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Diamond Dobermans

They say that with pressure and time you eventually get diamonds. I would put forth that with toughness and tenderness, we get AFL football.

The game is tough, and on my most recent sample, it’s getting tougher. But there are still veins of tenderness that run through our game.

The weekend in Perth brought that into sharp focus for me. As my Bulldog teammates and I walked up the race at Patersons Stadium on Sunday, we were met by my two oldest children, Jarvis and Frankie. They were going to run through the banner with their dad, and it was going to be great. A couple of nice photos and then we’d get to business.

This game can turn on a dime, taking your spirit with it.

There are surprises at every turn in this game, sometimes all it takes is a look. Jogging out to meet them and take their hands, I studied their faces looking for panic or fear; any sign of fretting and I would protect them as only their father could. I need not have worried. For all the noise and hostility in the air, my precious little babies looked proud. As a moment, it was a diamond.

Minutes later and the kids were safely back in their seats with mum and their baby sister, eating hot dogs watching dad get pulverised.

This game can turn on a dime, taking your spirit with it. We went into the West Coast game knowing that things weren’t going to be easy, but I think each of us at some stage in that first quarter had our breath taken away by how fierce the Eagles were. They are going to be a force again, especially on their dung heap.

It was a wretched night for the Bulldogs, probably one of the toughest nights I’ve had on a footy field (athough there are a few to pick from). Walking off the ground and thinking of little more than a hot shower, I looked up to see the Eagles players making their way towards our players’ race to line up either side of it. I was genuinely moved.

No one expects such grace and kindness from the same people who have ripped you to pieces for the last two hours and 15 years. I’ll never forget the tenderness of the moment, another diamond.

If there is one player who sums up the duality inherent in football, then for me it has to be Max Hudghton. For those who can still remember the St Kilda champion, Max was a tough, uncompromising competitor who seemed to play with the same spiritual force every time he crossed the line.

AFL footy is as much about getting knocked down as it is about the smell of liniment.

He also, perhaps unknowingly, took us deep into the heart of sport’s competitive spirit when the television cameras zoomed in as he shed tears of anguish and disappointment after another heartbreaking loss.

A few years ago, the Bulldogs had a road trip to Adelaide and in the dying minutes of the game I went up for a mark and landed awkwardly on my ankle. It hurt like the billy-o, but it wasn’t serious. Moments later the siren sounded, and though I had a slight limp I assumed no one would have any idea about this latest sore spot.

Seven days later we were back out on the field, this time against St Kilda at Etihad Stadium. I was on the half-forward flank with the limp gone, but a heavily strapped ankle hidden beneath my sock.

My opponent for the day was Max Hudghton, who bounded up to me like an over-enthusiastic Doberman. He made it abundantly clear that he wanted my head as a trophy – pushing me, elbowing me and then, with the deft touch of an Italian soccer player, tapping my ankle with the toe of his boot and asking me how it was.

I didn’t see the tenderness of Max’s tears that day, although he nearly saw mine. From the first bounce of the ball until we shook hands at the final siren, Max didn’t let me out of his sight. He was quick, strong, disciplined and mean. I got a bath that day – and an important footy life lesson to go with it. Next week, I wouldn’t wilt.

AFL footy is as much about getting knocked down as it is about the smell of liniment. Great teams, poor teams, superstars and plodders are constantly knocked over or brought down by a game that is one of the toughest in the world. The question that growls at the back door of every footballer’s mind is: “Can you get back up?”

This article was originally published in The Age and can be accessed here.