Nick Maxwell almost retired at the end of 2013. It had not been the happiest of seasons, had ended badly and by the time he headed off on a boys' trip to Mexico and Las Vegas last spring, the outgoing Collingwood captain believed he had had enough of football and that the feeling was mutual.
Maxwell had never expected to play 200 games. In fact, on the occasion of his 150th he bought a bottle of Grange Hermitage and presented it to his parents and his manager, Peter Lenton, over dinner because he thought it would prove his final milestone performance.
Perhaps it was that highly ordered side of Maxwell's AFL life that made last season even more disappointing. Reading the play on and off the field has always been his strong suit and the story was no longer clear to him.
The once-tentative battler who had willed himself to run back on those early nervous occasions with the flight of the ball - and in the process win over his coaches and captain and playing mentor James Clement - now questioned whether his best was still good enough both as a player and off-field leader.
''I looked at my own game and where I was at,'' said Maxwell this week, in the lead-up to joining the 200 club against Sydney at ANZ Stadium on Saturday night, ''and whether I did want to go on. Because of all the changes that were going on, because of frustrations with injuries where I couldn't play at the level I expected of myself.
''[Last year] we were doing everything we could to keep the group together. But I didn't do a good enough job. None of us did a good enough job.''
The 2010 premiership captain was holidaying not with teammates but a group of old school friends on a trip that had been more than a decade in the planning. He left not certain he would fulfil his one-year contract and there were occasions on the trip where Maxwell's football life flashed before him - the selfishness of his existence where his family was concerned, the sacrifices and not insignificantly his close mate's wedding scheduled in the 2014 pre-season that he knew he would have to miss.
Overseas, Maxwell also reflected on the massive challenges that Collingwood players had faced, with the philosophical transformation from Mick Malthouse to Nathan Buckley and the ensuing fallout, the player departures and the staff changes.
''There wasn't so much divisions,'' Maxwell now explains. ''What I saw was with a lot of guys because Mick and Bucks were so different and their philosophies were so different; for a lot of guys who had been under Mick for 10 years or however long they were it was a fairly big shift in the way Bucks not only wants us to play but the way he wants us to train and his philosophies.
''With Mick, if a guy got into trouble over the weekend Mick wasn't one to act in the sense that his attitude was that player owes it to us and he owes it to our supporters to perform over the weekend.
''Whereas with Bucks it's more: 'No, no, no, we're all part of a team here and you've got to toe the line as much as the next guy and if you can't do what we need you to do for the team then we'll find someone else to come in and play that role.
''Because they are so different in the way they do it it can be very challenging for guys and it was challenging. Plus the game, new demands, a lot of things were changing. Our fitness staff … rumours that Dave Buttifant was leaving as well, players were coming towards the end of their careers.
''In the change room it was really difficult because guys who I considered were close mates were in a position where they were not in the team and they felt they should have been out there and they felt they were better than the younger guy who was out there.''
In the end, said Maxwell, it was because of all the change he felt he had to play. ''And I still felt I had a lot to give. They were the two reasons that I felt I have to go back to this, I have to commit to this and go all the way through it.
''If I hadn't been here … we've got a very introverted group and a lot of them are self-driven and they've got to learn to drive others …
''Last year was tough but we also learnt a lot about our kids as well. And because some stood up and played well in an environment that wasn't perfect, we thought: how good will they be when we get to the point that things are working and we are all together and determined beyond anything else to unite to have success?''
Maxwell, a long-time union man where players' rights are concerned, broke ranks with AFL Players Association guidelines and began his own personal pre-season six weeks early. He has attacked 2014, he says, fitter than he has ever been. ''I threw myself into training well before pre-season started,'' said Maxwell, ''and on the first day I ran a PB in a time trial after 12 years here. I finished fourth, which isn't bad for a third tall defender. I wanted to make a statement and show that this is what I really want to do.''
Mindful that the club was introducing a new weights program and strength coach - Marty Girvan who ran a gym near Maxwell's Spotswood home - the 30-year-old also trained with him regularly six weeks out from the start of pre-season.
But Maxwell did not attempt to convince Heath Shaw to conform to the point that he could remain a Magpie. ''Heath was just extremely frustrated a lot of the time for all of the reasons I've talked about. My opinion was that it was going to help him to leave.
''As much as I've played … well, 185 of my 200 now standing next to him - and I know people might see video of us having a crack at each other, but it's just that we're competitive and we want to win at all costs. We also go about things completely differently on a day-to-day basis.
''But we do have enormous respect for each other and I could see that a new environment could really help him.''
Maxwell is emphatic he has no interest in becoming a coach and would not even speculate on whether he would prove a teacher in the Buckley mould or a motivator like Malthouse.
He says life after football holds no fears for him because the early and repeated rejections before Collingwood in 2003 took him as a rookie saw him complete a double degree and since then play every season as if it was his last - quite literally, he says, despite more than 100 games as captain.
''I've been prepared for retirement since day one,'' Maxwell said, ''and I've gone into every contract as if it was my last. I've had to because I've had no choice because I'm not good enough. I don't dread the end. In fact, I know I couldn't do this forever. The great thing about footy for me is that there is an expiry date.''
This season is no different. His future in the game could come, according to Maxwell, in football administration or a media commentary role - a pursuit in which Maxwell believes there is room for improvement.
''I'm not sure exactly what post-footy looks like,'' he said, ''but if I did work in the media it would be more analysis that interests me. David King stands out to me because he goes to training and goes to ask questions.
''I think we're making the punters dumber because I think we're not giving them the right information all the time. When X, Y or Z say it and it's taken as gospel.
''I hear a well-known commentator say that and I think, 'No, that's wrong.' There's a massive gap that we need to fill and maybe the clubs can help by welcoming commentators in to give them a better understanding.''
Equally poorly received by teammates was Matthew Scarlett's autobiographical attack last year on Maxwell in which the retired Cats full-back said: ''None of our players had any respect for Maxwell. We hated how he was being compared to Tom Harley. It was simply wrong.''
Maxwell's friends at Geelong - Jimmy Bartel, another old St Joseph's College boy is a close friend - rallied and while the player himself said he was shocked, he only resented having to answer questions about the literary sledge.
''I've never spoken to him [Scarlett] in my life outside of comments on the footy field and I didn't know him from a bar of soap so it came as a complete shock,'' he said. ''I had overwhelming support after that, but I understand that people only really want to watch the star, which I never was. But I also hope I never forget what every player has to go through just to get onto the ground to play a senior game.''
Maxwell's work across a number of charities is noted by his employer and he said he wanted to be remembered not only for playing his role for the team but for the relationships he has built across the club through its networks.
''I've loved every minute of it,'' he said of his Collingwood career and 199 senior games, adding quickly: ''No, that's actually a lie. I've hated a lot of it, I hate it when things don't go well.''
Caroline Wilson has been chief football writer for The Age since 1999. She was the first woman to cover Australian Rules football on a full-time basis and the first woman to win the AFL's gold media award. She has won the AFL Players' Association's football writer of the year (1999) and the AFL Media Association's most outstanding football writer and most outstanding feature writer (2000, 2003, 2005). In 2014 she won the Melbourne Press Club's Graham Perkin award as Australian journalist of the year. She also won a MPC Quill Award in 2003.
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