I played AFL for 10 seasons after being drafted to Geelong in 2009. I played as a forward with the Cats for 9 years, and then with the Sydney Swans for my last year, in 2019. I played 80 AFL games, but missed many more than that due to injury. I unfortunately underwent four ACL reconstructions. I try not to look too much at the negatives and more at the positives. At 28, I returned back home to Adelaide and continue to play and coach in the SANFL. I haven’t hung my boots up yet.
I played a range of sports when I was younger, but AFL footy was always my number one. Having five brothers, my love of the game initially came from playing footy in the backyard and just developed from there. AFL was the sport I always hoped to be successful in.
Before I was drafted to Geelong, I had osteitis pubis. I had issues with my groin and core as a lot of young footballers do. Other than that, I didn’t have any major injuries before I entered the AFL.
My first ACL was my right knee in September 2011. I was 19 and in my second season with Geelong. I had played three senior games in my first season, and had a breakout season in my second, playing 18 games. We went into finals in second place on the ladder, with every chance of winning the premiership. The week before we’d played the top team, Collingwood, in the last round of the year, and beaten them by 16 goals. I kicked five of those goals and received the three Brownlow votes that day. I was playing well, full of confidence, and thinking we had every chance of playing in a premiership in three weeks’ time.
In the qualifying final against Hawthorn, I started the game really well again kicking two goals. In the second quarter the ball was going out of bounds, and I ran after it, with my opponent in close. We were hip and shouldering each other as the ball went out. My right leg caught between his legs, and we twisted. My knee didn’t really have anywhere else to go and my ACL ruptured. That was the start of a long, long journey ahead for me.
There was a very obvious pop. I went down holding the back of my knee. There was agonising pain for maybe 30 seconds, but then the pain went completely. They stopped the game and I was stretchered off the ground and taken down into the rooms. The doc wasn’t 100% confident initially I’d fully ruptured my ACL, so I asked if I could just run up and down the changerooms to see how it felt. I think they knew things weren’t great in my knee, but they let me do it. I struggled to decelerate with my stride throughs and realised I might be in a bit of trouble. Within those few minutes my knee blew up a fair bit. They sat me back down, had another feel, and said they were pretty sure I’d done my ACL. And that’s when it hit me. All of the emotion. I knew what an ACL injury was, and I knew the timeframe that went with it. My finals campaign was over.
I went in for surgery a week later. The thinking behind getting it done so soon was so I could return to play as quickly as possible the next year. There was no other damage, it was just a straight ACL. The two graft types discussed were patella and hamstring, as the surgeon had experience with both. There was a chance the patella grafts could cause patella tendonitis, so we chose to go with the hamstring.
After the surgery I was at home icing, doing my exercises, and managing the pain. I definitely wasn’t pushing things. But after a couple of days I woke with intense pain during the night. It was worse than the pain of doing the actual ACL, and I couldn’t escape it. My knee had swollen so much I had to see the surgeon again to get it drained. He drained two full syringes of fluid. The relief was incredible. It was better than any pain medication I’d been given. Although the setback was small, the pain was immense and led me to be not such a fan of short timeframes between an ACL injury and time of surgery.
My rehab was pretty standard for an AFL player after that point. It was your typical three months to start running, six months to start training, and around nine months to start playing. We followed weekly plans and didn’t have too many hiccups along the way. It was probably my most straightforward rehab.
I felt confident in the people around me. My physios were all very experienced and I had access to a great conditioning coach. We ticked off all of the jump landings, twisting, tackling, and uncontrolled contact in the air. They were the main things I felt I needed to tick off mentally to be prepared. After completing them in training, I’d then complete an extra week of it, so I’d be able to build even more confidence before playing.
It was soon after nine months that I returned to play. I was pretty good to go. Nerves were always going to be there, but I didn’t go out feeling unsure about anything or thinking I just needed to get through the first game. I had no taping, as I didn’t believe it would do much for me. I went out trusting I would be okay and be fine to play. I was confident we had ticked everything off.
My first game back was with Geelong reserves in the VFL in July of 2012. Someone kicked me the ball and I was running on a lead at a descent speed. I bent down across my body to pick up the ball and it felt like someone pushed me from behind and my left knee gave way. It was a very similar feeling to my right, with a definite ‘pop’ again, and similar pain. But it didn’t make sense. It was the other knee! I went down to the ground and was stretchered off. Straight away my thinking was I’d definitely done something again.
