Having played AFL at the highest level for 15 years I can certainly say I wore my ability to re-enter the field after a concussion as a badge of honour. But entering post-footy life with the opportunity for reflection and time to absorb the media commentary on concussion has me extremely worried about my bravado and the possible long-term consequences. I shudder when I consider the multiple big hits I suffered during my playing days could lead to the degenerative condition known as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), which in turn leads to dementia.
Is it too late for some of the pioneers such as Carlton legend Greg Williams? What a disturbing question. Williams is on record as having forgotten simple things such as the details of his honeymoon. Then there's Dean Kemp, a phenomenal player whose days at West Coast finished in a helmet before too many concussions forced him into retirement.
My mind scrambles to remember the times I "lost time" while playing footy.
The 2012 grand final between the Swans and Hawthorn had some thrilling final moments, none more so than Nick Malceski’s final goal. But I was unaware whether I finished the game on the field or not, due to a concussion I suffered late in the game when my head hit the ground. There was a moment down at Geelong a few years earlier when Brad Ottens kneed me in the head as he sailed high into the air for a mark. As he calmly went back and slotted the goal, I staggered to my feet and asked Amon Buchanan the location of the ball, under the assumption I was the beneficiary of a free kick for high contact.
In a final at the MCG, Bulldog Daniel Cross was pushed into my path. Neither of us are the fleetest of foot but the impact was enormous and I was quickly aware who had come off second best.
Then there was an infamous Brisbane game at the SCG which drew a lot of coverage. After being on the receiving end of a head clash in the first few minutes from Matt Maguire, I "came good" on the bench and played again, only to suffer another concussion and then stumble around like a drunken sailor when trying to pick up the ball. I wasn’t right for the next few games, but I still played. There’s that badge of honour thing.
In a way, I can say I was proud I had returned to the fray. The combative nature of the game is why I love it so much. I hope that the physicality is never taken away. It’s one of the reasons elite contact sports such as AFL, NRL and rugby union are so special. Anyone can have a kick or throw a cut-out pass, but to play these sports at the elite level you need a steely resolve or a warrior spirit. But now I understand concussion should not be treated like any other injury. This is not one of those things you just push through. A head trauma is not a rolled ankle or a shoulder AC joint, something that you can anaesthetise.
The AFL and the NRL have revised their concussion protocols and guidelines and should be applauded for doing so. The AFL and the AFL Players Association have enlisted the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health in Melbourne - a leader in brain trauma research - to assess past players and obtain greater information about the resources at hand. The medical and coaching staffs at the Swans are people of great experience, knowledge and integrity, and I entrusted them with my safety and well-being the whole time I was at the club. I would do so again.
A concussion test back in those days could be as simple as asking a few questions to determine your responses and reaction times. Now the protocol is much clearer, and a player diagnosed with a concussion is not allowed to take any further part in the game. This is definitely for the better. There is also the concussion sub rule to allow greater time for medical staff to assess the player.
In a recent case Daniel Hannebery, who was knocked out in a Sydney game repeatedly pleaded with our doctor, Nathan Gibbs, not to substitute him and allow him to get back on to the field. Tell-tale signs of a concussed athlete are the repetitive questions. How did it happen? Who did it? Hannebury was oblivious to the fact that Gibbsy had put the red vest on him immediately as he came off, not even requesting the 20 minute assessment time.
Some head knocks have vastly different consequences for the individual; therefore I don’t subscribe to a mandatory term of a certain number of weeks’ absence in elite sport. Certainly in developmental stages, such as kids sport or school competitions, this should be implemented. But should an elite player miss a grand final due to a concussion the previous week? For that reason an independent judgment might be required because I know I would have been up in arms. Rather than continuing to worry in the short term, I will wait until the research confirms the causal relationship of concussion to CTE in AFL.
I’ve found that false bravado again, and I turn to my wife stating my position about playing in the last game of September.
‘‘You can’t miss it ... grand finals are forever!’’ She retorts: ‘‘Not if you can’t remember them.’’