On the eve of their returns to football, we look back at the year Hawks Alex Woodward and Matthew Suckling spent on the sidelines.
Both suffered horrific season-ending ACL injuries, but were able to turn an unfortunate situation into a largely positive experience. Having accompanied one another through the tough times, it’s fitting to see them finally returning to the footy field together. This is the story of their journeys to recovery.
In January last year during a routine training drill, with a simple change of direction, young Hawk Alex Woodward tore the ACL in his knee for the second time.
It was a bitter pill to swallow, but after the initial devastation there was only one thing to do, pick himself up off the turf, have the surgery and do it all over again.
“I’m not the type of guy to dwell on the negatives and I knew what it took to get past it.”
While doing an ACL is initially very painful, after a short period of time the pain disappears, but as the acute pain fades the torture of the rehabilitation process kicks in. For a professional athlete there is just one place they don’t want to be – rehab.
Given Woodward had spent every second of the previous 12 months preparing for his return to football, Hawthorn thought a holiday might be the right medicine for the then 19-year-old before he began to climb the metaphoric mountain again.
Originally he planned a small trip by himself, but when teammate Matt Suckling was struck down with the same injury, a plan was hatched.
“We thought, why not go to Europe for a couple of weeks and the club was fully supportive of that.”
One of the worst experiences of his life became one of the best, when Woodward and Suckling travelled to London, Paris and Barcelona for three weeks in May and June.
The pair was lucky enough to get tickets to the Champions League Final between German sides Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich at Wembley Stadium in London, through a connection at Hawthorn.
“Suckers is a massive soccer fan…it was amazing.”
They also watched the French Open at Roland Garros and hung out with Boomer Joe Ingles.
“Amazing”, he says again.
But it wasn’t all play. The first week of the trip was dedicated to tapping into the expertise at the world-renowned Isokinetic London, experts in injury management and the facilities at the Arsenal Football Club.
“First time in Europe, it was absolutely amazing, it was very good to spend some time away, and especially the second time around with the knee reconstruction and going with Matt was a great experience as well.”
“We were very grateful for the opportunity and myself and Suckers had a great time over there, we developed a close friendship and it is something we will cherish for the rest of our lives.”
Unfortunately the trip ended on a sour note when both boys had their phones stolen while walking along the main tourist strip in Barcelona, La Rambla.
“It was a classic case of pick-pocketing”, Woodward admits sheepishly.
Eight months later, Woodward was back training and doing what he could to help his teammates prepare for a Grand Final. Being back on the track had got him “up and about” – a far cry from the initial devastation he experienced. But while there is no doubt doing his knee for a second time created a compounding of emotions, he bounced back to the same degree.
“The second time around was about setting higher standards for myself than I did in 2012 and I think I did that pretty well. I did a fair bit of study so that kept my mind off the fact I’d had another reconstruction.”
Woodward is doing a Business Diploma through the football club and he is also doing a real estate course. Keeping busy and the support of family and friends helped him achieve the mindset to return better than ever.
“You are a bit reliant on the family and friends when you have had a knee reconstruction to get through that sinking feeling. You’ve just got to get past it mentally and when you do, it’s just business really.”
“I think the first couple of weeks are the hardest. You are just trying to soak up the fact you aren’t playing, but that’s what friends and family are there for – encouragement. All my family did was get my mind off it; I went to them when I needed some time out from footy.”
Woodward is confident about his footballing prospects on the field in 2014. Having got his knee to a point where he could play a game in 2013, he is sure he will add to the five minutes of NAB Cup time he has under his belt.
“My attitude towards rehab in general is fairly positive and I don’t see why going into 2014 I can’t really put my hand up and have another crack at this,” he says.
“I’m really confident I won’t break down again.”