My usual rehab team weren’t at the game. There are different doctors and physios at the VFL and AFL. They were happy to wait for my usual doctors to confirm what was going on rather than jump straight to it, even though everyone was thinking it could be my ACL. When I did see my usual team later that afternoon, they thought it was pretty similar to my first presentation. The replay showed I didn’t have any contact from behind like I thought, so that was bizarre. But they were all pretty sure I’d done my ACL.
Once I realised that I’d done it again, I broke down. My initial thought wasn’t about playing, or getting back, or career longevity, it was purely, ‘I’m going to miss out again on another premiership’. The team had gone on to win that Grand Final in 2011, meaning I missed becoming a premiership player by two weeks. My driving force every single day during the past months of rehab had been to win the premiership the next year. And that goal was now empty.
I saw the same surgeon, and we chose a hamstring graft. I hadn’t had any issues with that graft on my right side. This time we took an extra week or so and I made sure the swelling was right down before heading into surgery after what had happened the first time.
The plan with my rehab was to again take nine months. This being my second ACL, and me being a professional athlete (a driven one at that), I felt I could be right in eight months this time. I was pushing the limits and knew where I could get ahead by a week or two here and there if I did everything right. We had everything on track and going well. I was around a week ahead at each stage.
It all came crumbling down at the six-month mark in December 2012. I was doing a controlled tackling drill with a coach—I tackled and they twisted, and I felt a small ‘pop’ in my left knee. It was only subtle. I felt I’d just twisted it awkwardly. We had a new physio at the club taking my rehab that day, and although I felt okay to keep going, he called it there and made me go inside just to make sure. We went in, and he felt my knee. He didn’t think it felt unstable, but it didn’t feel awesome either. As he hadn’t rehabbed my knee so didn’t know what it normally felt like, he said, ‘I can’t rule out you haven’t done your ACL’. Straight away I got emotional. He suggested we go in for scans.
The scan was somewhat inconclusive. It showed a definite ACL tear, but they weren’t sure of the extent of the damage. I went back to the same surgeon, and he initially thought my knee felt strong enough and that I might be okay. He said he’d look at the scans closely over the next hour and get back to me later in the day. Just as I was about to leave for Geelong, our team doctor rang and saying, ‘Good news! From what I can see you haven’t torn your ACL’. I was ecstatic, so ended up spending a bit more time in Melbourne thinking I didn’t have to go straight home now. I left my phone in the car, and when I returned to drive home there were a couple of missed calls from the doc. I called him back and he said, ‘I’m so sorry mate, the surgeon has had a look at the scans and thinks you have torn your ACL’. I bawled my eyes out the whole drive home to Geelong.
Iwas battling mentally at this stage. Geelong is great in the fact that it’s aone-club town, and everyone gets around you. But that also becomes its own weakness for players, because the exposure and spotlight on you is huge. Everyone knew about my knee—it was well documented and talked about. I didn’t think I could handle everyone asking me about it again, and I felt if we told the playing group it would definitely leak out to the public and media. We decided to keep it within our network until we knew exactly what we were dealing with and had a plan to move forward.
That strategy worked well until a few days before the surgery. The players knew I’d had the incident on the track but didn’t think anything of it because we hadn’t said anything. When one of the senior players came up to me in the physio room and said, ‘Mate, good news! You’re all good to go!’ I was as flat and frustrated as anything, and remember swearing and saying, ‘You’ve got no idea! I’ve torn my ACL’. It was like someone had died with his reaction, he just kept saying ‘I’m so sorry’. And that’s when I knew we had to tell the club.
When deciding about the surgery, my physio and I had a big discussion. He felt there were two options, as we wouldn’t know the extent of the damage until the surgeon went in to the knee. If my ACL was more than 50% intact, maybe it could be left, or a LARS graft could be used. If it was more than half torn, then it at least needed a LARS or a traditional graft. I made my decision off the back of mental factors more than physical. I’d just done back-to-back rehabs and didn’t feel I could do a full third one. Physically yes, but mentally no. In my mind we had to do a LARS due to its shorter rehab time. I couldn’t do a traditional graft again and be out for another 12 months.
