I was kicking for goal after what was a joyful and ‘feel-good’ training session leading into an AFL game late in the season, only I wasn’t playing.
I was stuck with Collingwood’s VFL feeling sorry for myself when I kicked for goal and missed, and what happened next would start a chain of lessons and obstacles I’d have to overcome to fast-track my growth as a person.
It also helped me realise what football was actually doing to me. I broke down for the first time in years.
Football had finally taken its toll on me and all the pressure and expectation I had built up in my own head had caused me to lose my mind in front of my teammates. I had manifested an idea that I was a disappointment and that I was letting all those close to me down in the job I had grown up dreaming about since as long as I could remember.
Kicking the footy in the backyard pretending I was Andrew McLeod, playing in front of 90,000 at the MCG was all for nothing in my mind, because I wasn’t playing AFL football when I had only ever obsessed over being a superstar and nothing less.
I had become insular and had drifted from those closest to me. I’d drifted from the ones who cared about me the most — my family, friends and my girlfriend — those who had only ever cared about my wellbeing and loved me for Ben Kennedy ‘the person.’
A feeling of resentment swept over me and I began screening calls from my girlfriend after games and making excuses not to see or talk to my parents.
The false sense of embarrassment I felt on a Thursday afternoon when the teams came out (I would later joke that I don’t talk to friends on Thursdays) all because I wasn’t competing for two hours on a Saturday afternoon on the big stage.
As my time as a footballer grew longer, my character was starting to break down. I was no longer seen visually as the jovial and energetic character I was once viewed as.
Coaches would joke that I never smiled and if you walked passed me in the corridor you were lucky to hear a peep out of me.
Not seeking help and refusing to let those close to me in, I was knowingly leading myself into a path of self-destruction and feeling my masculinity was on the line.
After I had finally cracked at training from kicking that point, I was told to see someone. That person was involved in player welfare, and a friend, David Stiff.
He always had a different way of thinking and his way of helping was never seen as conventional, but he was one of the easiest people to talk to that I’ve ever come across.
He listened and was able to look at situations and experiences in a way I wasn’t capable of at that point in my life.
I’m no expert on mental health but I do feel that sometimes what someone in a similar position may benefit from is a diverse way of thinking and a refreshing outlook from someone exterior to the reclusive mind of someone that is in pain.
After a few chats, David insisted I see someone outside of football and I did and continued to, even after my days at Collingwood were over. This gave me the tools to identify, action and overcome periods of hardship and understand and prioritise the people and day-to-day things that are truly important to me and would still be there regardless of what I may be feeling or how I was playing.
It helped me realise I had a greater purpose and a reason to get out of bed because these people and things were waiting for me and that football was only a part of my life. Yes, it was a part I loved, but it did not need to define me.
I guess as someone who experienced a deep state of depression both at the middle of my career and towards the end of it, I have learnt that it doesn’t need to be a boxing match. There’s no rule book to suggest you have to fight it alone, you can bring a friend to help or even a whole gang if you need it.
Men in particular seem to have a false hysteria over what is seen as ‘tough.’ Talking about how you’re going doesn’t always have to be a means of introduction, mates want to help mates, we actually get a kick out of it.
Speaking out about something that is destroying you is a hard thing to do, harder than not speaking about it. So, doesn’t that make it tough?
Since my football fate was decided in early October, I found closure in accepting what I was able to achieve and what I wasn’t.
I have learnt to measure my success as a footballer in different ways. Not by numbers in terms of games, goals kicked, or premierships won. It’s the relationships I formed, and the impact I had on teammates, family, friends and inspiring those who played and watched me with my hunger for the contest.
I will miss playing professional football and I will miss spending everyday working with my best mates and come late November, when I would have been due back to training, I’m sure I will feel many emotions.
But if there’s one thing I am very grateful for it’s the lessons this great game has taught me and what I will carry with me for the rest of my life.
They include discipline, building resilience, giving and receiving feedback, the ability to connect with teammates to solve problems, structure and playing your role in a team.
They will all give me a strong foundation to succeed in whatever course I decide to take in life and I feel that is something players leaving this game need to remember when reflecting on their time.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re a 200-game player or myself. These skills are all instilled in us well after our time in the game is done.
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