At the 2017 AFLPA MVP Awards, a host of retiring legends penned a letter to their younger selves. Tom Lonergan’s story is one that’s often undersold and he reflects on the journey, exclusively to AFLPlayers.com.au.
‘Domsy’ — a nickname you will receive for your delayed onset of muscle soreness.
It was the 29th of November in 2002, and who knew the roller-coaster ride you were about to embark on over the next 15 years.
The AFL draft was about to begin. Your parents didn’t have the internet — you had to go into your neighbour’s house to ask if you could use their dial up to watch it. The poor internet connection resulted in you missing the first 18 players called out.
At pick 21, your best mate gets drafted to the Pies so you call him to congratulate him. While you’re still on the phone, your name will be called out by Geelong at pick 23. Insert life-changing moment!
Stephen Wells picks you up at Kilmore and then you head off to the airport to collect the other draftee who has a stud in his eyebrow and a strut like no other. You will think he is a wanker. But that bloke will turn out to be the best man at your wedding, and a confidante through the good times and bad.
When you meet stars like Bartel, Enright, King, Ablett and Scarlett, you’ll be overawed with anxiety and spend the best part of four years wanting them to be your friend, and trying to fit in. You’re a social kid from the country who enjoys a good time with the boys.
Bomber Thompson will even threaten to send you home and call you out as a ‘bad egg’ in front of the playing group. It’s important to have fun, but don’t get carried away. You were drafted for a reason. Work hard and make them gain your respect early in your career — respect is more important than being liked.
Believe in yourself, because you belong! Four years into your career and you’ve only played four games. After game number five, you’re dropped and it feels like that could be it. But don’t stop fighting.
The smartest thing you’ll do in your career is ask the reserves coach if you could play down back. It will pay off in dividends. You dominate the rest of that season in the VFL and get another opportunity late in the year at AFL level.
Your first game back (AFL game No.6) you play as a defender and do OK. You will get another gig the next week. This is a breakout game for you to show the coaching staff what you’re made of. In what seems like a regulation intercept mark opportunity, you will feel a force and pain like nothing you’ve felt before. You feel sick, the pain won’t go away for a good two to three hours.
You’ve just been struck from behind by a couple of big units. You finally get the morphine and that makes it all better, you will feel like you’re floating and like there’s not a problem in the world — only, the worst is yet to come.
The next morning at 5am, you’re told to make a phone call to your parents. You won’t realise until months later that this could’ve been the last time you spoke with them. At this point, mum is pretty worried. Make sure you let them know how much you love them.
You have been haemorrhaging blood since you were hit a day earlier. The doctors will face a mammoth task to not only save your kidney, but to also save your life. Funnily enough, one of the doctors who operate on you was at the game. The kidney won’t be saved. Your life hangs in the balance as the blood keeps pouring out.
You’re young, fit and healthy — that’s what gets you through. You will then be placed into an induced coma for five to six to help your body recover.
The hallucinations you face are next level. Don’t worry, the nursing staff aren’t trying to chop your dick off! You will still be battling physical and mental demons when the topic of getting another contract is raised. Luckily you are at a great club and decide to continue to play footy. Some people might not understand this decision, but to you, it was a no-brainer. The club agrees and gives you one more year.
You will face physical and emotional hurdles over the next 10 months. You’re told to retire by quite a few people. But the healthier you get, the more determined you are to get back playing with your mates.
After getting through your first game back in the VFL, you will go onto play finals and then into the Grand Final. It couldn’t have panned out any better. The team wins, and you will kick six goals and be awarded best on ground. You will feel unbelievable emotions after this game. Your support team is there — Mum, Dad, family and teammates. They rode this comeback with you. It is funny what can happen in 12 months — you will go from being on death’s door to total euphoria.
You will be given a two-year deal by the cats and the fairy tale will continue, but you will still need to work hard. Your first game back in the AFL will be a success and you will go onto play the rest of that season in the senior side and play in the 2008 AFL Grand Final.
You kick the first goal of the game and feel bullet proof — the roar from the crowd after that goal will give get spine tingles for a long time to come. That day doesn’t go to plan — you have a quiet day and the team gets beaten. You feel like you’ve let them down. That off season you will feel terrible and you will beat yourself up about it. You will have some dark days, but give yourself a break — you will learn a lot from this experience.
A year later Geelong will be back in the Grand Final, but you won’t be. Your form as a forward dropped away, but your backline craft excels. Unfortunately, there is no room in the team for you. The Cats will win, and although you are ecstatic for your teammates, you would be lying to yourself if you didn’t feel envious. Use this emotion and invest it into making yourself better.
2010 will be your breakout year. You play all but two games, taking on some big scalps. By 2011, you will be a permanent fixture in the side. With a new coach, the team has a new lease of life. You will play in your second Grand Final and handle things a lot differently, having learnt a lot from 2008.
Five minutes into the second quarter, and you are given the responsibility of taking on the most dangerous man on the ground, Travis Cloke. He has just kicked three goals — one from 65m. You will shit bricks, but your life experiences and the hard times you’ve endured, will hold you in good stead. Back yourself.
Geelong Wins. You break down and cannot believe you’re a premiership player. You will experience a lot of relief, but also satisfaction. You were able to deliver a big performance for the team, on the biggest day of all.
Over the fifteen years of your AFL career, there will be many defining moments that you will learn from. You will start off as a skinny, lanky kid, with not much life experience, and you will question whether or not Geelong made a mistake in drafting you. All I can say is have faith. Live the experiences. Learn from mistakes. And work hard. You’ll be right.