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.