How Morabito beat his injury blues
As Anthony Morabito emerges from the darkest days of his football life, he can still play over in his head his real-life drama on December 10 last year.
He knows it back to front. But he refuses to watch the sequel.
The Fremantle Docker, who every club would like to clone, had promised himself during the last pre-season to train with more intensity, so that’s what he was doing at Fremantle Oval on this cloudless Friday morning.
It was at the tail end of the training exercise where two players in the centre of a square put pressure on a teammate trying to kick the ball.
“I was the last person in the group to do the pressuring and I might have been trying to go a bit too hard but I heard a little pop in my knee after an innocuous movement,” Morabito, 19, recalled. “I was trying to stop Barra (David Mundy) from kicking when it happened.”
Despite a “knowing” ruffle of his hair from Rhys Palmer, Morabito, preparing for his second season in the AFL after a promising start which had critics in raptures, went to ground. But he never thought it would be the start of the most challenging year of his short career.
He never envisaged that turning his body like he had done hundreds of times at training would have such devastating consequences.
And, for much of the next few hours he was confident that he remained in a position to build on the hard block of training from the previous month in his quest to develop a bigger “engine” to allow him to run out games after his debut season which saw him play 23 games.
His running goal after three bounces galloping along the northern wing and up through half-forward at Patersons Stadium in the elimination final against Hawthorn is a cameo which stands out from his first season. Few players can do it. All teams want them.
“I didn’t feel too bad,” Morabito said.
“I still got up and walked and jogged off the track to see the physios, who weren’t 100 per cent sure whether I had done my knee or not.
“On my way to get the scan done in Subiaco, I was confident it was something minor. I was walking fine and felt it was something not too bad.”
Then came the news which hit his emotions like a sledgehammer.
On the way home – Morabito shares a house with Hayden Ballantyne in a southern Perth suburb – he received a call from Fremantle doctor Ken Withers.
“The doc said I’d better come in and have a chat,” Morabito said. “I knew then. And it was probably the toughest time. A lot of thoughts go through your head.”
Morabito had torn the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee.
“He was straightforward. This is what you’ve done, these are the options,” Morabito said.
“He said he’d put forward to the club that I have a patella tendon reconstruction, the full 12 months.
“Once he started talking about the full 12 months, it started to really sink in.”
Morabito wasn’t up to facing teammates.
With shredded emotions and a muddled mind, he drove down to his brother Luke’s home in Mandurah for the weekend, where he caught up with a few mates who helped him deal with his sorrow.
He said the reins on his emotions were pulled tightest when a few of the Dockers called to offer sympathies and encouragement.
“I remember trying to hold back the tears when Barra gave me a call and Pav (Matthew Pavlich) gave me a call,” he said. “Chris Bond (football operations manager) also called and it was pretty emotional. They said I’d come back bigger and better and stronger than ever but it was going to be a long haul.”
As part of his initial therapy, Morabito jotted down some possible positives that could come from one of the game’s cruellest setbacks.
During a phone conversation with assistant coach Simon Lloyd, he listed three – the opportunity to do extra university study, the prospect of working on his endurance, and to boost his leadership skills which he described as “almost nonexistent last year”. He has made inroads in each area.
“I found that exercise pretty beneficial but when people started to give you sympathy it is pretty easy to fall back into your shell,” he said.
Team psychologist Kim Mercer proved a pillar for Morabito during his early recovery.
“Kim’s been very helpful,” Morabito said.
“Early on I found the training pretty tough because I couldn’t then go out and play. I felt like I was going through the motions. But Kim put in a few processes that helped me get through.
“Early on I’d see her at least once a week but now I’ve got to grips with it all and the fitness staff have everything in place, the breaks and training are really balanced, I haven’t had much of an excuse to go see her, so that’s probably a credit to everyone at the club.”
It’s also a credit to Morabito who, after six months of rehabilitation, is slightly ahead of schedule, though there is no chance he will make a return this season.
“I’m probably on a par if not a little bit ahead of where I should be,” he said. “The main thing is that the fitness staff are pretty happy, there’s not a lot of swelling and I’ve been running for about a month. It’s been a gradual build-up.
“It’s week 27 this week of a 40-week program which the fitness staff have used on a number of players (Palmer and Tim Ruffles). The first few months were probably the toughest because you’re not really doing anything on your feet.
“You sort of lose all your leg muscles and it takes a while to get that back, but I’ve been running for about a month and starting to get a bit more volume in my legs.”
Back to the sequel to the December 10 tragedy.
Morabito has a DVD of the operation at his home, but it’s a production he doesn’t plan to watch.
“I’ve got the video but there’d only be a limited chance of me seeing it,” he said.
A decade down the track, Morabito, the archetypal modern- day footballer at 191cm and 97kg, should have a bulging highlight reel to push the reconstruction video to the back of the queue.