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It’s been a long two years on the sidelines for Northern Knights prodigy Cameron Conlon. And although the past 24 months has been met with grief, sadness, frustration and anger, the charismatic and charming key position forward is ready to put that all behind him.

Conlon – who successfully made his return to TAC Cup football last week against the Murray Bushrangers – is just happy to be out on the park with his teammates, and playing for the club that has shown so much faith in him over the past three years.

In the round 11 match played up at Wangaratta in country Victoria, Conlon kicked the game’s opening goal, in what he described as a special moment.

“It (the goal) was such a good feeling when it went through,” Conlon said. “Having everyone run to me and get around me, it was such a good moment.”

But while some have been quick to align Conlon’s successful return to the draft later this year, it couldn’t be further from his mind.

“At the moment getting drafted isn’t really running through my head, which surprises everyone. I just miss being out there.” Conlon said with his trademark smile. “I just want to have some fun with footy for the first time in a couple of years.”

In 2012, Conlon – then a bottom-aged prospect playing for a club that has produced star AFL talls Matthew Kreuzer, Michael Hurley and Billy Longer – was already touted a top five selection for the 2013 draft.

For the high-flying and spring-heeled 198 cm, 91 kg forward-cum-ruckman, the world was his oyster.

The then-16-year-old with a fiery red mop of shaggy hair with a leap like a grasshopper sent talent scouts into a frenzy when he opened his 2012 campaign with a bag of four goals against Calder in round one, and backed up the week after with five against the Ranges. Conlon’s stints in the ruck in both games earned him more praise, dominating the hitouts and soaring over his senior opponents, finishing with a combined 22 hitouts in both games, and notching best afield honours in both outings.

“I can remember playing some pretty good footy to start off the year,” Conlon recalled. “Unfortunately we only managed to win one of the two games, but the way I was playing gave me plenty of confidence to compete at that level.”

Seven rounds later on June 16, 2012 would be the last time for over two years that Conlon would play competitively, and play for his beloved Northern Knights. This was due to a mixture of injury setbacks, but mostly bad luck.

“I had just got the ball in the back pocket and as I handballed it, I was tackled and driven into the ground on an outstretched arm, pushing it back in the joint,” he said. “At first I thought it was a stinger but then the pain got worse and I couldn’t move my arm at all, and I got a bit worried.”

The tackle resulted in a dislocated shoulder which scans revealed was far worse than Conlon and the Knights’ initial fears.  As a bottom age player, the decision was made to send Conlon straight into surgery in a bid to have him ready to attack pre-season and ready himself for his top-age year ahead in 2013.

“Straight away there was pretty much one option and that was to get it done and have a lengthy rehab program to ensure it was 100% for my top age year, which I was happy about.” Conlon said. “It meant I didn’t have to worry about timeframes and we could go as slowly with it as we wanted, so when I was playing I had nothing to worry about.”

Conlon spent seven months recovering from the injury. Although tedious at times, he ticked off every box under the watchful eye of Peter Kennedy and the Knights doctors, physios and trainers.

But just when things were looking up for Conlon as he readied himself to make a return and play for the AFL-AIS squad against Collingwood’s VFL side, a hip injury arose and Conlon was again sidelined.

“Leading into the Collingwood game, I was trying to get over the hip injury which I suffered in January, and then finally around mid-March I was cleared to play. I was set to actually play the Collingwood game with a very limited training program prior to the game.” Conlon revealed.

“It (the setback) was incredibly frustrating: when I first noticed the pain I was told it would be just 2-3 days, which stretched out to just over two months. From feeling so good after the major injury to being set back by such a minor injury was awful,” Conlon said.

Amidst all of Conlon’s bad luck was another complication. Conlon was also a gifted basketball player who had made the Victorian state side, going as far as training in the Australian team camp before deciding to concentrate fully on football.

And as the old saying goes, bad things happen in threes.  Another injury hit: this time, it was casual fun at school playing basketball. In a candid moment, Conlon recalled the devastation and headache of being shot down a third time.

“The night before, I was in the gym doing a squat, and the knee twisted and I thought nothing of it,” Conlon recollected. “Then the next morning when it happened again, it blew up to the size of a basketball and I couldn’t move it or put weight on it.”

“I remember going straight into an office and calling the doctors to organise an MRI.”

The scan, however, revealed he had dislocated his knee which damaged his patella bone, and also tore his medial ligament. It was a devastating period for Conlon. For all of his special talents, his body was failing him. More so, the knee injury was so severe that it put a line through his entire 2013 campaign.

