TOM Hunter was lying on the bench, staring up at the grey concrete roof, trying to keep his back straight. He heard his Collingwood teammates trample towards him and felt them brush by, pausing to tap him on the leg as they passed. In the rooms a few minutes later he watched them talk, and eat, and drink, and think, and work out what they needed to do in the second half. At the same time he kept thinking: ''I'm not going to play football again''. ''It sounds kinda sad, but that's how quickly it happens,'' he recalls. ''You stop, and the game keeps going. There's another quarter, another half, another game the next week. It happens just like that. You're part of it, and then you're just not.''
Footballers come, then they're gone. In the next few weeks, football will farewell premiership players, 200-game players, and plenty more who have tried to do those things. Then there is someone like Jarryd Allen, who, four years after landing badly as a 21-year-old in his fourth game, has an aluminium hip. There's Darcy Daniher, ground down by constant injury, who realised at 21 that the one thing he had ever wanted to do wasn't what he thought it would be. And there's Hunter, forced to finish before the first senior game he knew he would play.
HUNTER was 20, playing his second pre-season game for Collingwood in a NAB Cup semi-final in March last year, and he felt good. It was the start of his second year on the rookie list, but he didn't feel any pressure. He hadn't played since the previous August, when he suffered a neck injury and was told he had a smaller-than-normal spinal canal, and he had been allowed to do contact training for only a month when he got called up: on the day he was allowed back into drills, he had made himself run into Chris Tarrant once, then twice, to get rid of any nerves. That he had been picked after only a few weeks of full training gave him heart, that the coaches had confidence in him, too.
After a couple of early touches, Hunter felt even better. Sure of himself. Then he was knocked on the head while bending to pick up a loose ball. Immediately his arms went dead. He couldn't get up and could hear the West Coast fans giving him a hard time. When the feeling returned, it felt like shards of glass under his skin. As he was rushed over the boundary line and sat on the bench, he knew he had probably played his last game.
A week later, he knew that's what he was going to hear when he went to see a neurologist. Still, to hear those words - ''no more contact sport'' - broke his heart. As soon as he got home he grabbed his football and headed for the oval over the road, to have a kick, to rebel, to realise.
''I sort of knew. When I saw him, I knew what he was going to say, I knew they couldn't fix it. But as soon as he spoke I just started crying. I just stood up and left,'' he recalls. ''I remember thinking, it's my body, I feel fine, why does this guy think he knows my body better than me? I was a bit angry, a bit disappointed. I went over the road and I don't know what was in my head. But I knew I had to start coming to terms with it. Maybe I was thinking 'this could be my footy field now'. I don't know.''
There were more specialists, more warnings. The worst-case scenarios were really bad: a punctured airway, life in a wheelchair. ''There was no decision to make, but I still had to feel like it was my decision not to play footy, not like someone was telling me I couldn't. I just had to make it feel like that.
''If anything happened to me, my mum and dad would be looking after me. It would affect their lives, it would affect my sister, everyone. There's no way I could live with that. I don't want to be remembered as the Collingwood player with the neck thing, I want to be a person who did the right thing for his family. I had to think bigger than how I was feeling right then, to come to terms with it.''
ALLEN had no choice either. He was in his second year, had signed a new three-year deal and been called up for St Kilda's 2008 semi-final against Collingwood when he was hurt. He can picture it all: where he led, how Robert Harvey looked for him, how suddenly the boundary line appeared, how, after landing at first on his right leg, his left didn't bend, the force rushing up his leg. In that moment, he fractured his hip socket and shredded almost all the cartilage lining it.
For almost a year he tried to get back. He spent weeks on crutches. He learnt about how all the little muscles around his hip worked. He started running in straight lines and felt good, like the impossible was going to happen.
Then he woke up one morning in pain, and needed a third operation. Allen was drifting in and out of sleep when the surgeon came to see him but knew what he was saying: no new cartilage had been generated; that if it were him, he would never play football again.
The idea, then, was to avoid a hip replacement. Allen had almost finished his landscaping course when he retired; he needed his hip for his life after football, too. But the next few months were awful. He could barely sleep. He sat up thinking ''why me; why won't this get better; what am I going to do?'', and a million other things. He used anti-inflammatory tablets all day pretty much every day, which his parents didn't like. He needed to decide: did he want a ceramic replacement hip? Or an aluminium one? He hadn't even turned 22. ''I didn't want to be deciding something like that.''
