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Bones broken countless times, but Western Bulldog Tom Williams never beaten

Williams has spent more of his career on the sidelines than on the ground.

Williams has spent more of his career on the sidelines than on the ground. Photo: Pat Scala

If it all ended tomorrow - and even the perkiest tea leaves would take one look at him and admit there's every chance - Tom Williams says he'd hobble away without bitterness.

From day one he's loved his football club and how it has enriched his life, and that's satisfaction enough.

As for loving the game? That would be asking too much.

Injury-prone Bulldog Tom Williams

Injury-prone Bulldog Tom Williams Photo: Getty Images

"No, no I don't love the game," Williams says, reckoning he's not alone in just happening to be good at something that for a decade has lanced him like a voodoo doll.

"It's kinda like an ex-girlfriend - you hate her initially, then eventually get back to being friends with her again," he says.

He senses the ice thawing, but 12 major operations in 10 years haunt him like a dozen exes who've bound his football heart in scar tissue. Last year, as his right shoulder again gave out in Darwin in the most innocuous fashion, this tortured Western Bulldog decided he'd had enough.

"It's the first time it really broke me," he says, admitting he gets fidgety and emotional talking about it.

When he'd had the second of three shoulder rebuilds in the 2012 pre-season, he made a silent vow to retire at the next major mishap. And now here it was, a trapdoor to freedom.

"I approached the club about retiring. I didn't want to stick around if I was starting to become a burden. That just leaves a bad taste in everyone's mouth. There was a little bit of relief in that [talking about retiring]. But, in saying that, I couldn't do it."

Williams already was asking himself, "Do I really want to go through with this?" when chief executive Simon Garlick told him the club wouldn't let him go. "It's hard to walk away from people like that, who believe in you," he says. "They've been through it with me as well."

Williams corrects the contention that injury defines his career. "It is my career." Faced with it ending thus, he pondered his legacy. "There was a bit of, if there is a tiny chance that I can turn my career around and help the club, I've got a year left on my contract. If they still want me, I'm happy to give it another crack."

At 27, Williams is a wincing example of the toll Australian football can take on a healthy young body. He gets around in rubber slip-on sandals over socks to relieve feet twice snapped at the navicular bone, feet that ache when he wakes each morning. Bench-pressing with patched-up shoulders is a throbbing nightmare. "Games are the only relief I get," he says.

He hopes a pill will have been invented before he's an old man that will make it all go away, but reckons it's only once a week, trying to relax on his day off, that he really notices. "You build up a tolerance," he says. "You can deal with anything really if you deal with it long enough."

It hasn't always been this way. When Williams arrived at Whitten Oval in late 2004 the question mark over him wasn't medical, rather whether a rugby convert from Queensland could harness his sublime athletic gifts and a single season of football experience to become the player that pick six in the draft demands. Apart from a broken collarbone at the start of secondary school, he'd never been hurt.

Not that he hadn't shed a tear. His father, Steve, helped set up the Brisbane Broncos. "A hard man, a great man," Williams says. Every time his son was tackled and hit his head on the ground as a five or six-year-old playing rugby, he'd cry.

He remembers a teammate's father taunting him, "Oh, he's crying again, he's a sook." Walking home one day he asked his dad, "Why don't you tell him off?" Steve Williams replied, "Why don't you stop crying?" So he stopped crying.

To trawl through Williams' medical chart feels almost macabre, but every setback remains vivid. It started early in his first season with a sore foot that in the next VFL game became a snapped navicular, compounded when a doctor diagnosed a rolled ankle and gave his crutches to someone else. Williams was out for two years.

This introduced him to the delights of surgery, a process he has become the Bulldogs' resident expert in, telling young players it's a breeze - "You lie in bed, they give you relaxing drugs, knock you out and it's all over". At 18, going under the knife for the first time, he was scared stiff.

Rehab, he soon realised, was the painful part. Day after day of working towards something impossibly distant, not just the loneliness but the feeling that you're removed from life, unable to be even halfway normal. "It's a first-world problem, I don't want to compare it to anything," Williams says, blessed with perspective. "But when you're in that situation it can get a bit overwhelming."

There was a rare quad strain after changing his running gait to help his feet, the shoulder hurt in a tackle in 2008, hurt again grabbing Ryan Griffen at training, then the thigh that gave way after over-training. Missing the 2008 finals left him "pretty flat".

He managed plantar fasciitis throughout 2009, discovered he could play through pain, then broke another foot bone and missed the finals again. He entered 2010 with a simple aim - build a baseline to which he could add a foundation towards hopefully being a good footballer. He played 23 games, another 17 in 2011, and what he brings to the Bulldogs was clear.

Then came another foot, another shoulder, yet another foot, yet another shoulder.

