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Dark places & life lessons

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Dark places & life lessons

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It took me three years of draft rejection, the pain of serious injury and self-doubt, and the death of a coach who believed in me more than anyone ever had to become an AFL footballer.

 

I love what I do and I know how lucky I am.

 

Losing this year’s Grand Final will burn in me until the day I win one. But, if AFL has taught me anything, it’s that there are more important things in life than football.

 

Phil Walsh was a great teacher and mentor. He was ruthless yet caring. It’s funny how those two go together, but that was Walshy. He’d tell you how it was, and I really enjoyed knowing where I stood with him.

 

I’d had a lot of coaches who didn’t believe in me, but he saw something in me and really believed he would bring out the best in me. He told me that often.

 

When he dropped me back to the SANFL he’d make sure we caught up for a coffee, give me all the reasons why, tell me what he wanted to see from me that would get me back in the team.

 

He was such an important person for me.

 

We only had a short time with him, but he had a massive impact. He was a special person.

 

I was shattered when he was killed in 2015. It made me realise how short life really is.

 

We’d had Dean Bailey pass away the year before, seen Brenton Sanderson sacked at the end of my second year with the Crows, then Walshy was killed.

 

Footy can take you to a dark place sometimes. I wondered if it would be better to be back home in Melbourne with my family. It made me question, ‘Is footy really everything? Is it worth it?’

 

I play footy to win Grand Finals. It’s what you dream of as a little boy. But losing a Grand Final, it doesn’t compare one little bit to seeing your coach lose his life, a wife lose her husband, children lose their father. I’ll always hold family and loved ones closer than footy. In the end, it’s just a game.

 

 

THE DRAFT & THE DEVASTATION

I guess experience has taught me that. Because it wasn’t so long ago that footy really was everything for me.

 

Going into my last TAC Cup year in 2009 I was talked about as someone who would be drafted. I’d had a really good bottom-age year, played good school footy for Essendon-Keilor College, been picked in the AIS team. A lot of kids get drafted out of that squad and I thought I’d be one of them.

 

I didn’t like school very much, but with the footy program at Essendon-Keilor College I ended up loving my Year 11 and 12 years. We did weights, skill sessions, all around planning to be a footballer. Footy had kept me in school.

 

My Dad’s in construction, one of my brothers is a chippy, the other is a plumber; they both left school early to do apprenticeships. It was all construction in our family, and if footy didn’t work out I was going to follow suit and become an electrician. We were going to start our own company once we were all qualified.

 

Looking back, I got ahead of myself. I still worked really hard on my footy in my draft-age year, probably even overtrained because the footy program at school meant I could go to the gym every day.

 

I thought I was going to be drafted, and that can be a dangerous mindset. Things just didn’t go well for me – I had a run-in with the Vic Metro coaches, fell out of favour a bit, and didn’t really perform until the back end of the TAC Cup season. I had a really good last few games, but it wasn’t enough.

 

It was everything I’d worked towards and I was devastated to miss getting drafted.

 

Footy can take you to a dark place sometimes. I wondered if it would be better to be back home in Melbourne with my family. It made me question, ‘Is footy really everything? Is it worth it?’

 

Things happened that compounded the disappointment, almost made it feel like I was being teased by the footy gods. I did a skills session with then coach Matthew Knights and recruiter Adrian Dodoro at Essendon and was hopeful I might go there.

 

That was the year they took Kyle Hardingham, and on draft day I got all these text messages from people saying, ‘Congratulations!’ But I knew it was his name, not mine.

 

It knocks you. Not a whole bunch of people get drafted after they’ve turned 18. I wanted to get to Werribee in the VFL because they had a good record of getting mature-aged players into the AFL system, but I was tied to Williamstown.

 

I had to go to a tribunal hearing, that was turned down, then at the last minute Werribee paid $5000 – the maximum you could pay in the VFL then – to get me.

 

I still believed I was good enough, but after one year playing VFL, then the next year and then the next year, your belief starts to fade.

 

One year I trained with North Melbourne with four other blokes and none of us got picked up – they went with two blokes who they hadn’t even invited to train with them.

 

By the time I did get picked up I thought I was never going to.

 

 

 

THE CALL I DIDN’T EXPECT

I wasn’t expecting the call when it came from Hamish Ogilvie, Adelaide’s national recruiting manager. I was sitting in an exam at trade school when he rang, trying to get my head around magnetism or something electrician-related.

 

I’m not sure why I answered it in an exam but I’m glad I did. I said, ‘Mate, I’d better give you a call back.’ Then I couldn’t concentrate on the exam and had to leave the room and phone him.

 

They wanted to bring me over and do some testing. I’d been home from a footy trip with Werribee for less than a week and wasn’t in the best nick.

 

I hadn’t kicked a footy for a while, so I took my girlfriend Emily to the park and had a kick with her. She’s not the greatest kick, but I suppose it was good for practising my ground balls.

 

Adelaide hinted that they might take me in the 2012 national draft. When that didn’t happen it knocked my confidence again, but they rang straight away and said they were still keen on me for the rookie draft.

