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What changed for Tigers player Jack Riewoldt

Injuries are a fact of life for a professional footy player

Jack Riewoldt on the field at a Tigers game wearing his jersey and smiling
Jack Riewoldt on the field at a Tigers game wearing his jersey and smiling

I've had about 16 end-of-season surgeries. Think of it as an annual car service, but for AFL players. While injuries are an occupational hazard for a footy player, we’re human as well, and there are health issues we’re all touched by that happen beyond the boundary rope.

I’ve always had pasty white skin and when I was 18, my wife discovered a little tricolour mole on my back. This was mid-season, so I put it off – said I’d get it looked at during the end-of-season medical. I went and had it examined by our club doctor, Dr. Greg Hickey, and he thought it was a bit sus, that there were three different colours and it had become a little more raised. He sent me to a specialist, and they decided it had to be cut out immediately. The lab results showed it was a melanoma with 0.9 of a millimetre depth. 

At a millimetre, it starts to become dicey - that's when the cancer can start to spread into your blood a bit more. I was very fortunate I caught it when I did, and that the delay in treatment didn’t cost me. It’s so important to get regular checks and be aware of your skin type and risk of skin cancer.

Now I'm very cautious. I've got two young kids, so naturally, I'm cautious with sun care with them. But I'm also cautious when it comes to the guys at the football club. I might be in the pool doing recovery with them and if something catches my eye, it's front of mind for me having gone through that experience. I'll be forthright in urging teammates to get the doctor to look at anything that might be an issue. 

I think my experience also helped change the philosophy of the football club in terms of providing sunscreen, zinc cream and hats - we've got 50 million different types of hats for guys to wear so it's comfortable while they're training and also provides them with sun protection. The physical checkups at the end of the year include a scan of the skin, and the AFL is involved in a skincare awareness program to make sure players are being checked often because of their exposure to the outdoors.

Being on top of this is just who I am, and I get so much reward from being involved in charitable concerns around health. I’m one of those people who just naturally wants to help people out who are doing it rougher than me. 

The moment that changed everything

My family went through a tragic situation with my cousin Madeleine passing away with Aplastic Anaemia in 2015 after a five year battle, two bone marrow transplants and seven months in hospital. Maddie was one of mine and Nick’s biggest cheerleaders and she was as brave as she was sports mad.   

I've felt I wanted to pay back as much as possible. Being an AFL player gives me a great platform to go out and do things in the community, which is why we launched Maddie Riewoldt’s Vision, a charity to help adolescents and young adults suffering from Bone Marrow Failure Syndromes.

Now, if I have the choice, I prefer to go out and help people who are doing it tough and struggling with their own health or somebody in their family's health. I believe laughter is the best medicine. If you can put a smile on someone's face, that's worth doing.

Some people can find it really confronting to go into a situation where they’re with others who are not doing well, especially if they feel they can’t provide any answers. Ultimately, it's another person to have a conversation with. A lot of the time, they're Richmond supporters so it's pretty easy for me to strike up a convo to talk about the Tiges. While we're not out there curing anything, we're trying to put smiles on the faces of people who are unwell and families that are going through difficult times. Smiles are the things that repay you.

Injuries and recovery

Injuries are just a fact of life for a professional footy player. I've been in the situation, as most players have, where they've played through injuries that have needed to be surgically repaired, but you find the short-term solution to continue to play. 

You'll never find an AFL player who goes out feeling 100% with their body – there are always little niggles. Especially at the back end of the season, there are a lot of guys running around on half a tank of petrol, but they find ways of dealing with it.

Clubs are really smart with their assets – the players. They might ease the training loads for the guys that may be struggling a little bit but are still able to physically play. Clubs treat them right, knowing they need them firing on the weekend when they're most important.

Playing with pain is just part of the job. Players have varied pain thresholds, while injuries affect people differently. There is a mentality that players will constantly push themselves to the limit, and sometimes over the limit, often to their long-term detriment. My attitude towards injuries is if it’s one that is stopping you from playing, get yourself better as fast as you possibly can. If it has you in doubt of playing, then do everything you can to get up.

I look at things like small ankle rolls, or similar as something that could cost you a week or two - but if you do everything right, you can play the next week. That's an example of the professionalism that AFL players take into their rehab and recovery. Some players try to will themselves through these situations but need an external voice to guide them through.

Sometimes a psychologist is helpful. There are some injuries that you can play through and maybe inexperienced players don't realise that they can actually push the boundaries and not get hurt even more. Experienced physios and doctors are crucial to a professional sports club because of the trust required.

Anytime you get injured for a first time, you always err on the side of caution and you're a bit wary, but it’s also an opportunity to learn more about yourself and your body. I don't run very fast, so I'm not prone to soft tissue injuries, touch wood. Despite all those surgeries, I've been very fortunate.  

The most significant injury I’ve had was a posterior cruciate ligament (PCL) injury that put me out for 10 or 12 weeks. I just ran into the wrong bloke in Max Gawn, who's a fair bit bigger than me, and I jumped off the opposite leg than I usually would to protect myself and just caught him in the wrong spot. Next thing you know, I've done a posterior cruciate ligament PCL. 

For all the pain and time off the field, I've quite enjoyed my journey. The things that have happened to me have made me physically stronger, and maybe mentally stronger as well.

What would I tell a young Jack?

What advice would I give my younger self about dealing with injuries and setbacks? Learn about private healthcare before you leave home! I left home at 17 and was off mum and dad's card pretty quickly and had to find my own way in the big world.

And also, be ready for anything.

I broke my collarbone when I was 17. It was my draft year, and it was like my world was collapsing. But it was a six-week injury, so in the grand scheme of things it wasn't a huge issue. Now, when I get injuries, I learn to manage myself and deal with the emotional side of it better than I did in the past.

There are many things that come with experience and knowing your body and knowing the limits you can push. As a leader in a footy club, it then becomes about imparting a bit of wisdom and chatting to younger guys about how to take their health seriously. There is a sacrifice to be made to play a combative professional sport, where the likelihood is that you are going to get injured at some stage. 

Rehab can be a bit of a mental dungeon for guys who have long-term injuries and spend a lot of time training away from the group doing different things. A lot of time is spent talking, from a leadership point of view, about players who have a long-term injury and the risks that can come with that.

The one area I’ve seen a dramatic change during my career is concussions and head injuries. They were probably more like soft tissue injuries, or a ‘corky’ when I started. Now, with the rise of information around chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), there has been a big change in how head injuries are treated and protected in the rules of the game. That's flowed onto the players' mindsets – anytime anything happens above the shoulders, there is a structure to the care that follows.

I've had three concussions, the first at 16. My most famous one happened at the MCG against St Kilda when I banged my head on the ground as I landed. The cameras showed me later crawling up the stairs in the stands like an actual tiger, and then saw me spit the dummy at the coaching staff, who rightly wouldn’t let me back on. Looking back, that’s a clear sign of a player that was suffering from a concussion, and the emotional side that happens when you're not quite right and you have suffered an injury
to your head.