Sydney premiership hero Jude Bolton was so determined to avoid a concussion diagnosis in the 2012 Grand Final he deliberately dodged the club doctor.
Three years on, a player who admits he played on through serious concussions as a badge of honour has become the AFL’s poster child for concussion awareness.
Bolton has spearheaded a confronting education campaign for AFL players, urging them to report their symptoms to the AFL Players’ Association.
Even five years ago he suffered a pair of concussions against Brisbane that left him unable to stand straight — yet he kept playing that week and the next despite clear symptoms.
In the video shown to all AFL players this pre-season he urges them to show more caution, taking responsibility for their own welfare.
That video shows powerful images of his jarring hits and a warning from Royal Melbourne Hospital neurosurgeon Andrew Kaye that some brain tissues never recovers from successive concussions.
“It’s great to see that guys aren’t so gung-ho now. You sit out that 20 minutes, get checked out, and if it has been a decent concussion you are happy to miss a week.” – Jude Bolton
Bolton told the Herald Sun he was just reflective of those times, playing on at all costs.
He says the ultimate test for players will be to rule themselves out when concussed in a Grand Final but is glad times have changed.
“For me in 2012 I walked off the ground because I didn’t know which way we were kicking. I walked off the ground and basically walked along the sideline to get my breath back and avoided the medical officer so he wasn’t aware of what had happened,’’ he says.
“I got slung to the ground and basically couldn’t remember the last bit of the game. I was concussed a handful of times, probably six over my career.
“There was the one where Brad Ottens kneed me in the head when I was running back for the flight and he took Mark of the Year on me and I got pushed into Daniel Cross against the Dogs in a final and got laid out.
“It’s great to see that guys aren’t so gung-ho now. You sit out that 20 minutes, get checked out, and if it has been a decent concussion you are happy to miss a week.
“There is not that expectation that let’s saddle up and get back out there.”
Bolton says the example of a senior player like Jimmy Bartel missing a game despite being passed fit is massive for the next generation.
“From a leader as well, young guys see that. If young guys set into a club and see what the older guys are doing — pushing away doctors to get back out there — that resonates.
“That is real leadership from Jimmy and obviously he’s taking more care in playing and assessing himself as well.”
Bolton is one of 5000 past players the AFL Players’ Association is hoping will complete a concussion survey in conjunction with the Florey Institute of Neuroscience.
Players who need follow-up help can be assessed and have funded brain scans with the institute, but Bolton believes he has dodged long-term effects.
“I have never had cause to have brain scans. I haven’t had any long-term effects. I always trusted our club doctor Nathan Gibbs. I had some solid ones but never anything with long-term effects.”
In the educational video Bolton tells of his grandfather’s message to him early in his career: “It’s better to wake up in an ambulance than pull out of a contest”.
Bolton felt letting his teammates down by going off with concussion showed he was weak.
Later in his career he went back to his grandfather, asking him if he wanted an ex-footballer or a dribbling mess for a grandson.
Says Bolton: “I got a sense that it doesn’t have to be a badge of honour. I am the father of two little girls and I want to be able to chase them around and see them grow up.”
This article was originally published in the Herald Sun and can be accessed here.
If you know of any former AFL/VFL players who are not registered with the Players’ Association, the AFLPA asks that you encourage them to contact Alumni Manager – Brad Fisher at firstname.lastname@example.org or (08) 8651 4300.