 

After so many knocks you don’t believe it until your name gets read out. With the rookie draft you have to watch it on the computer. When I saw my name come up next to pick 14 I broke down.

 

I couldn’t believe it had finally actually happened.

 

I flew in to Adelaide the next day and did a media conference straight away. I was on the TV news that night. I was like, ‘What’s all this about?’ Rookies don’t do media conferences in Melbourne.

 

If someone had asked me a couple of days earlier what I did I would have said, ‘I’m an electrician.’

 

After so many knocks you don’t believe it until your name gets read out. With the rookie draft you have to watch it on the computer. When I saw my name come up next to pick 14 I broke down.

 

I had two seasons under Sando. He gave me my debut which I’ll always be thankful for. I was pretty emotional. In my second year I’d been dropped and was playing for Adelaide’s reserves team against Port Adelaide in the SANFL showdown.

 

Ben Rutten and John Butcher were coming out from full-back and I went back with the flight straight into their path. They cleaned me up pretty good – I lacerated my spleen, broke a couple of ribs, did my A/C joint.

 

I spent a few days in intensive care and went three months without physical contact.

 

Under Walshy everything just fell into place. What sticks in my mind was his response after I’d been beaten pretty badly in a pre-season practice game down at Geelong at the start of his first season as coach.

 

Someone asked about it in the media conference afterwards and Walshy said, ‘You just wait until Kyle gets 50 games under his belt, that’s when we’ll see the best of him.’ I’d only played 10 games. It gave me confidence that he would back me in no matter what.

 

I played my 50th game against North Melbourne during the 2016 finals. When I think about Walshy that will always be with me, that belief he had in me and how he backed me in.

 

 

 

THE JAKE LEVER SITUATION

The longer I’m in footy the more I see things getting blown out of proportion.

 

Jake Lever’s departure from the Crows is simply the latest. Jake and I have a really strong bond – playing down back, you do your line meetings together, spend more time with the other defenders than anyone else in the group.

 

We didn’t hit it off straight away because I thought he was going to take my spot, but once we started playing together we became really good mates. Emily and his partner Jess are really close too.

 

Just the other night Em was up late, about 12.30am, and got a message from Jess saying Jake had just asked her to marry him while they were on a plane to Europe.

 

It’s really sad to see him go, but players come and go all the time in the AFL – people leave Victorian clubs for other Victorian clubs too, it’s not confined to people moving states. Paddy Dangerfield left a couple of years ago, Jake’s gone back to be with his family too.

 

He’s a terrific player and will be a really good player for a long time, but it’s part of the game, part of AFL in 2017.

 

For the reasons I’ve mentioned – how precious life is, how we don’t know what’s around the corner – you put those things in perspective and do what you think is right.

 

I decided to sign on for another three years this year and stay in Adelaide. I really enjoy it and see a bright future for the footy club. Jake made his decision to leave. That’s sad, but that’s life.

 

 

 

TREKKING TO MT EVEREST

I’m fortunate that I get another regular reminder of perspective. I sit on the board of the Crows Children’s Foundation, a wonderful cause that donates more than $100,000 every year to sick and disadvantaged kids.

 

A group of us has just flown to Nepal to walk to raise money by walking to the Mt Everest base camp. The trek up there takes eight or nine days, three days to get back, about 160km in all.

 

Along the way we’ll be painting a school in one of the villages that was damaged by the 2015 earthquake that killed more than 9000 people.

 

A couple of my mates who I went to school with are coming. My manager Garry Winter, who’s the chair of the Crows Children’s Foundation, is bringing along his Mum. Katrina Webb, a Paralympic gold medallist, is in charge of the trek. Sarah Perkins from the Crows women’s team is coming too.

 

I’ve always wanted to see Everest, so I get to support kids in need and tick off one of my bucket list items at the same time.

 

This year, the son of the manager of the foundation was diagnosed with a brain tumour. One of the charities we support is CanTeen, and her son ends up with a brain tumour.

 

It’s just awful. Seeing it first-hand has instilled in me even more that what we’re doing is so important. Going to board meetings every month or so takes my mind off footy too.

 

Losing a Grand Final, it doesn’t compare one little bit to seeing your coach lose his life, a wife lose her husband, children lose their father. I’ll always hold family and loved ones closer than footy. In the end, it’s just a game.

 

I love getting out and seeing where the money is going. Last year we gave $50,000 to Autism Australia to help build the first playground in South Australia designed specifically for kids with autism.

 

I’d go out and see that being built, see what it was going to do for those kids. That gives me huge joy, seeing the smiles on kids faces.

 

We run a six-week ‘Better Me’ program for kids affected directly or indirectly by cancer. The first two-hour block this year, kids asked me and my teammate David Mackay what it’s like to live a healthy lifestyle, what we eat, how we work out.

 

That was another reminder – that these kids don’t necessarily dream of being fit, healthy athletes, they just want to be healthy.

 

It’s a constant reminder that there’s more to life than footy.

 

Kyle Hartigan  -  Contributor

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