A loud crack, a season changed
I was playing my first game back against Collingwood in round two after some knee issues had surfaced around Christmas and kept me out of the pre-season series. I’d worked really hard, gone close to making round one and was keen to make up for lost time.
Early in the game, I was playing forward and was up the other end of the MCG in our forward 50 when Collingwood’s Tim Broomhead collided with the goalpost and broke his leg. I didn’t actually see the incident, but when play stopped it was replayed on the scoreboard. I was standing next to Jack Crisp. He turned to me. We didn’t even say anything, just both looked at each other thinking the same thing, ‘Jeez, that’s horrible’.
There was a big gasp from the crowd, and they didn’t replay it again. It was pretty graphic. You put yourself in that position and think, ‘Shit, that could be me!’.
Fifteen minutes later, that was me.
I knew straightaway I’d broken my ankle. I could feel the tackle, and as soon as my foot got trapped underneath me I knew I was in trouble. There was a really loud crack, then instant pain. Sharp, horrible pain, out of nowhere.
It was actually a new experience for me – I’d never broken a bone. In my last year of junior footy, playing in the TAC Cup preliminary final for Dandenong Stingrays, I chipped my kneecap quite badly. It was painful and required surgery, but not as painful as the ankle.
It’s strange how quickly your body goes into self-preservation mode and pain is overtaken by shock. After a couple of minutes, my body just felt numb.
Your mind moves on to what the consequences will be very quickly. I was being stretchered down the race into the rooms when I started thinking, ‘Shit, I’ve worked so hard to get into the team, and I haven’t even lasted a quarter. How bad is it? How long is it going to be?’ I knew it was more serious than a rolled ankle.
Because Tim had gone down just before me, there was an ambulance there waiting for him when they wheeled me into the rooms. Our club doctors were there, an AFL doctor as well, a couple of paramedics, the club welfare manager, my fiancée Zoe and my sister Jess. I was given something for the pain, and I was actually in pretty good spirits, trying to make a joke of it.
I waited for a second ambulance and was driven up to the Epworth Hospital in Richmond. They’d seen the incident and knew what they were dealing with. Waiting for an X-ray, I lay there watching the game on the AFL app on the club welfare manager’s phone.
That was weird too – the second half had only just started, of a game Tim Broomhead and I had been part of barely an hour earlier. I was lying there in emergency with a broken ankle, and Tim was in the room next door with a broken leg.
They put my leg in a cast straightaway to keep it stable. I was still in my Giants gear, and one of the nurses said to me, ‘I don’t mean to be rude, but who do you play for?’
I know it’s Melbourne, but jeez! I thought she’d at least know who the Giants were! She said she didn’t really follow footy.
LOSING THE ROUTINE
Mum and Dad came in and I was moved up to a room on the ward. Dylan Shiel, who’s probably my best mate at the footy club, came in with his partner Georgie. Matt de Boer, another good mate, came in as well. Even on the Sunday morning, a couple of Collingwood guys popped in to say g’day. I was asleep, but Zoe told me they’d been in.
We’re all fierce rivals on the field, but when stuff like that happens it gets put aside pretty quickly.
I’ve worked so hard to get into the team, and I haven’t even lasted a quarter.
Because it was Easter Saturday, a lot of the surgeons were away with their families. Andrew Oppy ended up doing both mine and Tim’s operations on the Sunday, after dashing back from his holiday house. Mine was the less complicated surgery, so I ended up jumping the queue and getting fixed before Tim.
I woke up to text messages from Andrew after the surgery, including photos of the scans showing the plates and screws inserted. He said all had gone well and he was really happy, which was good to wake up to.
My first question to Andrew was, ‘How long do you think this is going to be?’ He estimated 10-to-12 weeks, which could get blown out further depending on how quickly the ankle adapted when I resumed load-bearing and running.
I came out on Tuesday night but couldn’t fly for 10 days, so I was back home at mum and dad’s. My sister had moved into my old bedroom and since moved out, so I was in her old room.
As you do after surgery, I felt pretty unwell – light-headed, not much appetite. In the old days, I would have been in a full cast from the ankle to the knee for six to eight weeks. Now it’s a cast for two days after surgery, then once I was discharged the fancy moon boot went on up to the knee. I had to keep it on for 10 days, but now I can take it off to shower and sleep.