We ran over the options with the surgeon. If he’d had his way, he would have done a patella graft, and the club probably would have agreed. But I was sold on the fact that if a LARS graft failed, we would only lose three months. It was a bit of naïve thinking from me. The surgeon hadn’t done any other AFL players with LARS, just a volleyballer. But he was happy to try as at least one AFL player then had had reported success in coming back after three months, so there was proof it could be done. My decision was made. I went in for surgery just before Christmas of 2012. I had torn 75% of my graft.
The rehab didn’t go well initially. I started getting severe headaches, and the team doc sent me straight to the hospital. It turned out I had meningitis. Probably because I had also decided to take the opportunity of the time out from training to get my wisdom teeth out, the week before my knee surgery. My body had taken a fair whack. That set me back a few weeks with my rehab, so the three-month timeframe was already blown out to four which wasn’t ideal.
When I jumped into the rehab, I was shocked at how quickly I was able to do everything with the LARS. I didn’t have pain, and I could move and progress so much more easily than with my other rehabs. The only thing that we implemented more of this time was gymnastics-type exercises and jump landings on safe surfaces. I had always done this in the past, but this time it became more than 50% of my training.
I played my first game at 18 weeks, enough time for a LARS graft. It was the first time I had made it through a game in a couple of years, but the following week in my second game back, I did my fourth ACL in 19 months.
It was the second quarter again. All of my ACLs have happened during the second quarter! I was running directly at my opponent. He changed direction to run around me, feinting to go to my left, then right. I reacted and stuck my left leg out, then went to twist back to my right, and my left knee just gave way. It wasn’t really painful, it just felt like something had given way and my leg felt weak all of a sudden. On the replay It looked so innocuous, but just showed that the LARS graft didn’t hold up to a stressful movement.
The trainers came running on and called for a stretcher. My exact words were, ‘I’m not being f***ing stretchered off the ground again!’ The ball went over my head as play was still live, but I just didn’t have a care in the world for it. I was so angry. I walked off the ground and, as I entered our rooms, I punched the door in frustration. I found out a week later I’d fractured three of my fingers, but obviously that was the least of my concerns.
The VFL physio and doctor were with me again. I knew I’d redone it, and they did too. By this stage I’d learned to expect the worst. There was no sugar-coating it. The AFL team were playing interstate and got back to our rooms maybe an hour or so later. When they all walked in, I remember looking at their shocked faces and I was thinking, ‘What have I done, putting everyone though this again’. I couldn’t even bring myself to call my mum. I didn’t want to tell anyone because I just felt like I’d let everyone down again.
By this stage I was the most known player in the AFL for doing my ACL. When I went for the scan the radiologist called to suggest using the back door as there were a lot of media people outside. I was pretty over it at that stage, but figured I had to speak to them at some stage. I said I’d talk to them after the scan, which confirmed the ACL had gone. Their questions were predictable, ‘Is your career over?’ ‘What are your plans from here?’ I replied: ‘I don’t think you can say over, but I’ll talk to the club to see what we can do about it.’
We gave it a few days for everything to settle and to think over things. My mum and brother flew over to have a meeting the following week with the coach, physio, and head of football. I was very lucky that Geelong was going to stick by me. Knowing that took a huge load off my mind. The plan was to spend two weeks searching the world for the best surgeon and researching lots of different cases to find out the best way back from this. I don’t think the medical team could have planned any more for an ACL than with this one. There was so much that went into it.
After looking at all of the specialists around the world, the recommendation was another Melbourne-based surgeon. We met with him and I couldn’t have been more impressed with the person he was, or his examples and his cases on different players. I was very much engaged in the whole process at this point and he answered all of my questions and was really down to earth. I walked out feeling that going with him was absolutely the right move for me.
We booked in another meeting for a few weeks to go through the plan. I didn’t know the extent of it at this stage, but he said, ‘It’s going to have to be two surgeries. And it’s not going to be a nine-month rehab. It’s going to be 12-15 months at least’. The scaffolding holding the LARS in place had to be taken out, and the resultant holes in my knee filled with allograft (donor) bone fragment. Once that had healed—after three months—another ACL graft would be put in. I obviously didn’t have any hamstring grafts left, and as quads weren’t a big thing at the time, he suggested using a patella graft as he’d had success with them and felt they were as good and as strong, if not stronger, than hamstring grafts. Their main downside was potential patella tendonitis issues, which I did unfortunately experience later on.
