Never give up: Josh Toy is still hopeful he can resurrect his AFL career after playing 13 games with Gold Coast. Photo: Pat Scala
When five of his old Gold Coast teammates were delisted at the end of last season, Josh Toy got in touch straight away. He knew which of them might retire, who would be wondering what they had done wrong and who would want another chance, no matter what they had to do. He knew what they would be feeling, because he's been feeling it too.
It's more than a year since Toy found himself without a club. It's more than a year since he missed out on being traded, on being drafted, on being signed as a free agent, on being rookie-listed. He knows how quickly a player's time in the system can pass. He knows how quickly the list to get back in expands.
You want to give everything to every single part of your life, but you can't.
He played for two years, and it wasn't long enough. ''It doesn't feel like that long ago that I was the one hoping to get another chance, hoping to get picked up again,'' he said. ''Now there's all the players delisted last year, all the players delisted this year, and so many people hoping for a second chance. Time goes quickly. There's still a little bit of, 'did that really just happen'?''
Toy had no choice but join the Suns four years ago, as one of the 12 17-year-olds the club was able to sign as part of its draft concessions. He was arguably the best of them, then: strong, smart, skilful, brave, and a leader-to-be. He didn't get to go through a draft, to stress about which club might choose him, or get forever assessed according to the number he was chosen at.
Since he was cut, decisions have been left up to him. He had to figure out whether he still wanted to play. And he did: he loves the game, loves contributing to a team, loves to compete. He wants to play in the AFL again and believes he could, and should. ''I really, really, really, really, really want to play again,'' he said. ''Whatever the strongest word is, that's how much I want another chance.''
The next question was where to play. Toy wondered whether it was better to sign with an independent VFL club, or to be at one tied to an AFL club. He played for Essendon's VFL team, and in some ways it was a good choice. For the first time, he met a conditioning coach able to design a running program to help cater for the heart condition he was born with, but was diagnosed only when he moved to Queensland at the end of 2010, having never had to go to a draft camp and be screened for such things.
In other ways it wasn't the best spot to be: Toy played games at the start of the season and the end, but in between spent time back at local club Aberfeldie, knowing that what he did wouldn't lead to anything, that no AFL recruiters would be watching him. He thought about going to a new club for next season but had decided to stay, to back himself to play more matches.
That's a little up in the air - he hasn't been signed again yet - and he has found himself wishing there was some sort of machine, a smartphone application that would tell him the best place to be. ''I wish there was a formula so that you could put all your questions in, and it would work it all out and tell you what you needed to know,'' he said.
''I wish there was something that spat out all your results and said 'this is where you should go, this is where you should play, this is what will give you your best chance to get back'. There's just so many things that go through your head. Your decisions feel so crucial. It can be hard to know what to do.''
Then there are the questions only other people can answer, though Toy has his own theories on why things didn't work out at Gold Coast. An attacking, instinctive junior, he felt like he tried to adhere to the Suns' game plan too strictly, that he became inhibited and stopped going after the ball with the urgency he did as a kid. He knows his running didn't improve enough; that was the coaches' final message to him, as it had been all along.
There are other things. Toy stayed at home for a year after the Suns signed him, to finish school at Essendon Grammar. He wasn't quite ready to leave his family and felt obligated to support the school like it had helped him. He knows not moving straight away held up his development, and that he would have been challenged more had he played a full season in the VFL that year with the other young Suns: Trent McKenzie, Brandon Matera, Matt Shaw and others.
That said, he feels like he played his best football ever in the few games he did play, squeezed in around his school season, and would do the same thing again. When he did move, his life almost became too much about football. He started a university course but could find time to do only one subject each year. He wasn't able to take his mind off football for long enough when it wasn't going well and he really needed a break and to talk about something else. Looking back, he feels he didn't have enough balance in his life.
When he was delisted, and no other club took him on, Toy wished he could ring them all and ask why. He knows some were probably put off by his heart complaint - though no one said that outright - but he was sure then that they shouldn't have been worried, and still is. The condition is complicated, but it means Toy has a lower than usual maximum heart rate and it is harder for him to improve his aerobic fitness. He needs to find other ways to train, and improve. In time he will need a pacemaker, but it is perfectly safe to keep playing.
The thought that it has cost him his career is frustrating. He doesn't think it should have. ''You can't ring every single recruiting manager and say, 'why didn't you take me'? and, if it was the heart, explain the situation to them. That's the most frustrating part, not getting to explain and not knowing how big a factor it was.