He realises now how the cycle changed him, that he'd bottle up the angst caused by each knockdown, tick the same boxes all over again, not want teammates to see the inner bruising. After that 2012 pre-season shoulder injury he'd had surgery and was back running within a week. "I got really efficient at, 'Digest it, get over it, move on.'"

In Darwin last year, after a gruelling 25 minutes getting another dislodged shoulder put back in place, an ambulance officer looked at his tear-streaked face and asked if he needed more pain relief. No, he told her, that won't help.

Now, Williams is on the comeback trail again, although he laughs that he doesn't see the calf strained against Melbourne three weeks ago as a fair dinkum injury. "I consider it like a cold." He finished that game hobbling around the forward line, patched up rather than subbed out because Tory Dickson already was gone. He kicked three goals and the cameras captured a career first: Tom Williams, injured again, and smiling.

He was beaming for girlfriend Jayne, who often trips over the various straps and bands fixed to the walls and floors in their virtual rehab centre home, and who has been there through the worst of recent times. "To her it's always been, 'surgery, rehab, grumpy me'. She'd never seen me kick a goal live, hasn't really seen me play at all the last two years. That was a reason to smile."

At the start of the season Williams experienced a strange detachment in games, knowing where he should be running but finding himself standing still. He's felt the hesitation receding, the footballer's reflex coming back to him, and is heartened by coach Brendan McCartney treating him like a 23-year-old. He feels confidence rebuilding, with it affection for what he does, if not love.

He can't afford to think, what's next? "Hopefully there's a happy ending."