I realised I wasn’t going to play for the rest of that year. Or the year after. That hit me a bit. Mentally it was tough. But I was happy with the plan he gave me and confident it could work.
As I couldn’t train for 3 months after the first surgery, I took a well-needed mental break and headed to Europe for five weeks. With no ACL graft in there at that time, I couldn’t tear it or do any damage. Although I didn’t feel all that strong or stable in my knee, it coped well with the holiday, and I was refreshed and ready to go when I came back. Mentally it made a massive difference to me as it broke up the rehab.
My rehab went really well until the running stage at three months. I kept getting patella tendonitis in my knee which caused me a lot of trouble. I would be so sore that everything I did took a couple of weeks longer to progress through than it should have. I couldn’t kneel on my knee at all, and anytime I knocked it on a table I would be in excruciating pain. As I couldn’t shake it, I had a CT scan that showed a bone spur at the graft site on my patella. The surgeon shaved it back in another surgery at around the nine-month mark, but I still had patella tendon pain in my knee for a good few years after that.
I was fortunate enough to train with a conditioning specialist in the US for ten days. I had worked with him previously during my first rehab and was hoping he might be able to help with my tendonitis. He couldn’t fix it, but he did help it. Because of his training techniques, and how diligent he was at getting everything activated and working together, it took a lot of stress off my knee. By the end of the sessions my knee would feel pretty good, but once it would get cold again the pain would come back.
My return game in the VFL was in July of 2015, effectively 30 months after my fourth reconstruction. I played six games in the reserves, and then had a rest week, before finally making my comeback in the seniors, against Collingwood—1450 days since my last AFL game. Coincidentally, playing against Collingwood was my last full senior game before I’d first done my knee.
I played well kicking four goals, but it was a weird night. We needed to win to make finals with only two games remaining of the season. For me every year my goal had been to win a premiership, so as much as I wanted to come back, I walked off the ground that night after we lost by 48 points pretty shattered. I didn’t know how to feel. I was a bit emotional and remember saying to my physio, ‘I’d give all of my four goals if we could have just won the game and just play finals’. He just looked at me and said, ‘I know you don’t realise it just now, but you’ve got to take a moment to understand what you’ve just achieved’. Then all of my friends and family came walking in and it was as if we’d won the Grand Final the way they were reacting. And that’s when the magnitude of it all hit me. I was extremely happy. And proud. And thankful.
I continued to play with Geelong for the next three seasons. I played most games with some pretty good footy in there. But I continued to battle with ongoing knee pain, which in turn led to groin soreness. I had around 10 cortisone injections into my groin over those years to get me through playing. And I was playing at 80% and could barely do half of my weights program. The realisation came that I was a compromised athlete, that I’d never be able to just train and play and be a normal person or player; it was a constant battle.
At the end of 2018 I decided I needed a change from Geelong. I moved up to Sydney to play with the Swans. They gave me new scans for my groin and put me in for a new groin surgery where my pubic joint was stabilised with mesh, as well as an adductor release on my left side. I felt amazing after the surgery. I felt normal again, which I hadn’t felt for seven years. I was really optimistic about Sydney and was aiming to play in round two or three, but then I tore the adductor on the left side the week before. I didn’t play until round 11, against Geelong! At the end of the season, after I had played seven senior games, the club wasn’t quite as close to winning a flag as they had hoped and said to me they were looking to go in a younger direction. And that’s how I found myself out of the AFL.
I moved back to Adelaide to play and coach at the SANFL level. I played with my brother Troy at Centrals, and then in 2021 we both moved to Woodville-West Torrens. That gave me the opportunity to compete for a premiership, finally. In October 2021, 10 years after my journey with resilience and adversity started, I played my first senior Grand Final. We won by 67 points! I finally felt as though my body was letting me perform the way I wanted it to. I kicked four goals, and my brother three. To come full circle and win a premiership, not at AFL level, but at SANFL level which is still an incredible standard, meant every bit as much to me as I hoped it would.
