Building for the future: Jake Stringer uses some weights as he prepares for the AFL draft. Photo: Jim Aidersey/Bendigo Advertiser
AFL hopeful Jake Stringer has overcome an awful injury.
JAKE Stringer doesn't even start to explain any more. Whenever someone asks why he missed a whole year of football he simply reaches for his phone and scrolls through his photo roll until he reaches it.
People say, 'What happened to your leg? How bad did it look? What was it like?' I just hand the phone over and say, 'Have a look for yourself'. They take one look and then it's, 'Oh, come on, I didn't need to see that'.
The picture is from his local paper, and in it you can see Stringer being tackled while playing for the Bendigo Pioneers at the start of last year. His right foot is kicking the back of his left leg and his broken shin bone is about to break through the skin. ''He's done well, the photographer,'' says Stringer, who has become used not only to the question but the inevitable response.
Painful day: Stringer breaks his leg as he is tackled by Rebel Jake Neade. Photo: Getty Images
''People say, 'What happened to your leg? How bad did it look? What was it like?' I just hand the phone over and say, 'Have a look for yourself'. They take one look and then it's, 'Oh, come on, I didn't need to see that'.''
It's almost two full seasons since the day in Ballarat when the tibia and fibula in Stringer's leg snapped. He can remember the sound, the pain, the way people went white when they looked at him. ''Old Ghosty here,'' he says, looking across at his father, John.
He can remember the physios holding his leg together, too scared to move in case they made him scream even more. The 90 minutes it took the ambulance to arrive, and the instant understanding that he wouldn't be playing footy again for a while. If the memories start feeling vague, he need only glance down at the scars or fetch the X-rays from his wardrobe, and there they are again. Stringer sums up the afternoon. ''It was crook.''
The injury wiped out Stringer's 2011 season before it had even really started, teaching him how to recover from serious surgery, how to get around on crutches, how to ask for help getting out of bed in the middle of the night when he needed to get to the toilet, what it felt like to be lapped by elderly neighbours walking laps of the reservoir near his home. It made him miss out on things, slow down, and just when he thought it was dealt with he found himself back in hospital, faced with doing everything all over again.
Stringer had a long metal rod removed from his leg in February, as well as three screws. He was told he would walk out of hospital later the same day, but when he came to he looked down and realised his leg was a mess again, that he wouldn't be going anywhere any time soon.
''I was stooged,'' he grumbles, recalling another two weeks on crutches, another two weeks of depending on other people, an unexpected and almost total restart.
When recruiters have visited, asking Stringer about his limp, his running gait, and whether he'll be able to play full-time in the midfield again, his mother Donna longs to show them a photo from the hospital bed less than six months ago. Really, Stringer has overcome two serious injuries in the past two years. ''They talk about what he hasn't done,'' Donna said, ''and not what he has.''
Stringer stuck to his original plan: to be up and going as soon as his season this year started. He played for the AIS-AFL Academy in a game against Box Hill, less than five weeks after his surgery, because it was the game he had missed out on almost 12 months earlier. He was voted the academy's best player in its game against a European side two weeks later, and kicked seven goals for Bendigo in his first match back from the overseas trip, but none of it happened easily.
''I've had to teach myself everything again, pretty much,'' he said. ''Where to run to, how to get a kick, how to read the ball. I hadn't had to think about that sort of stuff before.''
He had to deal with a bit more pain, too, getting a knock to the leg during the under-18 championships that hurt, a lot. He took some advice after that, and started to wear a shin guard. ''It's made the biggest difference. It made me feel like myself again,'' Stringer said. ''I started to stick my head in and if I got hit I'd just think, 'Hah! Shin guard'!''
He didn't have the season he wanted to have. It wasn't until he played three late games for Bendigo's VFL side that he felt motivated, urgent and desperate to please. There was only one way to win his new teammates over in those games, and that was to tackle, chase and defend. He knew people wanted him to be resting, training up, getting ready for the draft, making sure his stocks didn't drop. ''We talked about that a lot,'' said John.
''We went through it and talked about whether he'd be better off just training, just getting fit for the draft, but that didn't appeal to Jake at all.''
In fact, Stringer didn't care whether he became a top-five pick, a top-10 pick or fell further than that. He didn't care if clubs saw him as simply a marking forward, or whether they believed him when he told them he would be a midfielder. All he wanted to do was play football again, without thinking about the consequences.
It means that, wherever this week's draft takes him, his season was a success. ''It was hard, because I've been thinking about the draft for a long time. It's been talked about since I was 15 and it feels like I've been waiting ages for it.
''This year I just thought, 'OK, I don't care. I don't care who's watching and I don't care what they think, because I just want to play'.
''People kept saying to me, 'What are you doing? You're limping, you can't walk properly, you can't run'. And all I could say was, 'Dude, I couldn't give a shit, I missed out on a whole year'. ''I know I'm fine. I know I'll be able to go to a club and do all the training and be able to play next year. I didn't even think about not playing. No way was I missing any more footy.''