I had the stitches taken out before flying back to Sydney, which was the first time I’d seen my ankle since surgery. It was fat, bruised and looked pretty bad. My whole leg from the shin down was swollen and bruised. I was a bit taken aback by it, it didn’t look good at all.
Even in 10 days, it’s amazing how quickly you lose that feeling not just of fitness, but general wellbeing. I’d been sitting on the couch, falling asleep, feeling pretty lethargic. Your body is so used to being in a routine of training and high performance, and then you stop. It doesn’t know what’s going on.
We’re a tight group at the Giants, and I’ve been overwhelmed by support from my teammates. Guys were constantly checking in with me – players, coaches, everyone.
As much as I felt supported, at the same time it felt weird coming back into the club after spending 10 days away. I’d watched the game against Sydney from home in Melbourne, pretty much instantaneously feeling like I was on the outside.
It’s a natural thing – you’re not training with the guys day-in, day-out, and for a time you lose that bond.
As soon as I flew back to Sydney, I sat down with the physios and broke the rehab down into four-week blocks. The first day it was straight into an upper-body conditioning session – a bit of grinder, ropes, some upper body weights.
I did a 40-minute session, and straightaway didn’t feel as strong as I’d been 10 days ago. Suddenly, you don’t feel elite anymore.
Your body is so used to being in a routine of training and high performance, and then you stop. It doesn’t know what’s going on.
Rehab can be a lonely place. Unfortunately we’ve had a few guys in rehab lately, but fortunately we all stick together. Young Will Setterfield did his ACL, Zac Williams has been in long-term rehab with an Achilles. Rory Lobb, Josh Kelly and Toby Greene have been in the injured group as well, and Lachie Tiziani did his knee a couple of weeks ago.
You help each other through, and when you get a chance to do a session together it’s so much easier when you’ve got someone to work with.
From our gym you can see the boys when they go out for a session. You’re there peering through the window, going about your business of getting the monotonous work done. It’s hard not to think, ‘Shit, I wish I wasn’t in this position’. But it is what it is.
I’ve been really optimistic, just attacking it as if I’m preparing to play a game without getting too focused on the end result of actually playing, when it’s still so far away that it could dent your hopes.
Luke Heath runs our rehab and he’s really organised – he sends out our plan on the Sunday, and knowing what you’ve got to do every day, where you’ve got to be, what sessions you have to tick off is reassuring. Anything new on the schedule becomes something to look forward to.
It’s small steps, but I haven’t been down in the dumps or feeling sorry for myself. I still get to do what I love – I’m not playing, but I’m still in an elite environment surrounded by elite athletes and coaches.
THE ROAD BACK
I’d love to be out there contributing, but I’ve found I really enjoy watching the game.
When I’m playing I might watch a couple of games each round, but now I’m finding myself enjoying watching teams I wouldn’t pay as much attention to if I was playing. For some guys it reminds them of what they’re missing, but I’m enjoying observing and hopefully learning.
In rehab, the weeks definitely seem longer – it’s barely four weeks since I had surgery, but it feels a lot longer. I think I’m a pretty patient person and recovering from serious injury certainly helps develop that. My four-week X-ray was really positive, and while I’m still in the moon boot I’m hopeful I can start weight bearing in the next week or two.
I’ve done a bit of walking in my runners at about 40 per cent body weight on an AlterG (anti-gravity) treadmill at the club, which is very manufactured but is the first step in getting range back in the ankle.
Even at the best of times I struggle with not being on the go; Zoe’s always saying, ‘You never sit down and relax’. That’s been my personality – even as a kid I never really sat still. I don’t watch a heap of TV. People say, ‘Why don’t you watch a Netflix series?’. I just get bored.
When I imagine how the rest of the season will pan out, I’m not thinking, ‘I’m going to have missed three-quarters of the year.’ I’m doing everything I can to make sure that whenever I’m available to play, if it’s late in the year, I want to have done everything right to come in and have an impact.
I’m not thinking I’ll come back in and dominate, but I know that if I’m called upon, I’ll be ready to come in and play my role. That’s exciting for me.
Look at recent AFL seasons: Richmond and the Western Bulldogs had incredible years overall, but their run into September was the most impressive thing. They’d had certain guys who’d been injured and they came back and had significant impacts late in the year.
It’s a bit like that sickening feeling I had seeing Tim Broomhead get injured, except in a positive way. I have to keep thinking: that could be me.