My body has never felt better. I finally feel what I would describe as normal. I don’t feel like a joint-compromised athlete anymore. And that’s one of the real positives out of it all for me. Although playing with Sydney didn’t work out long-term, they fixed my groin and that’s something I definitely needed. And as my knee surgeon said, ‘For someone who’s done four ACLs you’re as lucky as can be to have not had any cartilage damage’. At the moment and into the future I don’t think I should have too many more issues.
Although filled with hardships, my ACL journey was an incredible experience. It was a real learning curve for me, both physically and mentally. Looking back, I think it took me until my third and fourth rehab to really nail it. Although I would have loved to have been on top of it all a bit earlier, I guess that’s one of the bonuses of doing four!
So many people said to me along the way, ‘Why would you keep going?’ I had a lot of motivational factors that drove me, and one of my favourite quotes of all time sums it up, ‘Pain is temporary. It may last a moment, a week, or in my case a few years. But if I quit it will last forever.’ That stayed with me during every game I watched from the grandstands.
In my mind the toughest thing about an ACL injury is the length of time involved. It’s hard to get your head around. Straight away your season is gone, and you’ve got to look to next year, and that’s extremely challenging for anyone who plays competitive sport. Also knowing the magnitude of the rehab to come, and how much work you have to do, that’s what hits you. Even more so when you’ve done that work already and you’ve still re-ruptured. It’s just so hard to comprehend. I almost think your first ACL is the easiest one, as you’re a little bit naïve and don’t really know what you’re in for.
Many professional athletes put on a persona during long stints of rehab to avoid showing weakness. I didn’t want to bring down others around me or put extra stress on them by saying I was struggling or needing help. I remember thinking, ‘I’ll be able to overcome this. I’m strong. I’m going to struggle, but I’ve just got to deal with it’. That approach just builds up pressure over time. One of my teammates actually said to me during my fourth rehab, ‘If you don’t tell us what you’re going through mate, how are we meant to help you?’ That really hit home, and spurred me to stand up in front of the whole player group and explain where I was at mentally, and in what situations I struggled or when I found things more enjoyable. Opening up released the pressure I’d placed on myself, broke down barriers, and changed the conversation. Guys no longer walked away from me or acted awkwardly not knowing what to ask. That made a massive difference and mentally had me in a much better position.
I did see two sports psychologists during my first and second rehab. They were good, but I didn’t click with them and found their techniques didn’t do much for me. But by the time I was in my fourth rehab, my persistent patella tendonitis eventually led me to see another sports psych. This time I really clicked with him. After I’d explained my situation, he asked, ‘So when do you think about your knee?’ My reply was, ‘It’s never not on my mind. I go to the shops and have 10 people ask me about it here in Geelong. There are premiership posters in every café. In the club I have my teammates ask me about it every day. It’s in the papers. And I’m rehabbing, so I train on my own away from my teammates which is a reminder I’m not the same as them’. Then he asked about other activities outside of footy. I replied, ‘I don’t play golf anymore because I’m afraid it will hurt. I don’t go to the beach because I’m worried a wave will knock my knee and I’ll hurt myself. When I bend down in the shower I think about my knee and making sure I don’t slip.’ And he was like, ‘There’s no escape is there’. With that he explained that although I did have tendonitis in my knee, the anxiety I’d built up around it was so incredibly high, I simply couldn’t get past it. He suggested we try few different practices and see what would happen. He wanted me to watch my surgery video while my knee was sore so I would feel the pain while watching. I was to watch Geelong’s Grand Final win, and look at the premiership posters.
It was extremely difficult at first. He also wanted me to play golf and go to the beach. Everything I was worried about he wanted me to do. If it was making my knee too sore, I was to stop and just think, ‘It didn’t work today, but I’ll try it again tomorrow’. Within two weeks, the pain in my knee had gone down by at least 50%, and I was able to nearly fully train. I was shocked at how much of an impact that could have.
That experience also really taught me to turn to things you enjoy doing when things aren’t going well. Particularly when you’re going through a long-term set back, whether that be injury- or mental health-related. In my first couple of rehabs, if things weren’t going well, I’d go home and write off the day. But one of my physios said to me, ‘Don’t let a bad session turn into a bad day’. Which was a great point. By my fourth rehab, I had lots of other things in place. I coached my own under 14s team, did a lot of commentary work, and completed further study. So whether I’d had a good or bad day at the club, I could put that aside for the rest of the day and forget about my knee. It meant my life didn’t just revolve around my knee.
