I can’t say I saw this ending coming, but in a funny way I had prepared for it. In the middle of last season, when I was weighing up whether to play on, I had two conversations. One was with Darren Glass, my old West Coast teammate and friend. “So, you were going to retire, and now you’re not going to retire,” he said. “Well, we’ll see how that goes!” That made me laugh.
‘for them to recognise at some level what I was going through as a person rather than a footballer really meant something to me’
Injury had forced Glassy into retirement mid-way through that season. But he said he had been able to live with that way of finishing. He’d taken a deep breath and just got on with life.
The other conversation was with Ryan Trainor, then Carlton vice-president and a business partner of mine. He said that if I was able to get my head around the worst-case scenario, then it would be worth playing on, because there just might be a best-case scenario. Suddenly on Saturday, it was worst case, and I feel OK about it. It wasn’t the ideal finish, but it is not going to diminish what I did in my career, nor damage the friendships I formed.
In the rooms, I mentioned those conversations to Mark Homewood, Carlton’s rehabilitation co-ordinator, who has become a good friend and was probably as upset as I was. I’d agonised over playing one last season, and it had come to this: no wins (I didn’t play against St Kilda in Wellington) and now an ACL, also a medial ligament. At that point, hoping for a miracle, they were talking up the medial strain, as if there might be nothing else. But I’d done medial ligaments before, and they didn’t feel like this. In my heart of hearts, I knew.
As I said in the media conference, playing on this year had proved to be the wrong decision for the right reasons. By that, I meant that I hadn’t persevered for money, or for personal glory, but to help the club build a culture. I have some good memories from the second half of last season, and had hoped to solidify them. They were good reasons to play on.
As it turns out, I was wrong. But none of us are Nostradamus. As long as you go about the process correctly, and your intentions are pure, even if you make a wrong decision, you can sleep at night. That’s how I feel now. I’m not stewing. There’s no angst. I’ll have an op and rehab the knee as if I was still playing, and get on with life.
Obviously, it’s been a disappointing year, personally and for the club. That’s consumed us. But it’s not all doom and gloom. When I got home from hospital on Saturday, our game was still going. I watched the last quarter and was buoyed. The boys played really well. They lost only because of some skill errors, which you have to expect at this stage of their development.
So my last exit from a football ground was on a stretcher. The Carlton fans were great, as they always have been. But I was touched by the warmth of the Adelaide fans. It was a pretty traumatic moment in my life, so for them to recognise at some level what I was going through as a person rather than a footballer really meant something to me.
I deferred the operation so I could do the formalities of this week properly, and deal with the emotions. I haven’t cried – Sticks Kernahan would never have forgiven me! But I came close a couple of times on Tuesday. I thanked the Carlton players. It’s important to say that they’re a really good bunch of blokes. Sometimes, a footballer will say this because it’s the expected thing, but I really mean it about these guys: there’s not a ratbag among them. In the long run, that will count for plenty.
‘I am an ex-player now, and I do have a sense of the freedom I never had as footballer’
The last thing they needed from me on the way out was a sermon, but I did encourage them to set high standards, of themselves and of one another. I urged each of them to hold himself to those standards, as well as the group. I emphasised the importance of individual responsibility and how crucial it is to team success.
Then it was off to Nobu at Crown for lunch with my father, Andy, Bec, my son, Oscar, and my sister Lauren and her newborn son Elliott. For the first time since I can remember, I was free to order whatever I liked. Funnily enough, that liberty wasn’t as exciting as I thought it would be. It ended up being a bento box and a glass of wine; old healthy habits die hard!
But I am an ex-player now, and I do have a sense of the freedom I never had as footballer, and not many people have in their adult lifetimes. It’s scary and exciting at the same time. The future is a blank canvas. I know there will be times in the next 12 months when I will miss playing, and the locker-room banter, and the fans, who have treated me so well over the years.
I’ll focus on what I can do now, not what I can’t do. But one thing will have to wait. On holidays in Canada last summer, I discovered snowboarding, and put it at the top of my list of skills to develop in retirement. But I’ll need two good knees first.
This article was originally published in The Age and can be accessed here