PEOPLE OFTEN talk about how football players have it easy, and for the most part, we do. Our clubs treat us well, we eat as healthy as anyone, get to meet some great people and, above all, are paid to play the game we love. You certainly can't take any of that for granted.
But a lot of the public probably didn't quite grasp how difficult 2020 was for us players. I certainly don't want to sound insensitive in any way whatsoever, as hundreds of thousands of people lost their lives to COVID-19, but I'm not sure footballers have ever been forced to endure anything quite like what we did last year.
Having to pack up and move interstate for an indefinite period of time was the most difficult thing I've ever had to deal with. I'm not going to lie, I really struggled in the bubble, both from a mental and physical standpoint. To basically be stuck in a tiny hotel room for 90 days, living out of a suitcase, and only really being able to leave for training and games, was something I just couldn't get used to.
I'm a very family-orientated person. I'm close with my entire family. Both mum and dad would come and visit nearly every week, so to all of a sudden have to say goodbye to that, and be away from home and everything you know, was tough.
But what I struggled with most in the bubble was that there was just no escape from football. Normally, back in Melbourne, you can go for a walk or sit down, grab some breakfast and switch off for a while. But this turned out to be a never-ending football camp.
My frustrations extended onto the footy field. My form wasn't quite where I wanted it to be and I probably wasn't getting as much opportunity as I would have liked. Throw in my ankle injury, and it was a recipe for disaster.
It got to the point late in the season where I was so overwhelmed with everything that was happening that I seriously considering packing up and heading home. In saying that, I don't think I would've been the only player who had these thoughts.
Looking back, my biggest mistake was holding everything so close to my chest. I had a lot of people around me, great people, caring people, but I didn't speak up and explain how I was feeling. By bottling everything up, I was never able to resolve any of my issues, and as a result, I started searching for a fresh start.
Twelve months earlier, the mere thought of leaving the Bulldogs would have never crossed my mind. But here I was, sitting in my hotel room, unable to leave, seriously considering it. That was the first time I thought the Bombers would be a great fit for me.
AFTER LOSING to the Saints in the elimination final, and having our season grind to a halt, a few of us decided to stay up in Queensland for a bit of an end-of-year wind down.
Marcus Bontempelli, Hayden Crozier, Aaron Naughton, Jayden Shea and I hired a house up on the Sunshine Coast and were all excited at the chance to escape the AFL bubble we'd been trapped in for the past three months, even if it meant our return home would be delayed by a few days! But in the back of my mind, I knew I had to tell them what was going through my mind.
I'm not going to lie; I was super nervous. It's a seriously difficult conversation to have with a group of your closest friends, some of whom you have won a premiership with. How do you break it to them? How were they going to react? What would they think of me?
I also didn't want anyone to form the opinion that this was purely a financial decision, as can often be the case when players move clubs. Don't get me wrong, as a player, your salary is something that crosses your mind from time to time. But for me, I've always wanted to extract the most out of my career, and at that time, a move to Essendon, for a key midfield role, felt like the right path to maximize that, regardless of what figure was printed on any contract.
I decided to break the news to them individually, as it felt more personal. To my surprise, they were all super understanding and could see exactly where I was coming from. There was no judgement or ill feelings towards me. It was widely discussed that if that's how I feel, then that's how I feel. There's no point trying to hide it or pretend otherwise.
I had already begun the conversations with Luke Beveridge and some of the other staff at the club, but being able to discuss it with my teammates was a huge weight off my shoulders.
The general feeling amongst the group was that everyone wanted me to stay, and if I'm being honest, I felt like I would, right up until the point where the trade request was submitted and the club released a statement about my future. That's when I started thinking this really could happen. It quickly became very real.
I FELT pretty relaxed throughout the entire trade period. I wasn't glued to my phone or constantly checking the news, instead, I was just getting on with life and trying to enjoy some down time after the most difficult year of my life.
Just being able to do the little things was what I had missed most throughout 2020, whether it was playing some cricket with my dad and brother, or honing a recipe in the kitchen, it really helped take my mind off everything that was going on in the background.
It wasn't until 7:29pm, on the final day of the trade period, when I realised a deal wasn't going to get done. I was at the farm, sitting around the campfire with my family, and I was starting to think 'okay, time's running out here.'
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I really didn't know whether to be pleased, disappointed or angry. It's such a strange situation. You honestly have no idea, one way or the other, where you will be playing the following year. You're basically in limbo, waiting for an answer, something which, at that point, is totally out of your control.
Once it was confirmed I was staying at the Dogs, I was already feeling uneasy about the moment I would walk back into the club and face everyone again. In the back of your mind, you can't help but feel they are sort of disappointed in you. After all, there's no escaping the fact you asked to leave.
You end up getting to the stage where you start running those first conversations through in your mind, and all that does is make you even more anxious.
I knew I had to build up the trust factor again. The only way to really do that in preseason is to return to the club in good nick and set the training standards. Over the break, all I did was work on my fitness.
That didn't mean I wasn't going to address the elephant in the room on Day 1. I spoke to just about everyone at the club and made sure that all questions were answered. I wanted honest communication with everyone.
That first day back at the club was honestly one of the most daunting days of my life, but by the time I was back in the car, getting ready to go home, I felt completely relaxed. Everyone had moved on quickly and nobody felt any need to dwell on what had happened.
Since then, I have never looked back and now, on the eve of another season, I am as excited as ever to be pulling on the red, white and blue.
FROM THE outside, you might look at my situation and say, well what's changed?
There's probably three reasons why I'm feeling much happier now than I was six months ago.
Firstly, it's great to be back home and getting to do the things we may have taken for granted during last year's lockdowns and restrictions.
Secondly, the excitement around the club, ahead of the season, is at an all-time high. Being able to play home games again, and have fans back at the footy, is something every single player dearly missed last year.
And lastly, the signing of Adam Treloar. I've only known Adz for a few months but he's quickly become my best mate. We have so much in common and get along like a house on fire. I cannot wait to play footy with him in 2021 and beyond.