big part of my football life, have been through the whole lot with me. Mum’s five-foot-nothing and a very passionate little person. She has a fair voice on her, too, and a heart of gold.
After each knee reconstruction, she’s taken time off work in the factory at Patties Foods back home in Bairnsdale, straight after surgery to cook, clean and bathe me, look after me for that first week or two when I wasn’t able to move. I think it’s helped her too – she finds it tough seeing me hurting.
He asked if I was alright. I said, ‘Nup, I’ve done my ACL again’. He asked me what the hell I was doing and I said, ‘I can still run!’
I was pretty close to hanging them up. I knew the second and third ACLs had gone within three or four games of coming back and I couldn’t shake the thought that might happen again. I’d be out of contract with a stuffed knee and no job.
In the end, the decision was that I didn’t want to give up on my dream job, so I put my head down and worked as hard as I could to get back.
Seeing the boys make the finals at the end of 2015, seeing the belief grow, I wanted to be part of that. When I came back in round 13 of 2016, I’d only played four games since the first knee in 2013, then I didn’t miss a game for the rest of the year and we won the flag.
It was finally like my luck had turned around.
That last month was just incredible, the best four weeks of footy we’ve played, the best four games I’ve been a part of – just team footy and love and care for each other. Apart from getting married, it was the best four weeks of my life but even amid such joy, there was pain.
A mate I’d grown up with back home had a car accident in Darwin before we beat Hawthorn in the second final, but my mates didn’t tell me. We went out for breakfast on the Saturday morning and they told me. He was in a coma but stable.
The club was going to let me fly up to Darwin to see him after the preliminary final, but he passed away during the week.
You learn how much you appreciate things. Before the preliminary final against GWS in Sydney, I asked the coach and players if it was OK if we wore black armbands. I was crying when I was putting it on, then we came out and I kicked the first goal.
I kissed the armband for Dale and fought back tears. I knew he’d be looking down and be so proud. I kicked four goals and played well. It meant so much that I could give that to him.
IN CONTINUAL PAIN
The last six months has probably been the hardest time in my career; I’ve just had continual knee pain. I haven’t trained with the group since our fitness camp in Mooloolaba in January. I’ve only played eight games since the 2016 grand final.
They found a tear in the meniscus and cartilage over summer, I had a clean-up arthroscope and they thought it would be six weeks and I’d be back by round one. It’s July and I’m still struggling with the same thing. I’ve been able to run and do some sessions and feel good, then I’ll come out two days later and feel shithouse and not be able to train for a week. It’s been two steps forward and three steps back.
Right now, it’s almost a day at a time. I’m out of contract at the end of the year but I’ll deal with that when I have to. If it does end, I’ve had seven years of highs and lows but I’d never change it. Everything happens for a reason, that’s the cards I’ve been dealt. I’m still one of 42 players at the Western Bulldogs ever to win a flag and I cherish that.
I kissed the armband for Dale and fought back tears. I knew he’d be looking down and be so proud.
Sarah and I talk about it often. She asks, and sometimes I probably don’t give a completely honest answer. I tell her how I’m feeling but there’s always more to it. She’s been a rock for me, so supportive. She tells me I’ve just got to keep doing what makes me happy; if I want to keep trying, she’s here for me and if I don’t, we’ll go down another path. She’s been awesome.
I’ve had to open my eyes a bit more towards what life without footy might look like. I’ve always wanted to work outdoors – I did a bit of plumbing before I got to footy and on my day off lately, I’ve been doing some electrical work with a mate, some work placement. There’s always a light.
Sarah’s given up a lot for me to help me chase my dreams. She can be stubborn like me but she’s very strong. We’ll have strong kids; I hope they’re athletic and they don’t have my injury curse. If that time does come and there’s no more footy, I’ll have a lot more time for us – to start a family, to get away into the wilderness and go camping.
TAKING SARAH’S SURNAME
When we got married last summer, I decided to take Sarah’s name and become Clay O’donohue-Smith. I was a little bit surprised at the attention it got; some people were almost offended, took it as a reason to give me advice without knowing the background.
Sarah’s one of two daughters and her Dad hasn’t got any brothers or sons. We had the conversation; Sarah said she’d like me to but never said I had to. No one else asked but I was more than happy to.
With footy, if I come back, it’s just Clay Smith for the commentators. It was more for our kids, helping keep her family name live on. I love Sarah, and all I want is for her to be happy. If a little thing like me having a hyphenated name helps with that, I’m more than happy to do it. It was no big deal to me but I knew it meant a whole lot to Sarah and her family. It’s just what you do for the people you love.
We’ve got two guinea pigs (Finnias and Ferb), three dogs (Aspen the husky, Ollie and Jax the Staffies) and Summer the snake (a Proserpine python). Summer lives in a tank in the kitchen. Some people come over and don’t even realise she’s there until you point her out, then they shit themselves. She comes out when you’re having a few drinks at home and people have a bit more confidence and want to have a hold. She’s harmless, she’s never bitten anyone.
I’ve had the two dogs and the snake right through my footy career, pretty much. When I had my first reco, Ollie was just a pup. He’d get up on the couch, put his head on my knee and just lay there and look at me. That unconditional love you get from animals has been huge for me. We talk about getting a farm – horses and goats and pigs, the whole works. Sarah’s a country girl, too. It’ll happen one day.
If I never play again, I’m at peace. There’s a whole lot out there to explore. I’ve played footy since I was four years old, it’s been awesome and given me a lot of joy in my life. I wouldn’t mind getting back on a dirt bike. Sarah grew up on the snow; I wouldn’t mind giving snowboarding a go. Might not be the best for someone with a dodgy knee but you’ve got to have a go.
What’s happened has made me appreciate the game and how hard it is, broadened me as a person and made me grow. But life without footy would leave a big hole in my heart, that’s for sure.