Allen was frustrated, and sore. He knows those months took a toll not only on him but his partner, Shelley, and his family. ''It was tough. I definitely had some tough moments. You're wondering what life is going to be like and there's all sorts of things that come across your mind when you're sitting up, when you can't sleep,'' he said.
''I tried to handle it all myself and Shelley was looking out for me, but we had our moments. It was tough. We'd talk about it and what it was going to be like, but then I tried to muddle through it on my own and either she copped it or someone else copped it. I was zoned out. I wasn't doing anything on the weekends, so I was bored and I just didn't want to talk about it. It drags your whole life down.''
Allen had the surgery in October 2010. The aluminium casing sits over his hip joint and he took three months off work, doing lots of rehab to rebuild the muscles around it and get his legs back to a similar size. He had to raise the toilet seat, and use a stick to pick things up. It was a long, gradual process but the pain was gone almost straight away, which was a huge relief. What didn't help was the trouble he then had with St Kilda: bills that weren't paid until Allen starting receiving legal letters and had to chase the club up two or three times; calls that came only after his own lawyers requested his medical files and began looking into whether he had a case against the Saints.
Technically he was still a St Kilda player in 2010, having agreed to be on the rookie list to help the club manage its salary cap and his final payment. But the only person who called to check on his surgery was the club doctor. The rehab left him out of pocket more than $5000 and he couldn't help but feel bitter.
''I think it just made a pretty bad time in my life worse. That's all. I don't want to name names, but at that time the last thing I needed was to be getting letters from lawyers about bills that weren't paid,'' he said. ''It just felt a bit harsh to me and it was a bad experience, but I look back and that's just footy. While you're there, they care and they'd do anything for you, but then you're of no use. I'm still out of pocket a fair bit, but it's more the feeling that no one really cared or even wanted to know about it.''
DANIHER'S end was a gradual one. He always knew that if he was good enough, he would play for Essendon. It was where his father Anthony had played more than 100 games. But it didn't take long for the dream he had had since he was five to become a bit more real: he had his first operation after running into Matthew Lloyd at training in November, missed his first year, and by the end of the second was stuck in the VFL side, not playing well and wondering if he would get a second contract.
He got a two-year deal and was relieved, but new stresses soon kicked in. Daniher played three games early in 2010 and hurt a quad in the third, never imagining he wouldn't play another game. ''You think you'll just be back in a few weeks. And then you think, even if not, then there's always going to be next year.''
By the middle of 2010, though, osteitis pubis was troubling him. He would motivate himself to play each weekend, then pull up sore and pull out. It happened again the next week, and the week after, and before he knew it, three months had passed. ''Each week I was telling my family, telling my friends, 'I'll be right this week,' but it just went on and on,'' he said. ''Maybe that was something to do with me starting to lose my love of the game. It took its toll.''
By the start of the next preseason, Daniher knew, deep down, that it would be his last year. But even knowing that, he wanted it to be a good one, because who knew? A couple of weeks in, though, he was hurting. Again. A nerve problem in an adductor strapped him back into the roller-coaster of pain, scans and rehab and sitting through game-plan meetings all he could think was: what am I doing here? ''I kept thinking, I don't want to do this,'' he said. ''I sat there, and I couldn't really see the point.''
Manufacturing one didn't quite work either. Daniher spent lots of time with Essendon's player development manager, Ash Brown. He sat with a sports psychologist and they came up with goals: things to aim for in the pool, or in the gym. For a few months he felt like going to the club, doing what he had to do and getting out of there as soon as he possibly could. He was told he was depressed and, looking back, knows that he was. He was thinking, constantly. He knew he had friends - Scott Gumbleton, Tayte Pears - dealing with problems more dramatic than his, but felt miserable all of the time, all because of football.
Then Brown asked what he was going to do if he got another contract, and Daniher's response was: I don't want one. It was the first time he had said it out loud. He told a few more people, then the players. Immediately, he felt better. His decision was made. For real, for good.
''Maybe that was the burden, telling people. Maybe the decision was made and the burden was saying it,'' he said.
''And maybe I would have been delisted, I'm not sure, but as soon as I told the players, everything lifted, everything felt better. The whole family says that in the four years I played footy they never saw me smile, and as soon as I stopped they couldn't even recognise who this happy guy was. I told all the players and in the very second afterwards I knew it was the right decision.''
