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Filling the void in life after footy

Wayne Carey and Gary Ablett Snr in 1996.

Wayne Carey and Gary Ablett Snr in 1996. Photo: Jack Atley

When I read that Nick Riewoldt had recently made a presentation to the AFL Commission about how the league needed to better support its retired players I must say it struck a chord with me. Because the fact is so many former players struggle when they give the game away - when they leave behind the roar of the crowd and the sanctuary of their clubs to go out and face the world.

I know that because I was one of them.

I’ve spoken to many players about this. As recently as last week, I bumped into a former teammate, a premiership player, and asked him how he was getting on. He said: "To be honest, I’m struggling, I can’t find anything to fill the void … I can’t find any kind of work that I enjoy."

That tale is all too familiar.

Another premiership player I know can’t keep a job, and is feeling bitter at the world. His life has been turbulent and unsettled and he’s become a bit directionless without the structure, camaraderie and support that a football club provides. Former Carlton captain Anthony Koutoufides was brave enough to admit last month that he went into a tailspin, physically and mentally, after finishing his brilliant career with the Blues. He said something in that interview which would have resonated with many retired players: ‘‘I think a lot of footballers out there, without us realising it, are lost after footy,’’ he said.

Riewoldt said in his presentation to the commission that in his time at St Kilda, only one in four of his teammates had truly found satisfaction in retirement. He urged AFL bosses to make player welfare, development and education a priority.

I, for one, never thought I would struggle after retiring but I did – big time.

I found that there was a massive hole in my life. In some ways it was like losing family. Which is exactly how I viewed the players and staff at Arden Street – as one big family.

To go to work with 40 mates each day, and spend time with them in that environment where everyone had a common goal, meant you trained, played and socialised together. At North, we’d often go out to lunch together – the entire playing list – because we were so close-knit.

There were other perks of the job too: you’d get to run on to the MCG in front of 50,000 people most weeks. In which 9-5 office job would you get that sort of buzz? It’s a feeling that is very hard to describe. Anyway, I know that’s where I felt most comfortable and in control – more so than any other aspect of my life. But one day – sometimes without warning – it all gets taken away from you, just like that. And you’re left with this feeling of emptiness. I didn’t have any structure or routine in my life when I retired from Adelaide and even though people said I needed to fill the void with meaningful projects, I ignored all that advice. I thought having all this spare time on my hands was great - which it was ... for a while.

And then reality sets in: what the hell am I going to do with the rest of my life?

It’d be fair to say it took me a while to find the answer to that question.

Last week, I was watching an interview with Dustin Fletcher ahead of his games-record match against North Melbourne. I was struck by the fact that he said he’d never had a job. He joined the Bombers while he was still at school; he’s now 38 and the only job he’s ever had is playing football.

Dustin’s an intelligent guy and I don’t doubt he’ll find a satisfying career when he gives the game away, but his situation illustrates what I’m talking about. AFL players have a discipline and routine which they’ve followed since the age of 16 (in Dustin’s case) or 17.

They’re told when to eat and what to eat; they’re told when to sleep, train, attend meetings and club functions; they pretty much have their hand held throughout their career. Chores that any normal person would take for granted - organising car insurance or private health care, even washing clothes – get looked after by someone at the club or their management company. It’s true that clubs, through their welfare officers, and the AFL have got much better at addressing this problem of post-retirement depression but there’s still much to be done.

I know some people will say: why should we feel sorry for footballers? They should be counting their blessings because they earn great money – the average salary last season was $265,000 – and they get to live the dream. But the real story is a bit more complicated than that. Fewer than 17 per cent of players reach the 100-game mark. And only 4 per cent ever get to play 200 games.

So the average lifespan of a professional footballer is short. For the big names – the high-profile champions and premiership players - the footy media or assistant coaching is the most popular career route, because that’s all they know; their skill set is football.

But the great majority of their teammates never get that opportunity. The football community is one large family and Nick Riewoldt is right when he says it has to do more to protect and look after its own. I think it’s a timely call. And it shows what a great leader he is.

I hope what he said to the AFL Commission has an impact, because it’s an issue that – now more than ever - needs a lot of attention and understanding.

27 comments so far

  • Sorry Wayne, but I'm finding it hard to empathise.

