It was a difficult 2018 for Tom Liberatore after going down with injury in Round 1, missing the rest of the season, and having his impending free agency looming. He sat down with AFLPlayers.com.au to discuss his year and recovery from a second ACL, what his life looks like outside of the football landscape, and how he is misunderstood.
How’s the knee holding up?
It’s going well. I did the first bit of match simulation last Thursday. We did about 30 minutes of match practice and it held up well. I am still a bit slow and getting used to the pace but fitness-wise it was alright. Happy days.
How did you spend your off-season?
I had two months off at the end of the year, and I had a break mid-year, which is standard when you’re rehabbing a knee. After the season, I had a month overseas in Europe, and then a month back home in Melbourne preparing for pre-season and that gave me some good balance.
Whereabouts did you go in Europe?
I went to a couple in places in Germany that I hadn’t been to before and then I got the ferry from Germany to Sweden, and then I drove up the southeast coast and camped up there in Sweden, and finished in Portugal.
Camping in Sweden sounds pretty interesting. What was that like?
Yeah, it was sick. It was refreshing and a nice change. We packed our own food and did things differently to how we would normally travel. You can camp anywhere in Sweden — there is a historic law that makes it legal to pitch a tent anywhere and cook your own food and sit by the water. It was pretty nice.
So for those heading to Europe next year, I imagine you’d recommend Sweden pretty heavily?
Yeah, for sure. Also, sorry if I sound a bit tired, I’m battling the flu at the moment. So we also drove up to Stockholm, which was about five or six hours from where we camped, and we chipped away at it every day doing an hour or so, then we would stop and stay somewhere new each day. It was nice when we did finish up in a city like Stockholm because it meant we could finally jump in the shower after a few weeks in a tent! September is a good time of year to go because it wasn’t busy and the weather wasn’t too warm.
I imagine it was good to get away at a time where you’d normally be thinking about and playing footy?
Definitely. It helped the mental side of recovery for me and I guess I’m fortunate to be at a good club that has had plenty of experience with ACLs in recent times. They know how to handle it, and that mid-year break was also a big factor in how I got through the recovery period.
Were you battling before going away?
The first four-to-eight-week period when you can walk again but you can’t run and all you do is leg-strengthening exercises and it is pretty much heat bikes everyday at VU, it is hard. You just sit in a heat chamber and ride so it gets pretty monotonous. It wasn’t as bad as my first knee because I knew what I was in for, but it was good to get away because then you have four weeks away, then you get closer and closer to progressing with the rehab and then I didn’t have to wait too long to start running again.
Right now, you’re at 100 percent fitness?
Yep. This week just gone was the first week where I was at 100 percent. I’m no longer in the dog house, as they call it.
What was it like sitting on the sidelines and having to see the team not playing well, and there being nothing you could do on the field to help?
It is obviously frustrating to watch! Game day you get pretty riled up and you ride the emotions with the team, but then you can’t get out there. Having said that, this year off and being 26 has allowed me to develop things outside of footy. Reflecting back on it now, it has probably been one of the most enjoyable years of my life because I was able to do more uni and develop off-field things, like doing a bit of work with a friend who is interested in some social enterprise stuff and helping buskers and homeless people around the city. I felt that I learnt to develop an identity around myself, rather than basing it around footy. I enjoyed different build-ups throughout the week and new things to look forward to. If football gets taken away again, it won’t be so dramatic because I have that experience.
That’s a good view to have. Your work within this area isn’t a new thing, you were also involved in the Ladder program as well. Talk me through that…
I did some work mentoring in 2016 and did a session last year in Broadmeadows where I cooked for some of the young people. I hope that no one got too sick after that! All of that social work is interesting to me.
Tell me about the social enterprise you’re starting…
One of my best mates from school started an Instagram page called @busk_it and he just put up videos of buskers in the CBD, and he has got to know them and their story. In my spare time, I enjoy buying some food for a homeless person, sitting down, and having a chat with them. When I told him that, he informed me of his idea and then we put it all together. We’re trying to get an app developed at the moment where you can see where they’re playing, so we’re trying to get a government grant together to do that. We want to bring more awareness to homelessness and music and assist them in helping them to get off the ground. In the long run, we want to get to a point where we can help them produce music, and start trying to get them in housing which is the end result. That’s our target.
