An AFL player will be killed on the field unless players and coaches change their reckless approach to collisions, former Fremantle rover Luke Toia has warned.

Toia was lucky to escape with his life in 2001 when he toppled head first to the ground after a marking contest while playing for Subiaco in the WAFL. He damaged three vertebrae in his neck after Swan Districts midfielder Wayne Otway ran with the flight of the ball before jumping into an airborne Toia, flipping him upside down.

Then 23, Toia spent the rest of the season recovering and played just one more AFL match before finishing his career in the WAFL and SANFL. He is still living in constant pain.

With Brisbane captain Jonathan Brown ruled out for six weeks after fracturing his cheekbone after teammate Matt Maguire’s knee hit him in the face at training, and more collision injuries occurring as players run with the flight of the ball, Toia said a tragedy was bound to happen.

“It’s frightening, the size of them,” Toia said.

“You look at blokes in the paper these days and they are so lean. They look like greyhounds and it’d be like a steam train running into you.

“I’m surprised someone hasn’t died. Look at Jordan Lewis (Hawthorn). It wouldn’t surprise me. It’d be shocking, but the way these blokes move and the sheer size of them (it could happen).

“(I remember) the young bloke that Spider (Aaron Sandilands) got in Adelaide (Phil Davis). Like Chris Connolly said, it’s simple physics. Force equals mass times acceleration.

“If someone 120 kilos runs through you, it’s not good. It’s like a jockey falling off a horse.”

Lewis was knocked out when he attempted to run with the flight of the ball against the Western Bulldogs in 2010. Jarrod Harbrow ran from the opposite direction, jumped to spoil the ball and crunched Lewis in the head.

Toia said players felt compelled to put their bodies on the line for teammates and feared the ramifications, both internally and outside the club, of being seen pulling out of a contest.

He said some of his most vivid memories were of players showing courage on the field, citing Peter Mann running with the flight of the ball late in the final quarter of a derby when Fremantle were more than six goals down.

Toia said he suffered some terrible injuries playing football but never regretted his actions. He said it would take dramatic coaching changes to alter players’ thinking.

“It depends on the coach and his philosophies and principles. Some coaches thrive on it and some are a bit smarter,” he said. “You don’t want to be down to 17 men, especially these days. Numbers are crucial. If you’re one man down in a game, it shows that you lose.

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