I also put a lot of unrealistic pressures on myself along the way. I remember writing down and saying to myself that my fourth ACL was going to be perfect surgery and rehab, and my rehab template would be viewed as the one to do by anyone who had done their ACL. That was all well and good in theory, but I was setting myself up for failure because every time I had a setback, and I had many, it would hit me like a tonne of bricks because I would think, ‘How are people going to look at my rehab now and say it’s the perfect rehab?’
Because no one had come back from four ACLs before in AFL at that stage, my journey was well documented. My story was picked up by Fox Sport and made into a documentary. At that time no AFL player or club had done such a documentary, so I was extremely nervous about how it would be portrayed. But once it was released, I received hundreds of messages from people who had done their knees, or had mental health issues saying, ‘I can relate’, or ‘Thanks for sharing, it’s helped me through my journey’. As a result, that was the start of my website and business Mental Toughness Mental Fortitude (www.MTMF.com.au) around resilience and overcoming setbacks and injuries.
I never thought the documentary was going to have the impact it did. Although I’m grateful it was received so well, it probably put even more pressure on me. I’d proved everyone wrong who said, ‘You won’t come back from four’. But then that changed to, ‘You’re not going to be the player you once were’. So that became my next challenge and goal. I wanted to prove to everyone that no matter what happens, you can still be a better player and better person than you were pre-injury. And I battled with that for the next three to four years.
My rehab journey had a lot of setbacks, but it forced us to work out ways around them and correct my deficiencies. I am more powerful and balanced even now than I was pre-injury, and there are things I can do in the gym that my teammates can’t because I’ve done them forever. And those are the sorts of things that on the back end of my career make me a much better player. Although at the time I thought my rehab wasn’t going as well as I would have liked, now that I look back on it, it shaped me in a really good way. I still do activation exercises before each session to get everything working together, and I feel like my hamstrings, glutes and quads get more bulletproof with each repetition. Those habits will stay with me forever now.
I don’t think there’s anything we could have changed in my rehab program that would have stopped my left ACL from going, aside from time. Maybe if I had given myself an extra two to three months on top of the first rehab, then my story might have been different. I try to pass that on to others now. What’s another few weeks or months in the scheme of things? Doing one ACL is bad, but it’s not going to be a problem for the rest of your life. But it will if you keep re-rupturing. So, give yourself the extra time you need.
Time was also responsible for my decision to do the LARS graft. If I could go back, I wouldn’t choose LARS. But saying that, my brother successfully returned from a LARS at 16-years-old and went on to play for Carlton and Adelaide. He has to be one of the longest surviving LARS success stories, now at 25, because in the AFL, the majority of them have ruptured.
Hindsight is a beautiful thing, but I don’t really look back and go, ‘What if…?’ I don’t think it’s healthy. Without the setbacks I wouldn’t have discovered a lot of the things I learned along the way. When you go through a lot of challenges and stress, and your body gets put through a lot of pain, you realise how much you can actually push yourself. And that’s something that I now always fall back on, I know that I can withstand a bit more than most.
Trying to play without my ACL was never seen as an option for me. AFL is such a demanding game requiring so much pivoting and turning, I don’t think it would work. Even if in years to come we realise that it is a viable option in the AFL, I wouldn’t sit there wishing I’d tried without. I’m just not wired to think that way.
The advice I would give to my former self would be to learn as much as possible from those around you. Listen to everything they have to say. If they’re putting time in for you, they’re only doing it to help you. Also, just because people haven’t experienced exactly what you’re going through, don’t judge them because of that. People can’t necessarily understand it, and you can’t expect them to.
You need to lean on those people around you. Even if they can’t actually help you, it will still take some of the pressure off your shoulders. And take the time to invest in other things outside of sport, but make sure they’re things you actually enjoy doing.
It also must be said that everyone is different. What’s right for me might not be right for you. We all look at life differently so don’t judge yourself through someone else’s lens. If you don’t want to come back, or you don’t feel up to it, that’s okay as well.