Sitting in a team meeting on crutches, I was in denial.
We’d just lost at home against the Tigers, our ninth loss in a row to start the 2016 season, and I’d come off in a lot of pain halfway through the last quarter after twisting my leg in a marking contest.
I recall telling people who asked that I was fine and that it was only my ankle. I can still vividly remember wanting to get up for the following week’s game and just couldn’t accept that the injury could be something worse.
Soon after the meeting, I had an ultrasound in the rooms, which showed a displacement in my tibia — that’s when it hit me.
I knew what a broken leg meant — I’d played with Michael Barlow who’d gone through one himself. I was going to miss a year of footy.
I was emotional. Immediately, I questioned whether I’ll be able to make it back again or even be the same player.
But if there was a positive to come from that moment it was my teammates. Being a Tassie boy — my entire family still reside there — my teammates are my Perth family and every one of them came in to give me a hug. Those are memories I’ll never forget.
Immediately following surgery, the rest and rehabilitation process began. There’s a lot of rest early days and staying off the leg, followed by slowly progressing from two crutches to one, then walking unassisted and running. It’s a massive journey.
There were a couple of setbacks early on but I felt like I stayed positive throughout most of it and had my sights set on the 2017 season.
Things progressed well into the pre-season and I was only a couple of weeks away from joining back in with the main group. But during the end of a session while doing some changes of direction, I put some weight through my leg to turn as I normally would and felt a crack.
And just like that, I had to start the whole process all over again. I was back at square one.
This was harder to deal with. We couldn’t really work out what actually went wrong to cause the second break, which was tough and the hardest thing to get my head around.
That’s when thoughts began creeping in that this could be the end.
“Maybe I won’t play footy again and there’s nothing I can do about it,” was what I was asking myself.
I was questioning my identity as a footballer and whether I could become the image I had in my head of what I wanted to be.
Not being able to do anything about it was the most difficult thing to deal with. Knowing I might not be able to play and didn’t have any control over it was hard to come to terms with.
The few months that followed that were the darkest times.
It was tough for my family because it felt like every phone call I made was explaining another setback. I hated those conversations.
Even though they couldn’t be there for a lot of it, they were always supportive, which I drew a lot of inspiration from.
Over time, things became more positive and through the support of my family, friends and the footy club, I started really working towards my rehab goals with an eye on what an AFL return would look like.
We didn’t change a huge amount from the first leg break to the second, although we tinkered with holding off running and certain exercises until a bit later and moved things slower at times — mainly to let everything heal that extra bit more.
It’s important through those times to get away and the club gave me some time off to go home and escape it all. I also did a bit of study in 2017 to switch off but there aren’t many hobbies you can do with a broken leg.
I knew during that time that I couldn’t have an impact on the field but I still wanted to make myself valuable. We have gone through a transition as a group recently, with a lot of young guys coming in, so I tried to set an example off the field in my rehab by training with a real purpose and intensity as well as being there for the young players and helping them to improve their game where I could.
I wanted to set a good example and do all the right things.
I also wanted to come back a better player. It might sound odd given the length of time I spent out of the game but I didn’t want to come in and be the same — I wanted to be better and have an influence on the side. That really drove everything I did in rehab.
What was truly incredible was the impact those who worked with me had during that time. I had so much trust in our physios and strength and conditioning team at the Dockers, which allowed me to fully commit to my rehab program and help alleviate any fears of another fracture.
I spent a lot of time in rehab with Zac Clarke and Matt Uebergang who were dealing with their own long-term injuries and I think we were able lean on each other in and out of the club as we were going through a similar experience. At the right time being able to catch up with Zac for a beer (or two) and talk about what’s going on in life put things in perspective and really help to breakout of the often isolated rehab routine.
When I was injured, I forgot how much time I actually spent with my teammates. Training with the main group each day, being around my teammates and having that interaction and mateship is what I enjoy most about playing this great sport.
Despite a few results not going our way, the first five rounds have been great fun. I’m lucky to be back playing the game I love.
Although those couple of days when I struggle to get out of bed after a game is one thing I don’t miss, I’ll take it if it means I can play each weekend.