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Why I broke up with footy (and why I’m asking it to get back together)

Much like men, you can't change injury.

Okay, so it wasn’t really like I broke up with footy per se. But it felt a bit like getting dumped, and it’s what I tell my mates at the pub when they ask what happened. 

I stopped having the time, I’d say, or in true break up fashion: I wasn’t ready.

The truth is, it hurt so much because I’d been in love with it for a really long time. But it had never been the right time for us to be together.

Growing up, I played AusKick until under 8s. I stopped playing because there was only one girl left on the team and the boys never passed to me. The older I got, the more I wished there were AFL options for me: I was playing soccer on the weekends, but running the Aussie Rules commentary in my head when I’d go at goal. But the sense of heartbreak never went away, and I knew that I wanted to play footy.

When girls teams started popping up after the AFL Women’s league started, I initially said I didn’t want to play. I knew it meant acknowledging years of unrequited love. But when I did, it was so, so sweet. The commentary wasn’t just in my head anymore, it was coming from people on the sidelines. Moving my body across the field felt exactly like what I was meant to do with these limbs which so often feel out of place. There will never be a euphoria like it.

But just like that, it all fell apart, as I sat in the school counsellor’s office three months after my knee surgery. I explained to her how I was feeling — the frustration and the sadness, the uncompromising feeling of a great unfairness. I’ll never forget the eye contact she made with me when she said:

“Roisin, what you are experiencing is grief. These feelings aren’t going to go away, but they will get easier to manage.”

A month into my under 18s season, I was playing in the back line and laying bumps that were courageous, to say the least. At quarter time, I came off the field and heard my Dad say something I’ll always wish I listened to; go for the footy, not the man.

I didn’t listen to him; bounced right off her after laying a bump, and twisted my knee as I fell. 

The anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) is one of the main ligaments which stabilises your knee joint. ACL injuries plague women in sport, with an AFLW report reporting that there were 7.5 ACL injuries per 1,000 hours played in 2020. People with female bodies are nine times more likely to do the injury than cis men. The recovery time is 12 months at an absolute minimum: unless you’re a professional athlete who’s trained to do rehab, it’s not hugely likely that you’ll ever play the same kind of footy. Physios will always say your body could be better afterwards, but their eyes tell you that it will probably be worse.

Laying on the ground after that fall, there was nothing I wanted less than to be that statistic.

The control I’d finally gained over my relationship with footy was lost. At first, I was good at planting in my head the idea that rehab was footy. I was doing it so that I could play, and I treated going to the gym like going to training. But, like most people, the grief and the ‘why me” pretty quickly overtook my ability to push through rehab. 

A recovery journey that started as a determination was brought to an abrupt halt because the game of waking up and convincing myself every day that what had happened wasn’t cruel and unfair became too hard. I stopped because, to some extent, it felt like I shouldn’t have to do it. I felt like a hamster on a wheel with a footy being dangled in front of me.

It still feels unfair that my relationship with the game which I love will always be clouded with memories of the tears that would cover the exercise bike at the gym. 

But since then, I’ve learned lots about myself and about footy. It’s too easy to get caught up in the trap of all or nothing. The idols we have for injury aren’t the ressies footballer, they’re people on telly who can recover in 12 months and put the control back in their hands because they have the support to do so. Or, they’re those same people and they don’t recover. Everyone pretends they’re not there, because thinking about that sort of heartbreak is just a bit too hard. Sport is for feel-good stories, and we feel sorry for the sad cases who can’t make their body work. But we let them sit in the sorry case bubble.

Leaning into the space in between those two realities is incredibly scary. Leaning into the unknown is hard — grieving for what could have been is harder. But those things can exist at the same time as taking the risk of playing footy again. 

I might have an awkward fall again. I might never have any chance of playing a half-decent game with my botched and grafted knee. Much like men, you can’t change injury. No matter how hard you try.

Letting myself love footy again is one of the hardest things I’ll ever do. I didn’t want to love it again, because I didn’t want to accept that the love would be different. It’s no longer just a love that’s built off childhood dreams — it’s now muddled up with anger and a desire for control. But I’m gonna give it a chance anyway, because no matter how many times it hurts me, I’ll always crawl back. 

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