“I spent the next few days in bed devastated, crying while I wondered how long it’d be before I could play and if I could go on the AIS trip to Europe. It was heartbreaking.”

It was a period of frustration and uncertainty for Conlon. If anybody needed some luck, it was him. Support staff at the Knights recalled the grief that went through the Knights camp in light of Conlon’s latest setback. For a young man with such big talents, it was gutting to take for all involved. In a testament to the Knights’ program, the club rallied hard behind him in his bid to overcome his latest stumbling block.

It was going to be another hard slog for Conlon. Dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s, Conlon was super diligent in his rehab, and attacked it with vigour. In the meantime, he also fronted up to training sessions full of personality and played a big role week to week on game day for the team. He dressed professionally in suit pants and dress shoes, offering direction to his teammates and doing jobs for the coaching staff.

If people weren’t going to see what he was capable of on the field, they were definitely going to see just how professional he was off it. But amidst his impact and character on game day, the burning desire to be out on the field in his top age year was a hard pill to swallow. There was room for selfishness: Conlon was good enough to make it and he knew he could, but his body was stopping him.

“I’d see people playing and getting closer to the dream of playing AFL footy and I just ‘thought that should be me’,” Conlon said, looking back.

Always one for hindsight, Conlon’s selflessness was always an attribute that shined through. “Towards the end of the year, it wasn’t about getting drafted or showing what I could do: it was just a matter of going out and having a bit of fun.”

But towards the end of the TAC Cup season, Conlon found a silver lining. He still earned enough interest from clubs to find himself invited to that year’s National Draft combine. “I was a bit surprised. people kept telling me I would get an invite, but I didn’t really think I actually would,” Conlon said.

“Preparing was very hard: I spent the majority of my time in the gym just doing strength work. Plus, once the season ended, the Knights had set up some training sessions for everyone doing combines so it was a balance between that and strength work, while trying to monitor the swelling in my knee.”

Conlon put in a good showing in all facets of the combine. He fronted up to the gruelling beep test in which he recorded high 12s: substantial for a player who hadn’t had much conditioning nor match fitness. Missing the three-kilometre time trial due to swelling in his knee, Conlon recalled the experience of the National Draft combine.

“The combine was interesting in the interviews with some of the questions the clubs would ask, and it was hard for me to back it up day after day with the testing, because my knee would just constantly swell up.”

There was a late rumour that Collingwood had shown strong interest in Conlon, and were considering him with a late pick in the draft. However, as history goes, Conlon was never taken by the Magpies, nor any other club for that matter. The rookie draft became his next and final option that year, but oddly enough he ultimately couldn’t earn a reprieve there either.

“I was always hopeful, but never confident, which made it a lot easier. I was always expecting to be heading back as 19 year old, which I’m glad I did. It gave me the opportunity to get my knee up to 100% and at a level where I feel I can start making an impact in the competition,” Conlon said.

Northern Knights trainers and club doctors have been giving Conlon a mini pre-season for the past six weeks, having held his return up slightly just to err on the side of caution.

“I’ve been doing continuous sprint work, and my running technique and general skill work have been the main focuses. Trying to get my running technique back to where it was two years ago along with my fitness levels has been the biggest challenge.

“I’ve done all the training, so now it’s just time to play.”

But while Conlon is finally fit and playing the game he so dearly loves, he is no stranger to just how much he appreciates being back out on football field,

“The past two years makes me realise how much I love the game and what it means to me,” Conlon said.

“I think most people take it for granted and worry too much about getting drafted and impressing people that they forget to just go out and enjoy it. I personally was definitely like that, and it was a massive mistake.

“The best footy I played was when I didn’t worry and just went out to enjoy myself, and I can’t wait to go back and keep doing that.”

It’s been a horror two years for Conlon, but he hasn’t lost his way. He is a galvaniser, and among his teammates he is regarded as the glue that holds the fabric together. His teammates get a lift out of him being so connected and involved with the club both at training and on game days, while his bubbly and friendly personality has made him somewhat of a coach among his players in the way in which he helps his younger teammates.

When clubs talk about strength of character and search for honest clubmen to bring into their environment, Conlon embodies that description to a tee. Amidst all of the bad luck, he has been a picture of resilience and determination,  finding a way to will himself on when others might’ve given up. His perseverance through adversity is a story in itself, but Conlon isn’t looking back. This is just the start of a new chapter, and the only way he’s looking is ahead.