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It’s the friendships that stay with you

There are a few questions that come up a lot for a former AFL player. “How did it feel to win a premiership?” “What was Barry Hall like?” “What was Paul Roos like?” “How many injuries did you get?” “How’s your body now?” The list goes on.

The one question that former players often ask each other, however, is, “Do you miss it?”

For me, there is no simple answer to this question. While the life of a professional athlete is one of privilege, it is also extremely difficult. Physically, emotionally, some would even say spiritually. Every part of your mind, body, and character is tested and pushed to the limit, almost daily. There is footy training, obviously, but also countless meetings to attend, calories to consider, videos to watch, hours of sleep to count, hydration to monitor, weights, yoga, swimming, boxing, cycling, physio, scans, doctors, coaches, sponsors, members, fans. It is a 24-hour job, and by the end of my time at the Swans, I’d had enough.

Despite all of this, and the many players who have told me they don’t really enjoy it, almost every former player I’ve asked that simple question to has replied: “I miss the boys.”

‘For me, the medal itself doesn’t mean that much, but it is a reminder, a signifier, of something much deeper.’

This was brought in to sharp focus for me this past weekend, as the football world converged on Melbourne for the grand final. While my heart said Sydney, I was fearful of Hawthorn’s scoring power (it turned out I should have been scared of their power everywhere). And while nervous and excited about Saturday’s game, the 2005 (and some 2012) premiership players had a kind of pre-reunion reunion.

We met in the city, not long after the grand final parade, and had a drink on the street, just down from parliament. The parade’s crowd was slowly dissipating, but fans were still kicking the footy on Spring St and friendly banter was in full force: practice for the serious stuff the following day. The Swans faithful recognised the more famous faces in our small crew and wandered over for a chat, everyone tipping the Swans for the big game.

The former players moved inside, ordered some lunch and spent the next few hours catching up, telling stories – some true, some not – and trying to figure out where the past nine years had gone. As one of the few who had moved away from Sydney (and for the past 12 months, Australia) I felt like I had the most to catch up on. But very quickly, old patterns and old jokes returned and we fell into a familiar rhythm. The prankster of old, Jason Ball, resumed duties, and LRT tried, as usual, to get out of paying his fair share of the bill. Meanwhile, I found myself, much quieter than many of the others, drawn to my two best mates from my playing days, Amon Buchanan and Craig Bolton.

The game itself was a disaster for all of us who love the Red and White. A few messages were exchanged among Sydney mates during the game, trying to make sense of what we were seeing. We couldn’t, and it tore us up a little. I enviously watched as some of the stars I had once played on and against – Hodge, Burgoyne, Mitchell – and the ones I had spent a year with at Box Hill – Breust, Shiels, Duryea – tore the Swans apart, and created their own piece of history.

I’ve avoided the papers since the game, especially the sports sections, but have accidentally seen a few images of the Hawks boys who have now won three flags, standing proudly with their medals, three fingers raised in triumph and just a little (completely justified) arrogance.

‘Regardless of its length, a career is over in a flash, and once finished, many go their separate ways.’

Eventually, the joy and pain of grand final triumph and loss will soften for both teams, particularly once the reality of the 2015 pre-season arrives in just a few weeks. But I looked at those Hawks players with their new medals and two others at home, and couldn’t help but feel jealous. For me, the medal itself doesn’t mean that much, but it is a reminder, a signifier, of something much deeper.

What that medal represents for me, despite the fact that it’s still hidden in a dark corner of a wardrobe, at my parents’ house, is those 21 other players that I stood alongside on that day in 2005, as well as those who missed the side and watched from the stands, and the many more whose careers were already over. It reminds me of the laughs over coffee, the games of cricket in the gym, the meetings where we got sprayed, the life now passed.

It reminds me of those players because, for a significant part of my life they were my best friends. I trained with them, socialised with them, bled with them, competed for spots with them, lost with them, and succeeded with them. I look at those Hawthorn players and their three medals with envy because they have an excuse to meet up again, thrice as often as I, and talk about it all over again.

The funny thing about football is that it brings a bunch of people from all over the country, with different upbringings, interests, priorities and motivations, and puts them into one club. There you live with each other, sometimes literally, always metaphorically, for 11 months of the year. You build indescribable bonds over a year or a career. Regardless of its length, a career is over in a flash, and once finished, many go their separate ways.

The weekend reminded me, thankfully, why it was that we played, why many continue to play, and why they always will. It’s because of the people. We’re lucky we have the 2005 premiership to bring us together, but it’s sad we need the excuse. I can’t wait for next year.

There’s much I don’t miss about footy, but I miss those boys.

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