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AFL 2016

Round 1
Thu, 24 MarTimes shown AEDT
RIC vs CAR 19:20MCG
Sat, 26 MarTimes shown AEDT
MEL vs GWS 13:40MCG
GCF vs ESS 16:35MS
NTH vs ADE 19:25ES
SYD vs COL 19:25ANZ
Sun, 27 MarTimes shown AEDT
WBU vs FRE 13:10ES
PTA vs STK 15:20Adelaide Oval
WCE vs BRI 19:40Domain Stadium
Mon, 28 MarTimes shown AEDT
GEE vs HAW 15:20MCG
View All Fixtures
Round 2
Fri, 01 AprTimes shown AEDT
COL vs RIC 19:50MCG
Sat, 02 AprTimes shown AEDT
ADE vs PTA 13:45Adelaide Oval
ESS vs MEL 14:10MCG
BRI vs NTH 16:35G
STK vs WBU 19:25ES
FRE vs GCF 19:40Domain Stadium
Sun, 03 AprTimes shown AEST
GWS vs GEE 13:10SO
HAW vs WCE 15:20MCG
CAR vs SYD 16:40ES
View All Fixtures
Round 3
Fri, 08 AprTimes shown AEST
PTA vs ESS 19:50Adelaide Oval
Sat, 09 AprTimes shown AEST
STK vs COL 13:45MCG
RIC vs ADE 14:10ES
SYD vs GWS 16:35SCG
GCF vs CAR 19:25MS
WCE vs FRE 19:40Domain Stadium
Sun, 10 AprTimes shown AEST
NTH vs MEL 13:10BA
WBU vs HAW 15:20ES
GEE vs BRI 16:40SS
View All Fixtures
Round 4
Fri, 15 AprTimes shown AEST
WCE vs RIC 20:10Domain Stadium
Sat, 16 AprTimes shown AEST
ESS vs GEE 13:45MCG
HAW vs STK 14:10AS
BRI vs GCF 16:35G
CAR vs WBU 19:25ES
ADE vs SYD 19:40Adelaide Oval
Sun, 17 AprTimes shown AEST
GWS vs PTA 13:10SO
COL vs MEL 15:20MCG
NTH vs FRE 16:40ES
View All Fixtures
Round 5
Fri, 22 AprTimes shown AEST
HAW vs ADE 19:50MCG
Sat, 23 AprTimes shown AEST
SYD vs WCE 13:40SCG
GCF vs NTH 16:35MS
WBU vs BRI 19:25ES
PTA vs GEE 19:40Adelaide Oval
Sun, 24 AprTimes shown AEST
STK vs GWS 13:10ES
FRE vs CAR 16:10Domain Stadium
MEL vs RIC 19:10MCG
Mon, 25 AprTimes shown AEST
COL vs ESS 15:20MCG
View All Fixtures
Round 6
Fri, 29 AprTimes shown AEST
NTH vs WBU 19:50ES
Sat, 30 AprTimes shown AEST
MEL vs STK 13:45ES
ADE vs FRE 14:10Adelaide Oval
GWS vs HAW 16:35Spotless Stadium
RIC vs PTA 19:25MCG
GEE vs GCF 19:25SS
Sun, 01 MayTimes shown AEST
BRI vs SYD 13:10G
CAR vs ESS 15:20MCG
WCE vs COL 16:40Domain Stadium
View All Fixtures
Round 7
Fri, 06 MayTimes shown AEST
RIC vs HAW 19:50MCG
Sat, 07 MayTimes shown AEST
COL vs CAR 13:45MCG
GEE vs WCE 14:10SS
SYD vs ESS 16:35ANZ
GCF vs MEL 17:10MS
WBU vs ADE 19:40ES
FRE vs GWS 20:10Domain Stadium
Sun, 08 MayTimes shown AEST
STK vs NTH 15:20ES
PTA vs BRI 16:40Adelaide Oval
View All Fixtures
Round 8
Fri, 13 MayTimes shown AEST
ADE vs GEE 19:50Adelaide Oval
Sat, 14 MayTimes shown AEST
ESS vs NTH 13:45ES
HAW vs FRE 14:10AS
GWS vs GCF 16:35Spotless Stadium
BRI vs COL 19:25G
RIC vs SYD 19:25MCG
Sun, 15 MayTimes shown AEST
CAR vs PTA 13:10ES
MEL vs WBU 15:20MCG
WCE vs STK 16:40Domain Stadium
View All Fixtures
Round 9
Fri, 20 MayTimes shown AEST
HAW vs SYD 19:50MCG
Sat, 21 MayTimes shown AEST
COL vs GEE 13:45MCG
GCF vs ADE 14:10MS
PTA vs WCE 16:35Adelaide Oval
NTH vs CAR 19:25ES
FRE vs RIC 19:40Domain Stadium
Sun, 22 MayTimes shown AEST
MEL vs BRI 13:10MCG
GWS vs WBU 15:20Spotless Stadium
STK vs ESS 16:40ES
View All Fixtures
Round 10
Fri, 27 MayTimes shown AEST
SYD vs NTH 19:50SCG
Sat, 28 MayTimes shown AEST
BRI vs HAW 13:45G
MEL vs PTA 14:10TIO Traeger Park
STK vs FRE 16:35ES
ESS vs RIC 19:25MCG
ADE vs GWS 19:40Adelaide Oval
Sun, 29 MayTimes shown AEST
CAR vs GEE 13:10ES
COL vs WBU 15:20MCG
WCE vs GCF 16:40Domain Stadium
View All Fixtures
Round 11
Fri, 03 JunTimes shown AEST
NTH vs RIC 19:50BA
Sat, 04 JunTimes shown AEST
HAW vs MEL 13:45MCG
CAR vs BRI 14:10ES
GEE vs GWS 16:35SS
GCF vs SYD 19:25MS
FRE vs ESS 19:40Domain Stadium
Sun, 05 JunTimes shown AEST
COL vs PTA 13:10MCG
WBU vs WCE 15:20ES
ADE vs STK 16:40Adelaide Oval
View All Fixtures
Round 12
Fri, 10 JunTimes shown AEST
ESS vs HAW 19:50ES
Sat, 11 JunTimes shown AEST
PTA vs WBU 13:40Adelaide Oval
BRI vs FRE 16:35G
GEE vs NTH 19:25ES
WCE vs ADE 19:40Domain Stadium
Sun, 12 JunTimes shown AEST
