It had been 960 days between drinks for me.
Playing in Round 1 this year broke a streak that at times looked like it would stay that way forever. You couldn’t wipe the smile off my face when Pykey finally told me I was playing.
Surrounded by friends, family and my fiancé, our first game for the season against GWS would ultimately close the chapters of the last two and a half years. It hasn’t been an easy ride, I was told by a close mentor Allan Stewart in my first year at the club that my career would be like a roller-coaster.
My roller-coaster seems to be on steroids, one that would be illegal at any theme park due to safety concerns.
The big nosedive started in my last game of AFL in Round 20, 2014 up in Brisbane, where I ruptured my ACL, requiring my second knee reconstruction.
It’s any athletes worst nightmare, but at the time my old man was there and he came down to the rooms, saying at least you’re alive and there’s worse things that could happen. Although these words aren’t what you want to hear, it’s exactly what I needed to hear. You want to be angry, upset and emotional. What can you say back to that? ‘Yeah dad you’re right, I’m still here’, and that’s a mindset I would learn during the next year.
Our club was introduced to ‘The Resilience Project’ ran by Hugh van Cuylenburg, and there were some key messages that really stuck in my mind.
The main points were mindfulness, empathy and gratitude; something that has had a massive impact since learning these three values.
Be grateful for what you have, and looking back that’s what my old man was trying to do in Brisbane. Have empathy for others, ask them how they are going and listen. And mindfulness — live in the moment and control what you can control. I now do meditation every day and yoga twice a week, and I feel my form has improved, and my appreciation of life has.
It’s hard to describe all that transpired in the 960 days between games.
I had to do the lonely painful recovery from the knee reconstruction, in which I should thank our medical staff and our rehab coach, the great Duncan Kellaway for getting me through.
Upon coming back for my first game late in the SANFL in 2015, tragedy struck. Our coach Phil Walsh passed away, rocking our footy club. It was such a hard period, I was upset because I never got the chance to play for Phil, and my first game back in a year was the first game after his passing.
Our football club showed tremendous strength and unity during this time, forming a bond that couldn’t be manufactured. Phil taught me to love footy again, his passion and enthusiasm was infectious, and his stern, straight-down-the line method suited our side. Time ran out and I wasn’t able to crack into the side, but I was contracted for next year and excited about what was ahead.
Pre-season came the next season with a new coach Don Pyke, and only a few weeks into November a knee operation would once again test my resilience and meant I would miss most of the pre-season and a chance to impress the new coach.
I knew it would take a month or so to get some match fitness in the SANFL, but they had three byes in the first eight rounds, then I was suspended for two weeks and then later dislocated my thumb putting me out for four. So it’s fair to say my first half of the season was a nightmare!
Getting back into form wasn’t the problem; it was now a matter of opportunity. I was emergency for many weeks in the back end, but our defenders were playing amazing footy, and our side kept on winning, making chances to play few and far between. In fact, we only played 28 players for the whole year.
It was a tough year mentally, and if it wasn’t for our Player Development Manager, Emma Bahr keeping me sane, it could have been a different story. I always had a philosophy of controlling what you can control — these are the cards I have been dealt and now I need to make the best hand I can. I also kept my mind busy away from the club; studying part-time was an effective stress release and a goal to aim for post-footy.
Additionally, planning my wedding took some time, although most of the credit has to go to my fiancé Emmalyn, all I know is that I’ll be there on the day. I also tried my hand at coaching, helping the kids at Henley High in their football program which brought me great joy in seeing footy at its purest form, having fun with your mates.
I always had this underlying chip on my shoulder, to prove that I could get back to the level and perform. I harnessed this energy and took it into pre-season — my first one in four years — and barely missed a session.
Being out there, physically fit made me realise just how important they are. Before Christmas, I was taught a specific meditation technique, and it put me in a great frame of mind coming into the games. I saw my training form increase, home life and mood improved and this put me into a good position for the JLT series.
James Podsiadly and Pykey both said, ‘Just go out there and enjoy it, you’ve done the work so just back yourself in.’ Playing in the JLT series gave me great confidence, and I think I wanted to prove to my teammates that I’m still capable of playing at the level.
Round 1 always has a massive build up, and being part of the narrative was exciting. I felt like I had earned this chance, and wasn’t going to let it slip. My two best mates, my parents and brother and my future in-laws all made the trip over.
I was so excited, and nervous, and was glad to be in a few contests early, getting my hands on the footy and feeling involved in the game. It was a great team win, one I will never forget, and sharing the euphoria and emotion with my teammates — finally — was a moment that’s hard to explain.
It’s funny how footy works, the next week against the Hawks, after an injury to Josh Jenkins I found myself in the ruck and up forward. One of my game-day values is to be fiercely competitive, so it’s easy to transfer that mindset from being a defender, to up forward and the ruck!
I’m not sure what the footy future will hold, but it has been a hell of a ride so far, and I wouldn’t change it for the world.
I’m just hoping my roller-coaster has a couple of high peaks before it comes to an end.