    For a start, 265k is almost 4 years salary for your average wage earner. Even if your listed for just one year, that's pretty decent swag.

    People from all walks of life go through different periods in career, lose jobs, have to retrain. It's tough on them all, but the ones that find their way do so through personal determination, with the help of friends and family and the organisations around them.

    They're humble enough to realise that the world doesn't owe them a living, doesn't revolve around them. Children rely on others to shelter them and take care of their needs - adults realise that a certain amount of self-reliance is a prerequisite for any life.

    rude boy
    Date and time
    March 27, 2014, 8:59PM
    • I think you have completely missed the point of the article.

      Date and time
      March 30, 2014, 10:02AM
  • Great article Wayne. Also agree that Riewoldt had shown strong leadership in raising this issue. I would also say that the Players Association should be playing a strong role in this issue as well.

    Date and time
    March 27, 2014, 9:02PM
    • Wayne, what players don't seem to realise is that football is a sideshow to life. It's not important, it's just made to seem that way by people who derive income from it. Football is simply a game, an entertainment, a diversion for the "man in the street" from the daily realities of life, and when players are no longer important as a means of producing income for the "suits", they simply return to the real world which is alien to them. Footballers are just ordinary people in a temporary yet extraordinary fantasy and when they can no longer be exploited, they are disposed of. Meat in the mincer.

      Neil (not on radio) Mitchell
      Date and time
      March 27, 2014, 9:38PM
      • If they want to keep the footy life, then go get a coaching job out in the bush somewhere. I'm sure many clubs would love a past AFL great. Otherwise, grab a tissue and welcome to the real world.

        Date and time
        March 27, 2014, 10:37PM
        • While it might be a pale substitute for football, most footballers have good hand-eye coordination and are physically stronger than average. Some learn to play golf quite competitively.
          Alternatively, those who have lost leg speed but still retain their football skills presumably can still play in the country leagues, like Fevola and Akermanis do.
          I suspect the void is greatest for those who have soared the highest.

          Date and time
          March 27, 2014, 10:39PM
          • Right on Wayne - It is a dilemma in all professional sports and careers that consume us. We need balance in our lives. Sad to say athletes are entertainers and we want them to focus on what entertains us. Though the resolve lays within - the players with industry support.

            Date and time
            March 27, 2014, 11:10PM
            • One thing I thought should happen is other training or education should be made compulsory during the paying years. This would leave another option in retirement.
              Additionally, with an average income of about $250,000 which is far higher that what most 20 odd year olds get, maybe 50% should be with held until retirement from footy or a certain age. That would ensure some financial stability after footy, at least for a short time.

              Date and time
              March 27, 2014, 11:24PM
              • I admire you as a footballer Wayne, but what a load of rubbish that article was.

                As you rightly highlighted, these players are paid exceptionally well - five years in the game should be enough to set them up for life - if they manage their money wisely (which they should, given all the help they get from their club). If they don't, then they deserve whatever misfortune falls upon them.

                Moreover, what's this rubbish about how the AFL and clubs should do more to look after players post-career??? What other damn employer looks after an employee *after* they leave the company??

                The real problem is that footballers are often dumb people that happen to be very good at one particular thing (footy), once that's gone, they have, and are, nothing.

                Good to be King
                Ivory tower
                Date and time
                March 27, 2014, 11:54PM
                • This is yet another example of you wanting someone else to sort out the problem for you. You get paid hell of a lot of money to chase after a oval ball and then expect someone else to fix your relevance deprivation problem for you once the AFL take the ball away from you.

                  Time you and lots of others realised that life and what you make of it is up to you. Yes, it's hell of a lot of work to be an AFL player but you have been compensated obscenely well for that work and it's only your fault if you have not recognized that sooner or later, the dream run was going to end, and failed to plan for life after sport. Plenty of others work just as hard, if not harder, and don't get the same silver spoon shoved in their mouth as you had.

                  I have little sympathy for people paid 100's of 1000's a year that then bleat about how they thought it was going to last forever or set them up for life. It's offensive to hear you complain about how hard done by you are because you feel let down by a corporate entity such as a football club.

                  Are you kidding me?
                  The real world
                  Date and time
                  March 28, 2014, 12:00AM

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