STK vs CAR 13:10ES
RIC vs GCF 15:20MCG
GWS vs SYD 16:40Spotless Stadium
Mon, 13 JunTimes shown AEST
MEL vs COL 15:20MCG
View All Fixtures
Round 13
Fri, 17 JunTimes shown AEST
NTH vs HAW 19:50ES
Sat, 18 JunTimes shown AEST
BRI vs WCE 13:40G
FRE vs PTA 16:35Domain Stadium
WBU vs GEE 19:25ES
Sun, 19 JunTimes shown AEST
SYD vs MEL 13:10SCG
ESS vs GWS 16:40ES
View All Fixtures
Round 14
Thu, 23 JunTimes shown AEST
ADE vs NTH 19:50Adelaide Oval
Fri, 24 JunTimes shown AEST
COL vs FRE 19:50MCG
Sat, 25 JunTimes shown AEST
RIC vs BRI 13:40MCG
GWS vs CAR 16:35Spotless Stadium
STK vs GEE 19:25ES
Sun, 26 JunTimes shown AEST
HAW vs GCF 15:20AS
View All Fixtures
Round 15
Thu, 30 JunTimes shown AEST
WCE vs ESS 20:10Domain Stadium
Fri, 01 JulTimes shown AEST
PTA vs RIC 19:50Adelaide Oval
Sat, 02 JulTimes shown AEST
GCF vs STK 13:40MS
SYD vs WBU 16:35SCG
CAR vs COL 19:25MCG
Sun, 03 JulTimes shown AEST
MEL vs ADE 15:20MCG
View All Fixtures
Round 16
Thu, 07 JulTimes shown AEST
PTA vs HAW 19:50Adelaide Oval
Fri, 08 JulTimes shown AEST
GEE vs SYD 19:50SS
Sat, 09 JulTimes shown AEST
GWS vs COL 13:40Spotless Stadium
GCF vs BRI 16:35MS
WBU vs RIC 19:25ES
MEL vs FRE 19:40TIO
Sun, 10 JulTimes shown AEST
CAR vs ADE 13:10MCG
WCE vs NTH 15:20Domain Stadium
ESS vs STK 16:40ES
View All Fixtures
Round 17
Thu, 14 JulTimes shown AEST
SYD vs HAW 19:20SCG
Fri, 15 JulTimes shown AEST
FRE vs GEE 20:10Domain Stadium
Sat, 16 JulTimes shown AEST
RIC vs ESS 13:40MCG
NTH vs PTA 16:35ES
WBU vs GCF 19:25CAZ
ADE vs COL 19:40Adelaide Oval
Sun, 17 JulTimes shown AEST
CAR vs WCE 13:10MCG
STK vs MEL 15:20ES
BRI vs GWS 16:40G
View All Fixtures
Round 18
Fri, 22 JulTimes shown AEST
COL vs NTH 19:50ES
Sat, 23 JulTimes shown AEST
SYD vs CAR 13:45ANZ
GCF vs FRE 14:10MS
WCE vs MEL 16:35Domain Stadium
WBU vs STK 19:25ES
GEE vs ADE 19:25SS
Sun, 24 JulTimes shown AEST
ESS vs BRI 13:10ES
HAW vs RIC 15:20MCG
PTA vs GWS 16:40Adelaide Oval
View All Fixtures
Round 19
Fri, 29 JulTimes shown AEST
GEE vs WBU 19:50SS
Sat, 30 JulTimes shown AEST
GWS vs RIC 13:45SO
HAW vs CAR 14:10AS
COL vs WCE 16:35MCG
BRI vs PTA 19:25G
NTH vs STK 19:25ES
Sun, 31 JulTimes shown AEST
MEL vs GCF 13:10MCG
FRE vs SYD 15:20Domain Stadium
ADE vs ESS 16:40Adelaide Oval
View All Fixtures
Round 20
Fri, 05 AugTimes shown AEST
RIC vs COL 19:50MCG
Sat, 06 AugTimes shown AEST
SYD vs PTA 13:45SCG
MEL vs HAW 14:10MCG
GCF vs GWS 16:35MS
WBU vs NTH 19:25ES
ADE vs BRI 19:40Adelaide Oval
Sun, 07 AugTimes shown AEST
CAR vs STK 13:10MCG
GEE vs ESS 15:20ES
FRE vs WCE 16:40Domain Stadium
View All Fixtures
Round 21
Fri, 12 AugTimes shown AEST
WBU vs COL 19:50ES
Sat, 13 AugTimes shown AEST
BRI vs CAR 13:45G
HAW vs NTH 14:10MCG
GWS vs WCE 16:35Spotless Stadium
STK vs SYD 19:25ES
PTA vs MEL 19:40Adelaide Oval
Sun, 14 AugTimes shown AEST
ESS vs GCF 13:10ES
RIC vs GEE 15:20MCG
FRE vs ADE 16:40Domain Stadium
View All Fixtures
Round 22
Fri, 19 AugTimes shown AEST
WCE vs HAW 20:10Domain Stadium
Sat, 20 AugTimes shown AEST
NTH vs SYD 13:45BA
RIC vs STK 14:10MCG
GWS vs FRE 16:35Spotless Stadium
COL vs GCF 19:25ES
PTA vs ADE 19:40Adelaide Oval
Sun, 21 AugTimes shown AEST
CAR vs MEL 13:10MCG
BRI vs GEE 15:20G
ESS vs WBU 16:40ES
View All Fixtures
Round 23
Sat, 27 AugTimes shown AEST
HAW vs COL 12:00MCG
STK vs BRI 12:00ES
ESS vs CAR 12:00MCG
GCF vs PTA 12:00MS
SYD vs RIC 12:00SCG
NTH vs GWS 12:00ES
GEE vs MEL 12:00SS
ADE vs WCE 12:30Adelaide Oval
FRE vs WBU 14:00Domain Stadium
View All Fixtures
AFL 2015
Overall standings
Team P W L D % Pts
Adelaide Crows 0 0 0 0 - 0
Brisbane Lions 0 0 0 0 - 0
Carlton 0 0 0 0 - 0
Collingwood 0 0 0 0 - 0
Essendon 0 0 0 0 - 0
Fremantle 0 0 0 0 - 0
Geelong Cats 0 0 0 0 - 0
Gold Coast Suns 0 0 0 0 - 0
View all

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