The Docker’s debut year was a sporting best and worst of times.
Michael Barlow returned to one of his several homes on Saturday night. It was the first time this already-well-travelled footballer had been back to Werribee since he was drafted last December, and again gave him pause to reflect on how high he had soared, and how fast he crashed to earth.
Those close to him keep reminding Barlow not to lose his sense of perspective, and he surely hasn’t misplaced his sense of humour. Asked what lunacy made him try to get up and play on that fateful Saturday afternoon in round 14, his lower leg flapping like flounder on a line, Barlow had a packed Werribee Football Club social rooms at once recoiling in horror, and smiling at his self-deprecation.
”I’ve never been injured before. I just thought to myself, ‘It can’t be anything too serious’,” he said. ”I thought I’d see if it would pop back in like a dislocated finger. It didn’t work out that way.”
The other thought that entered his head has been difficult to expel, and is one that dogs trauma victims no matter the scale of their misery. ”This can’t be happening to me.”
Barlow went from being second favourite for the Brownlow Medal, and tied with James Podsiadly for the feelgood story of 2010, to outright winner of ”Heartbreaker of the Year” in the instant it took for his tibia and fibula to snap in two. Noted Peter Schwab, the Football Victoria CEO who joined him on Saturday night’s guest list, the tale of his debut season is a sporting best and worst of times.
Already he has been asked to revisit the nightmare too many times, drawn too often to speculate just when he will throw away his crutches and start rebuilding his broken football life. He went over all of this pot-holed ground in good spirit on Saturday night, but was relieved when the father of his old teammate and Werribee captain, Dom Gleeson, asked not about his leg but the wellbeing of his brother.
His memory of the immediate aftermath is not as grisly as it might have been, sugar-coated somewhat by the ”green stick” of pain relief Fremantle’s trainers had him inhaling soon after he and Rhys Palmer crossed paths. Barlow remembers the stunned crowd clapping as he was carried up the race, and becoming ”quite emotional”. It is a flashpoint in his realisation not only of what had just happened, but the dream he had been living.
”It all kind of sunk in, the impact I’d been able to have, how I was going,” he said. ”I was just loving doing it – getting the chance to do it.”
The sentiment hints at his journey – the years of rejection, the unconventional path via the Goulburn Valley and VFL, then the whirlwind progression from 22-year-old Dockers rookie to AFL star.
”If you’d told me this time last year that I was even going to get on a rookie list at any club, I would have just been so thrilled. To play 13 games would have been another bonus, and to go as well as I was lucky to go would have really blown my mind.”
His parents, Jenny and Herb, were watching little sister Maisie play netball that sorry afternoon, taping Fremantle v Port Adelaide to watch after returning home to Cobram. Barlow says the Dockers – who he can’t praise enough for their support and guidance – were on the phone to his parents within minutes of his injury, but couldn’t raise them.
”They didn’t want to answer calls or look at messages because they knew it might be about the footy,” he said, adding that they twigged something was up when the missed calls climbed into the thirties. Jenny picked up the phone when her oldest friend and bridesmaid texted her: ”Thinking of you.”
Barlow’s battle has been not to think of himself, but to pick himself up again and move on. He says the first fortnight was hard, even with family flying in to comfort him, and messages of support in the several hundreds coming from all over the country. Garry Lyon, Michael Voss and Chris Newman – all broken-leg veterans who made it back to the top – are among those whose support he holds dear.
Inactivity doesn’t sit well, but getting back in the gym in recent weeks has done more than pump his triceps fit to burst, it has marked the start of the long road back. He was hoping to be off the crutches within a week, but on Monday his surgeon cautioned patience and ordered another month’s rest before weight-bearing.
Already he has lost three kilograms off his left thigh alone. Returning to the pool will help the rebuild, and leave him feeling not only fresher, but ”a lot more worthwhile”.
The break was closer to knee than ankle, and relatively clean, both positives in terms of recovery. ”The doctors think it will knit back together really well. All things being well, I should be able to play in the NAB Cup next year.” Rather than ponder those who have wondered out loud if he will be the same player again, he hears and shares the optimism of his doctors.
He doesn’t want for support, as a chance recent mobbing by schoolchildren in the Cobram McDonald’s reminded him. Before heading for the terraces to watch Werribee take on Williamstown on Saturday night, he thanked the club for all that it taught him, for making his dream come true.
”I really love this competition,” he said of the VFL. ”I’m really happy to be in a situation where I can promote the Werribee Football Club. It’s just great to be back.”
As surely he will be.