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Who mends a footballer’s broken heart?

This article was originally published in The Age and can be accessed here.

For all the joy that has come Geelong’s way in recent years, someone has always been hurting. Lincoln McCarthy’s latest setback, the foot surgery that has cruelled another season before it even has begun, is a reminder of the darkness in football’s heart.

Matthew Egan’s foot preceded Daniel Menzel’s knees, Josh Cowan’s Achilles and hamstring, Nathan Vardy’s hip and knee. Dawson Simpson’s bad back and knee have made him a regular among the long-term injured crew, who might easily believe they have only each other and their shared misery for company.

Menzel, Cowan and Vardy all arrived in the 2009 draft and have scraped 45 games between them; contemporary Mitch Duncan played his 100th in last year’s semi-final loss to North Melbourne and must seem relatively kissed on the codpiece. Menzel and Cowan have spent countless hours in rehab with McCarthy, who arrived two years later, yet never actually been his teammate in the sense that matters most – playing.

“A lot of people will feel for Lincoln, but because they haven’t experienced it there’s initial emotion and then they move on” – Daniel Menzel on teammate Lincoln McCarthy

So, what does a football club do for its wounded? How does it not only put them back together physically, but ensure they don’t emotionally fall apart? How do you mend a broken heart?

Menzel has endured four knee reconstructions, and measures his AFL career not in games or seasons but rehabilitations. He would prefer not to be the obvious spokesman for the suffering, but acknowledges their bond, and gives thanks that they have always been in caring hands.

“A lot of people will feel for Lincoln, but because they haven’t experienced it there’s initial emotion and then they move on,” Menzel says. “For people who have been through that, there’s a realisation that it’s a constant battle for Linc – it’s not just a battle for this week or next week.

“As bad as it’s been that we’ve had so many at the club, it does help us deal with it.”

Invariably the bad news is delivered by the club doctor, which could make him the injured player’s bogyman. Chris Bradshaw confirmed Menzel’s fears each time; when Bradshaw left for Collingwood in October Menzel might have been forgiven for throwing a party.

Yet along with the club’s physiotherapists, he says the medicos become your most trusted and valued allies; he cherishes what Bradshaw did for him, likewise his replacement Drew Slimmon and long-time doctor Geoff Allen.

“I don’t think it’s understood that well the massive role physios and doctors play in the mental side of things when you’re coming back from injury,” he says, hailing the empathy and understanding of Geelong physios Mark Young and Mike Snelling.

“I spend more time talking to my physio than I do anyone at this footy club – talking about everything. You might tell them things you wouldn’t tell others, and they can pass it on and say, ‘Look, he’s struggling in this area, this is where we can help him.’

“No one wants to put their hand up to the head coach and say, ‘Look, I’m struggling here, I need you to help me with this.’ ”

An openness to a variety of paths is crucial. Menzel sees a psychologist, suggested by the Cats’ medical team, and knows other rehab regulars do too. He knows the injured footballer’s battle with his own mind can be crippling; he hears people say being an AFL player must be the best job in the world and agrees, but wants to tell them that when you can’t play it’s exactly the opposite.

“I can’t wait till I play, but I can’t wait to see Vards and Joshy Cowan play too, and Linc. You just know how much they’ve been through.” – Daniel Menzel

“You’re reminded every single day that you’re different, that you’re not able to do what you want to do. A lot of guys don’t want to burden anyone, won’t bring it up, deal with it their own way. That’s an avoidance, actually makes it worse.

“Once I worked through that it’s amazing how much pressure lifts, how much better you cope with setbacks, with everyone asking you every day how it’s going.”

The role of able-bodied teammates is tricky. Menzel reckons he can tell who’s been through a long-term rehab and who hasn’t by the way they behave towards him. Their difference is underscored by the fact he estimates he has not actually played alongside roughly half of Geelong’s list, but he has seen the understanding and empathy improve.

“We’re lucky we’re at such a good club – guys are just themselves, they get around you, try to get you involved in things.”

Former player David Johnson is a key contributor in his welfare role. Menzel says it helps that “he’s a legend of a bloke”, a ready sounding board who makes sure everything is in place and helps facilitate extracurricular interests that prove invaluable in switching focus.

For two years Menzel has coached Newtown’s under 14s, something he readily admits is an escape from himself, yet one that has been a “massive” help. He didn’t think he’d be able to fit two nights of training and games on Friday evenings or Saturday mornings around his own football commitments, but the club has made it happen.

He has no doubt it was the best thing he did in all of 2014. “Even when I had setbacks I’d be able to go and do that and get something positive out of the week.”

He has become a regular in the K-Rock radio booth on game days, another means of quelling the negative thoughts that swamp a footballer watching from the stands and feeling sorry for himself. With the club’s encouragement he also has used his miserable experience to benefit others, speaking last year at a conference on anterior cruciate ligament injuries that was attended by experts from all over the world.

“I was the only player who spoke, on behalf of Australia basically. To present to doctors, physios, psychs, and for them to actually take something out of my talk, I felt very privileged.”

On the back of that, the Newcastle Jets contacted Geelong and asked if their injured midfielder Mitch Cooper, who was working his way back from a second knee reconstruction, could fly south and spend a couple of days training with Menzel. Cooper’s recent comeback game left Menzel “unbelievably happy”; they are bonded for life.

A change of scenery can be hugely beneficial. Menzel has twice travelled to Europe with mates, and the club flew him to Philadelphia to see a world leader in ACL injury. McCarthy is currently in Adelaide with family, and has also freshened up in the past with mind-clearing overseas travel.

Menzel sees the level of trust as “a massive tick” for their club. He has stepped up to joining half the training drills, expects to be doing everything in a month, and is looking forward most to having the opportunity to thank everyone for their support – inside the club and out. “You go through so many setbacks, they’re there to console you, but you can’t properly thank them because you haven’t got to where you want to get to.”

He sees Vardy out on the track, Cowan getting close, even recruits Cameron Delaney and Rhys Stanley working through off-season injury, and is uplifted. For all the support they have received, he knows this group within the group would not have got by without each other.

“I can’t wait till I play, but I can’t wait to see Vards and Joshy Cowan play too, and Linc. You just know how much they’ve been through.”

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