This story was originally published on the Herald Sun.
It’s amazing how something you have been so passionate about your whole life can become source of angst, leaving you with a sense of failure and disappointment.
To become an AFL footballer was something that I, along with thousands of other kids, aspired to be when I grew up.
I’d run around the backyard pretending to be my heroes Michael O’Loughlin, Adam Goodes, Andrew McLeod and Stuart Maxfield. I won a stack of premierships in that yard, kicked match winners after the siren — from acute angles — and won a few Brownlows.
Mum would have a kick with me every evening (but only if I kicked once on the right and once on the left), even though she knew nothing about footy.
To say I loved the game doesn’t cover it.
We went to every Swans home game for about four years before we moved to the country and the commute became impossible.
I know my story isn’t unique — it’s the story of every kid who falls in love with the game, pretending to be Buddy, Danger or Cyril, holding footy above everything else.
Then I became one of the lucky kids who got to go behind the AFL curtain, to live and breathe the elite game’s ins and outs. Draft day came around, my name was called out and bang, I was whisked away from my family and moved to a place where I knew no one.
From day dot I was expected to treat my body better than anyone else my age and every decision I made was based around what would make me a better footballer.
It was fine at the start but the longer I played in the reserves, while still making every choice based on being the best I could be, the more I fell out of love with footy.
You miss weddings, birthdays, family shows, holidays — which is fine if your reward is playing regular senior footy. But when you aren’t it feels like you’re in a one-way relationship and you wonder if the juice is worth the squeeze.
Now, I know most people won’t be sympathetic and if I didn’t know what I do about the game, I probably wouldn’t be either.
But consider this: just about every player is eventually sacked and a big proportion are told they’re not good enough either directly or indirectly, through lack of selection. That makes the sacrifices harder to make.
I hated the game when I left it at the end of 2015. I couldn’t watch it — not even my beloved Swans — without feeling a mixture of anger, envy, disappointment and shame. It’s also impossible to get away from, especially when you live in Melbourne.
I spent eight years on lists, living in three cities and for what? I didn’t play many games. More than a year after I left the game, I was still not entirely comfortable talking about my “career”.
But then something happened. I moved house and started sharing with a mate who is a Swans fan and his boundless enthusiasm for the Bloods was infectious.
It stirred something in me and I was persuaded to go to the game between the Swans and the Bulldogs. It was only when I settled in my seat that it occurred to me that I hadn’t been to the footy as a fan in more than a decade.
I’ll be honest. I got goosebumps when the Swans ran through the banner with Cheer Cheer the Red and the White blaring. I didn’t sing along, of course — I’m too cool. But then, as the game went on, emotion took over and I found myself bemoaning dubious free kicks against — “He’s been doing it all day umpire!” — and cheering the ones that went our way.
Buddy Franklin kicked those three goals in the last quarter and I found myself screaming and hugging my housemate in elation.
Then came the moment of heartbreak: the Doggies’ Liam Picken made a defensive clearance, followed the play up the ground — a truly gut-busting effort — and took a mark on the 50m junction before popping the ball to who else but The Bont.
SURE, we lost, but the raw emotion I felt was exhilarating. The extreme highs and devastating lows were something about footy that I’d forgotten. I thought the level of emotion felt by so many fans was lost to me. I thought I would never be able to watch the game as a punter without feeling as though I was a failure; yet there I was, buying into our great game like a 14-year-old.
There was a time that seeing all those guys live the dream that had passed me by would have brought on all the feelings that had kept me away from the game. I would often tell people who asked if I missed footy that, “Nah man, footy’s s—, I’m glad I’m out.”
And the truth is, I am glad that I’m out. The guys and girls who are playing now are unbelievably skilled and they would make me look even sillier than I did during my time.
But I’m not lost to footy anymore. It’s the best game in the world and I’m so rapt I’ve got it back. Go Swans.