He had more to make then: what to do next? First, Daniher travelled: to Bali, through Europe, across Canada and the US twice. He knew he wanted to study, but deciding what subject was challenging; all he had wanted to do since he was five was play football.
But Brown helped, he had an interest in climate change and sustainability, and that led him to an urban planning course. ''It's given me something new to aim for,'' he said. ''I'm enjoying it.''
STARTING out in landscaping is hard, especially when you have a bad hip. Allen might go back to it one day, when he's ready to start his own business, but for the past six months he has been working for his older brother, driving excavators around building sites. He wants to help his new hip last, and needed a change anyway. He's an assistant coach at St Mary's Salesian, an amateur side, but what really got him through his darkest times was the birth last year of his daughter, Mikayla.
''She's changed my life,'' he said. ''Even waiting for her changed me. She gave me something to look forward to. On the weekends when I finished, I wasn't really doing anything. I was sitting around, and when your weekends have always been about playing footy and then you stop and there's nothing, it was something I found hard and my motivation wasn't there, for anything. So she helped. She took me forward a bit. I started to see the positives.''
Hunter has kept busy too, on purpose. Here's what his average week involves: a teaching course, work at a primary school one day a week, work as a personal trainer, training two nights a week with the East Keilor under-18 team he coaches every Saturday, catching a game or two on Sundays as part of Collingwood's recruiting team, then watching tapes, writing reports and attending meetings at the club. ''All those things,'' he said, ''fulfil different things in me. I needed to keep footy in my life.''
Hunter wanted to keep busy so his mind had no time to wander, or wonder. He wanted to create new things to focus on. It took him about two months to come to terms with the fact that he couldn't play footy again, anywhere, and it was hard. He saw a sports psychologist, and one of the first things she noticed was his breathing: he was breathing about 27 or 28 times a minute, as opposed to the usual 10, and he needed to calm down. ''It felt like I was on edge all the time for a little while there.''
The trouble was that, by the time Hunter's mind felt settled, his body had repaired itself. To help, he had his chest tattooed so that every time he looked in a mirror he remembered: attitude overcomes adversity. ''It took me a while to get over it. While I was a bit sore and weak I wouldn't have been able to play anyway, so it was when I felt better and when I started to get fit again that it was hard. But at the same time, being at the club, being able to help out, helped me. To get cut off completely would have been pretty bad,'' he said.
''I just had to keep things positive. I'm still walking, still talking. I can do anything, I can still have a life and have a good life. It's just one small aspect of it that has been taken away. You could push yourself further and further back, but if you take time, accept it and move on, you've got so much to look forward to. I wanted to be a Collingwood player, but now I want to help them in other ways.''
When Daniher was a kid, he wanted to play in a premiership side. When Hunter started at Collingwood he wanted to stay there as long as he could. On Allen's first day at St Kilda he looked at his No. 36 locker and noticed there were no 100-game players listed on it. ''That was my goal,'' he said. ''One hundred games sounded good.''
He played three games and a few minutes, and doesn't feel like he made it in any way. ''I just got a taste for it, a sniff.'' He remembers hearing Robert Harvey say he never felt like he made it, even after his 383 games, and it's stuck in his mind. ''I knew where I had to go and what I had to do to get better, but unfortunately I never got that opportunity.''
The same words cross Daniher's mind, but he's glad he got there. ''I played six games in four years. That's it. But I'm lucky. I'm grateful I got to experience it, and I'm young enough to start over. I knew I wanted to finish. A lot of players don't get to make their own decision.''
HUNTER didn't play any games. Not official ones anyway. But on his last day at Collingwood, as a player, he packed his gear, took a photo of his No. 45 locker and walked away convinced he would have played. He has no time for what-ifs. ''I believed in myself. I don't know how many games I would have played or what would have happened in my career, but I know I would have got there.''
Allen has a daughter about to turn one. Daniher has (at least) one more trip to plan before he starts to think about some work. Hunter wants to stay at Collingwood, to help the club win, for as long as he can. They have new lives, new things to do.
But would they do it all again? Allen would, absolutely, but he would look out for himself more. Daniher would, too, no question. It turned him into an adult. Hunter loves the game as much as he ever did, so count him in, too. ''All the ups and all the downs, I'd have it all again,'' he said. ''It was such a great experience, such a great stepping stone into my life.''