''You sort of wish you could have sat in on all the clubs' recruiting meetings, to hear what they said and understand why they made their decisions. When you want another opportunity, you're constantly thinking, 'how do I give myself the best chance of getting that chance'? You want more information.''
Toy is determined to keep trying. But he has also had to start living the rest of his life. There are things to get used to when you are delisted at 20: living back at home, spending all your money on petrol, books, university fees and 21st birthday presents. Spending all day at uni, then training under lights at night.
Toy never really got to know the kids he studied with in Queensland, because he had time for so few subjects. They moved on, while he was stuck in year one. Now he's studying PE teaching, getting to know people, building new friendships and making more serious plans for the coaching career he would like to have. As much as he wants to play AFL again, he knows he would be foolish to put everything on hold.
''You can't, and that's another hard thing. You think a lot about how much you need to pour into footy, but you don't want to waste too much of your time,'' he said. ''You have to be driven and focused on football, but you can't rely on it solely, because if you do, and three years go by and it doesn't happen, then you're behind with everything else in your life.
''You want to give everything to every single part of your life, but you can't. You can't stop everything to just train for VFL, and you can't put everything into being a student because footy's so important. You want to feel like you've done everything possible to get back to an AFL club, but you don't want to be 25 years old and still deciding what you want to do with the rest of your life.''
Toy's confidence was knocked when the Suns said they didn't want him, and when he realised no other club did either. But he feels it was kicked around just as much while he was at Gold Coast, trying to work out what he could do to get more time there, then do it. Week, after week, after week.
He was never drafted but he knows what the kids who were picked up last week will find out: that it doesn't matter how good you were, or what you did before you got to your club, because so much has to happen from there. It's hard to get to a club, harder than Toy perhaps realised at the time. But it's even tougher to stay there. Two years. Thirteen games. It went by, just like that.
''At the time, it felt like it went slowly. But when it ends and you're out, you stop and think, 'where did that time go'? What I accomplished as a junior, I'm proud of. I'm just not proud of what I've done at AFL level at the moment, that's why I want another chance.
''I don't want to get to 60 or 70 and feel like I was unfulfilled. Maybe my career will only last two years and maybe that's all I'll have, but I don't want it to be. It wasn't enough. I hope that isn't all there is.''
In the beginning
How the first crop of 17-year-olds chosen by Gold Coast and Greater Western Sydney have fared.
Brandon Matera: Highly talented forward, who has had injury problems in his first few years.
Trent McKenzie: Excellent debut season and a key member of the team.
Tom Nicholls: Improved dramatically this year after getting his chance in the ruck.
Matt Shaw: A quiet achiever who has improved and played most games each year.
Luke Russell: Has played 43 games, having his best season in 2013.
Jack Hutchins: Defender, who played 10 games this year. Had 2012 ruined by a kidney injury.
Taylor Hine: Left at the end of last season and was drafted by North Melbourne. Played 14 games this year.
Maverick Weller: Delisted at the end of 2013 after 32 games in three years. Redrafted as a rookie by St Kilda this week.
Josh Toy: Delisted at the end of 2012, after 13 games in two years. Spent 2013 with the Essendon VFL team.
Alex Keath: Opted to pursue a cricket career instead of joining the Suns. Highly regarded but still trying to establish himself in the Victorian team.
Hayden Jolly: Delisted at the end of 2012. Back in Adelaide.
Piers Flanagan: Delisted at the end of 2012. Played his only three games that year.
Jeremy Cameron: Star forward who made the All-Australian team after kicking 62 goals this year.
Dylan Shiel: Key member of the midfield who looks a future star.
Adam Treloar: Highly talented midfielder.
Tom Bugg: Solid midfielder who has played 32 games in two years. Was touted as possible trade bait this year.
Jack Hombsch: Defender, traded to Port Adelaide at the end of 2012. Played six games this year after nine in 2012.
Sam Darley: Tough onballer traded cheaply to the Western Bulldogs this off-season.
Nathan Wilson: Played four games this year after a nine-game debut season.
Tim Golds: Broke his leg before joining the club. Has played three games in two years.
Gerald Ugle: Delisted this year after three games in two years.
Simon Tunbridge: Quit the club during its VFL season in 2011 and went home to Perth. Was drafted by West Coast as a rookie and has just been elevated to the senior list.
Josh Growdon: Broke his leg in 2011. Delisted at the end of last season.
Jarrod Harding: Left the club before its AFL debut season in 2012. Back in Adelaide.