What else did you get to do in your year off?
I touched on the traveling before, but one of the key things about getting away mid-year was that I was able to do a bit by myself for a few days, which gave me a different approach and view on things. I did a lot more study and a lot more writing because I am doing creative writing part-time at RMIT. I did some binging into record collecting, too and all of those sorts of things. It gave me a different grasp on things and probably helped me to get my shit together, I guess.
And your creative writing includes poetry as well, doesn’t it? Hopefully my intel is correct…
Poetry is probably the most consistent genre that I like to do. I like to write personal things about my own experiences, and also about people I meet or stories I come across, different relationships and travel, which is a big catalyst in providing inspiration. Experiencing a different culture or meeting people from different backgrounds helps with all of that. I also touch on personal things around mental health, which is something I want to do more of this year, whether it’s with Beyond Blue etc. because the industry we’re in, there’s a high rate of mental health issues and I want to bring awareness to that.
That fits in with everything the playing group have told us about these issues and wanting to increase mental health literacy…
Yeah, well another thing I do outside the club is see a psych once a week for an hour. It probably took until my third year to do it, and I couldn’t speak more highly about it, especially when you consider the job that we’re in. That’s something I would pass on to all younger players who are coming into the system and trying to find their way.
That taps into the scrutiny that players face, and I imagine for most it is easier to talk about those challengers rather than thinking you’re bullet proof and able to get through it alone?
I’ve certainly had my fair share of media attention after the Grand Final! But yeah, it has just allowed me to get more awareness around the things that I can control because things do effect you around mental health. You should read into it, but you can’t allow yourself to get angry. Try and deal with it and work through the thoughts rather than dismiss them. But you can’t tell someone how to think or tell them what to say. I do my best not to get too hung up on it.
That’s a mature way of looking at it and you have arrived at that point now, but perhaps a few years ago, would the things said and written about you have affected you?
The difference is that I didn’t read any of it and would turn a blind eye and be ignorant to it, whereas now I read into it, take on the knowledge and can hopefully use that to help other people so that I am aware of what is going on. Rather than being a punk, and try and completely ignore it, you have to acknowledge that it exists and try to deal with it the right way.
Are you frustrated at how you’re perceived? The fact that you’re misunderstood…
Yeah, definitely. I think the most frustrating part is that they assume things about me without actually knowing. They don’t have a right to make assumptions that aren’t true. But if they do know about the things that I am doing, well then hopefully it can effect things positively for other players to show that everyone can do good in their own way rather than just how it seems on the outside.
Going back to your writing, do you see yourself exploring it post-football?
I’m not sure. Like most writers, I’m a bit like a freelancer so right now it is just more of a passion project that helps my mind outside of footy. I think after footy I will put a lot of my efforts into social work.
Do you do a lot of reading as well?
I do. I like fiction and memoir sort of stuff, and a bit of poetry here and there but not too much. I like writing it, but don’t enjoy reading it as much for some reason. I went through a phase where I read a lot of autobiographies, but it’s mostly memoirs now.
It’s a big year for you after being a free agent and re-signing. What is the vibe like at the club and what are the expectations?
It is really positive at the moment. We have a very grounded group of young players, and a wise set of heads at the top. It’s a good combination, and we’re a close group as well. We give feedback easily and can take it quite clearly. If we’re all fit, I think we will be a hard side to beat next year.
As an older guy at 26, how do you go providing feedback to younger players and trying to be an example?
I’m still working on it. I’m close with them in terms of off-field stuff and I am pretty comfortable in the locker room playing that half-clownish role, but not too much. I think I’ll be able to provide a good sense of leadership on the field as the year goes on and we get more comfortable playing with each other.
So, it’s more that you’re better suited getting to know the guys and helping there rather than the detailed football advice. Is that what you mean?
Yeah, I think so. And that in turn complements that footy side of things and I see that being my role, because we have leaders that show them in other ways. We have a diverse group of older players from a personality point of view. It’s healthy.
Thanks for taking the time to chat. I appreciate your honesty.
No worries. Thank you.