“It’s this silly human trait, like when a partner says to you, ‘You look good, you look great, that’s fantastic, you’re beautiful, that makes you look a bit chubby, you look great…’ I mean, what are we going to remember? We walk around life waiting for other people to confirm the fact that we’re shit.” – Tim Minchin
I begin with that slightly narcissistic quote from one of my favourite musician-comedians to put a light-hearted twist on what I can only describe as a pretty dark moment.
It’s the self-deprecating view that we walk around life constantly complimented. That when we are criticised – the outlier of our daily interaction – we believe that the negative is more correct.
It’s July last year and I’ve just suffered my third hamstring tear in five weeks. Weeks before that I’d been knocked out. Not long before that, I’d inflamed the AC joint in my shoulder. And then there was my knee.
I played four competitive games of footy in 2012. Four. The equivalent amount of months I’d spent training in harsh climate to ready myself for the upcoming season.
And so when then-senior coach Brett Ratten calls you into his office – with six weeks of the season still to go – with the doctor, the football operations and the high performance managers, you’ve got a fair idea what’s coming next.
But let’s digress a touch. I’d like to think that my life’s been pretty privileged.
At about February 2012, I was thinking my life was very privileged. I was training six full days a week, I was feeling the best I ever had in my life, I’d made great new friends in a new city.
I was a professional footballer – that was my ‘job’. I had gone someway to fulfilling a life-long ambition ever since I used to kick a football up and down to myself in a backyard in Fitzroy and then Byron Bay.
I was like any other football-obsessed youth. As a Pies supporter, I was Anthony Rocca at full forward, I was James Clement at full back and I was Nathan Buckley in the midfield.
Years later, I became a Carlton player and I loved it.
I loved being the first one to turn up to Visy Park and just kicking the football at every opportunity.
I loved the fact that there was even just a football around! Particularly growing up in Byron Bay and – towards the end of high school – Sydney, that was indeed a rarity.
I loved the fact that players like Chris Judd, Matthew Kreuzer, Michael Jamison and my ‘mentor’, Nick Duigan worked just as hard on their body off the track as they did on it.
And I loved the boys. I loved the lunchtime, the gym, the medical room and locker room banter.
You could have just come out of the worst game review of your life, but minutes later someone or something will put the smile back on your face. The place just refused to let you get down on yourself.
Being an only child, I always longed for brothers. Here I had 46 of them; I was the youngest and they treated me accordingly.
At times it was tough love – particularly in grappling sessions under the feared John Donohue – but most of the time, I was treated as the little brother who gave as good as he got.
Teammates became mates who you shared up to three meals a day with, movies, clothes shopping and nights out on a Saturday.
It went well beyond whether you could kick, handball or mark. There was time to worry about that for two hours on a weekend. They are the first to let you know you screwed up, but also the first to pick you up, dust you off and set you back on your ways.
But as I’ve always tended to learn in this wonderful commodity called life, all good things come to an end.
I sat in that office knowing of my impending fate before Brett Ratten had opened his mouth. For someone who had had to cull people before in years gone by, I could see him thinking of how to put the words together.
With grim expressions prevalent on the faces of the other three in the room, I told him to tell it straight and not mince his words. This is what followed: “We’re no closer to knowing your stage of development now than we were back in October. With so many injuries, we can’t take a gamble on your future as a player and ours as a Club. You’re not a required player.”
I shudder writing those three sentences even now – 13 months on – as I remember the words hitting me like a tonne of bricks, despite knowing it was coming.
I wasn’t angry at Brett, Andrew, Justin or Ben. Their position was understandably concrete, after less games than could be counted on one hand and debilitating knee injuries and the nature of the business that is the AFL industry, my position was untenable.
But by God, it sucked.
I’m not afraid to admit that I teared up. And the anger that I felt with myself on having been told I was going to be delisted intensified as I punished myself for not being able to control my emotions.
Each of the four men in the room said their piece of which I nodded in acknowledgement without word.
There were no words of comfort that were going to ease the pain. It wasn’t something I was going to be over with within the day, the week or even the month.
Even the aforementioned banter that could bring a smile to my face didn’t mask the hurt that only I knew about.
It’s hurt that I’m probably not quite over it even now.
Major post-season surgery kept me bed – and couch-ridden for months as I saw the boys battle the elements together over in Flagstaff and the Grand Canyon.
The season-long recovery period saw me perched on the other side of the fence, watching my mates go through the highs and lows a season of football can make you experience.
And not being part of the “boys club” as they parted for their footy trip and various overseas holidays right, gives me an extreme sense of “FoMO”. This part of year is always difficult.
But, life goes on; the sun comes up, and at 20 years of age I feel like there is scope for another opportunity to beckon.
For me it justifies the argument that the draft age is too young. Mature-age recruiting will be the way to go and with the stories of Duigan, James Podsiadly and Michael Barlow in recent times, it does give one hope.
Let your body develop, go away and do something else before you submit yourself to the rigours of the AFL industrial. It is brutal, as it is secluded, as it can be cruel.
For the “dream” I had to be a professional footballer, a year in the ‘real world’ doing ‘real things’ like working hard for money on an hourly rate, studying a degree to get a good job, and supporting myself independently has taught me to grow up faster.
It’s also opened my eyes to this big world we live in. For its highs and its lows; at the end of the day, football is just a game.
It’ll still be there when March 2014 rolls around. And so too will those ‘brothers’ I came to know last year. The difference being that I don’t have to put a date on them rolling around.