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Players’ Voice — Shaun Higgins

The Higgins home was a footy household.

The cold wintery nights felt like school holidays in January at Howard Harmer Oval, Barwon Heads.

In the early 1990s, if I was well behaved, which wasn’t too often, I was able to go down to footy training with my Dad on a Thursday night where he coached.

That was my first taste of footy, as a four-year-old. They won the premiership in 1993 — dad’s last year coaching there — and I remember that day vividly, hoping that would be me one day.

A few years later, I started VicKick — the predecessor of AusKick — but I wasn’t a big fan. I went to one session and preferred to kick the footy at home with the old man or my mates. One session was enough for me.

I’m one of four siblings. My brother plays local footy in Geelong while my sister has been playing with Geelong in the VFLW — sport and footy is all we’ve known.

As I entered my teenage years, my Dad coached at Newtown in the GFL and I would follow him and train with the senior boys during the pre-season and then go back across the road to St Joseph’s when the games came around!

As a junior, all I knew is that footy was what I always wanted to do. I remember being asked in Primary School by teachers what I wanted to do when I grew up and my answer was simply to play footy — there was never any other consideration so thankfully things worked out!

I made the Geelong Falcons squad as a bottom-ager — all I wanted to do at the time was make that squad. I played a few practice games and played okay but started to get contacted by clubs then, which was a bit strange because I was only 16 at the time.

That’s when I started thinking that things might happen sooner rather than later, especially when I received that first letter from an AFL club.

We played a practice match in Ballarat and I managed to get a couple of kicks and letters from managers started rolling in but I had no idea about any of this. I was just trying to get a kick on the weekend.

It’s crazy how quickly things changed. The year before, I was playing local footy in the under-16s at St Joey’s and the next I was getting letters from managers and AFL clubs who were coming to have coffee at my house to talk about potentially moving interstate.

It feels like a lifetime ago now.

Fast-forward to after the 2005 state carnival and I knew I was a chance to be drafted but as the year progressed, I went from being a chance, to mid-draft, then first-round and finally into the top 10. At least, that’s what I was told.

Despite being reluctant to go initially, I went to the draft at Etihad Stadium — or Telstra Dome as it was known then — and had read a couple of the phantom drafts beforehand.

I think The Age had me going at five or six, which would mean one of Collingwood or Hawthorn but based on what I’d been told, I thought if I got to pick nine then I’d definitely go to Brisbane, which I was preparing to pack my bags.

That didn’t eventuate. I knew Marcus Drum would go to Fremantle with pick 10 based on the connection there with his father and, sure enough, the Western Bulldogs read my name out.

It was a gift at the time because I wanted to get out of Geelong but staying in Victoria was ideal so I was still close to home.

The draft was a Saturday, I packed my bags on Sunday and mum drove me to the club on Monday morning. I stayed with the club’s welfare officer for a few nights then moved in with Adam Cooney for a few weeks before rooming with a host family in January.

I didn’t say two words early — I was completely in awe of the place, shy and didn’t know what to expect. I’m still good mates with ‘Coons’ now and we joke about those first couple of weeks.

I used to get home from pre-season training, go straight to my room, sleep, wake up and do it all again.

I jumped straight into anything to do with training but socially I didn’t participate a huge amount. It’s funny how things change.

Injuries plagued my first few years at the Bulldogs. A fractured elbow five games into my career and a broken ankle in my third year meant consistency was hard to come by but, to be honest, I didn’t know any different because I was still so young and inexperienced. I think that helped me get through it.

In 2008, Scott West was injured as well so we did the whole rehab process together and formed a nice bond. Scotty was an unbelievable trainer and he taught me some great lessons in what I needed to do.

Going into the following year, he retired and called me to ask if I wanted to take on his number seven jumper. Of course, I accepted.

I played a lot of football during the next four years but I still don’t think my body was ready for it. I struggled with groin pain and had a thyroid condition for about 12 months in 2010.

I still tried to play football during that time but I was hampered. I’m not sure how the thyroid condition even happened — it was a strange one where I was losing weight despite eating more than ever and I was fatigued all the time.

I had some great times at the Bulldogs, though, and played in three finals series. Playing finals on the MCG has been the highlight of my career and I have great memories from those nights.

I made some great mates there and formed some lifelong friendships. Unfortunately, the last couple of years just didn’t really go to plan. At no stage of the early part of my career did I ever think I would leave the Bulldogs.

I missed 2013 with a broken navicular joint, a serious injury that can go either way depending on how the bone heals together.

Luckily, mine healed well but midway through the following year, things weren’t turning out the way that I’d liked. I wasn’t playing well and the club and I didn’t agree on some things that year.

I was 26 and wanted to keep playing football for as long as possible but I may have ended up retiring in a year or two if things kept tracking how they were. I wasn’t enjoying the game and started questioning why I was doing it.

It was time for a change.

I made it clear I just wanted to get through that year first because I wanted to see where I was at after being injured the previous year.

We met with North Melbourne at the end of the year and it just felt right. After that, I didn’t have contact with any club — my management did but I’d already made up my mind.

Once I met with Cam Joyce, Brad Scott and Geoff Walsh, I instantly found a connection that just felt right. We got along really well and they saw a role for me to perform.

I trusted my gut when deciding to leave and trusted it when picking North Melbourne. Sometimes you just have to go with it.

Immediately things started to turn for me and the Bulldogs were on the up as well, which I actually enjoyed seeing.

I watched the 2016 Grand Final. I held no bad blood towards them, plus they were a totally different club to the one I left two years earlier — different coach and half the list had changed.

But I still had some good mates there who I played a lot of footy with so seeing guys like Matty Boyd and Dale Morris get rewarded was satisfying see.

A number of things changed for me when I got to North, which has allowed me to play my best footy. They have a great medical team and injury and prevention program so I was finally able to get my body right and get over a few lingering injuries from the past.

I’ve matured a lot and that has had a big say. I now know exactly how much time I need to put in after hours to ensure I’m ready to go each weekend — it takes time to work out how your body responds to certain things. I get a lot of treatment outside the club and have done so for 10 years.

A lot more goes into it than just rocking up at training or on game day expecting it to happen

I’ve done a lot of work with a mate of mine for a long time working on the mental side of the game, too. I started going through that process after I got injured in 2013 and still do it to this day.

It covers everything from maximising performance, giving myself a clear plan of what I need to do to reach my full potential and dealing with injuries and form.

A change of role is another element. Not many 29-year-olds get that chance and moving into the midfield has allowed for more freedom and a license to move around — I feel young again.

I’m enjoying my footy now more than ever and goes a long way to playing your best as well.

It’s not just on the field where things have improved, with my wife, Heidi, and I welcoming a newborn into the world earlier this year.

Heidi’s been with me since I was in my early 20s and she’s seen a lot of the ups and downs over the journey. In many ways, it’s been harder on her because she has no control over the lows and you can add parents and immediate family into that as well.

With little Rosie being a part of our life now, she does a power of work at home and understands what I need to do to perform.

It’s a selfish lifestyle being a footballer because it’s time consuming — you have to train at the club during the day and also put in a lot of hours outside.

Your whole world essentially revolves around you but having a little baby means that has quickly changed.

It’s changed everything, especially when you get home. We’re still breastfeeding at the moment so my work will kick in really soon.

I felt like I was relatively well prepared but nothing can completely prepare yourself for the constant, 100 per cent commitment that a baby is and broken sleep, for us players, is probably the hardest thing.

I struggled to switch off early days — I was full-time footy. My management group have been great in helping me pursue opportunities outside of the sport, which has helped.

I’m still not 100 per cent sure what my post-footy life will look like. I’m involved in a finance company with my manager, I enjoy doing things in the media and I could potentially stay involved in footy in some way.

But I’m not scared of retirement because I feel like I’ve been exposed to that a bit through long term injuries.

I went to North on a four-year deal thinking that it would probably be my last but I’m in my fourth year now and have signed for another two years beyond this contract and I’m loving the club.

When you’re enjoying what you do, and it doesn’t matter what job it is, then that’ll flow onto all other areas of your life.

It’s fair to say these wintery months still feel like summer to me.

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