As a star-studded cast of AFL greats get set to hang up their boots, how does the burden of retirement sit with both the players and their fans? By Peter Hanlon.

AFL stalwarts call time on stellar careers

Jarryd Roughead celebrates kicking six goals in his final home game for Hawthorn last Sunday.
Jarryd Roughead celebrates kicking six goals in his final home game for Hawthorn last Sunday.
Credit: DaRrian Traynor / Getty Images

Sporting careers end for a range of reasons, and rarely by the athlete’s choosing. In the uncommon dream departure, the body’s groans finally stifle the never-say-die voice in the head, acceptance settles like a gentle fog, and George Washington’s musings on retirement light the path to a new beginning.

“Every day the increasing weight of years admonishes me more and more, that the shade of retirement is as necessary to me as it will be welcome,” the first president of the United States wrote. That was more than 200 years before Jarryd Roughead, Jarrad McVeigh, Aaron Sandilands, Dale Thomas, Jordan Lewis, Kieren Jack or Brett Deledio first laced their footy boots. Now, as the star turns in the AFL’s 2019 valedictory revue, they can hope only for a little of George’s sangfroid as they exit stage left.

Bob Murphy subscribes to the notion that athletes die twice, and two years after his own sporting expiration he’s doing just fine. For all of his whimsy, the Bulldogs great knows that your mid-30s is past time to grow up. “It’s a bit like the end of childhood,” he says. “There’s a bit of sadness there but, jeez, I was 35. That’s a long childhood.”

At the end of his first season, in 2000, Murphy listened wide-eyed as veteran Scott Wynd announced to his teammates that he was done. He’s watched “retirement season” with interest ever since, and been struck by the two things he routinely hears retirees say on their way out – that they’re relieved “the war is over”, and how much they’ll miss the banter in the locker room.

“In my last year, I sat down in the locker room after training one day, and deliberately just listened, didn’t speak,” Murphy says. “After a minute I was thinking, ‘I’m done with this.’ The same conversation – that I’d loved for 17 years – I didn’t belong in it anymore. Not in an arrogant way – it was just time to be at the school fete, or at the barbecue for your neighbour’s 45th birthday. That was the conversation I needed to be in.”

Murphy moved on to a media career, and his good mate Roughead has offers aplenty to work in list management or other football department pursuits. Pointedly, Murphy says that by the time he stopped playing, he genuinely wanted to do something else. Others aren’t so sanguine; for all of his physical struggles, “Daisy” Thomas was miffed to be finished up by Carlton and would love to go around again in 2020.

Roughead’s end has somehow been both hard-nosed and idyllic. Dropped without sentiment by Hawthorn coach Alastair Clarkson to make way for the next wave of Hawks, he’s spent much of 2019 in the VFL, often playing on grounds he’d never even been to. In May he fell in dog shit diving for a mark at Victoria Park – and joked that at least it was dry. His dignified end has been humbling. Recalled for a farewell game in front of home fans last Sunday, his six-goal haul was met with universal joy.

Ned Brewer Maiga plays for Hawthorn’s Blind AFL team, and was part of a guard of honour for the 283-game champion. Roughead’s departure leaves him feeling empty. “Next year, seeing another No. 2 out there who’s not a balding redhead will be weird,” Brewer Maiga said.

Out on the ground, Changkuoth Jiath was playing his second game for the Hawks. A week earlier he’d been the focus – a young man born in an Ethiopian refugee camp, to Sudanese parents, who became Australian, making his AFL debut in the Canberra snow. On Sunday, “CJ” revelled in being part of something even more special.

“Knowing that I was playing with a legend of Hawthorn, of the AFL, in his last game, and he kicks six, it was the best feeling ever,” Jiath said this week. “After he kicked that last goal I just went crazy. To forever be able to say I played in Roughy’s last game, that’s an awesome thing, I’ll be bragging about that for sure.”

Sporting retirements can be hard for fans to digest too. On grand final night 2008, I watched a Hawks-mad mate’s son, then aged seven and wearing brown and gold from head to toe, run laps of the clothes line until he dropped, dizzy with premiership joy. Now he’s at university and has a car and a job. Next season, for the first time in his memory, he’ll follow a Hawthorn with no Roughead.

Undergoing cancer treatment then returning to captain his club added a human layer of relatability to Roughead’s laid-back story; football fans didn’t know him yet hurt for and with him, as they did for Jarrad McVeigh and wife Clementine when they lost baby daughter Luella in 2011. To see them finish evokes loss far greater than sport can conjure. Few of us have played elite-level football, but we’ve all lost someone.

Naturally, Roughead’s performance last weekend prompted cries of, “Surely he can’t go now!” But the big man decided travelling west for a clash with defending premier West Coast on its big, fast ground – with only six days between games and a Hawthorn finals appearance still a possibility – was a bridge too far. Better to savour the memory of finishing up against Gold Coast in Melbourne with the crowd reworking Lennon–McCartney by singing “All You Need Is Rough”.

A final act of dexterity is knowing when to say “enough”. This weekend two years ago, Murphy’s last possession came in the dying minutes of his 312th game, with his Bulldogs close enough still to pinch the win from the Hawks. One last time, he found space, steadied himself, and set sail for goal. And one of the purest kicks the game has seen sent the Sherrin tumbling out of bounds on the full.

“If I’d kicked it sweetly, post-high through the middle, I might be sitting here wondering if I should be playing on,” he wrote in the conclusion to his autobiography Leather Soul. “But I’m not. I don’t want to play anymore. I don’t have it in me anymore to get to the line. That’s a relief.”

Minutes after that shanked shot, Murphy was being chaired from the ground by teammates. To view a wide-angled shot of that scene is to see that, for some, the finality of retirement can be as foreboding as the outside world seems to the serial prisoner, for whom routine and confinement bring comfort, and the unknown sends shivers down the spine.

The Bulldogs farewelled another much-loved servant, Matthew Boyd, that night too. Alongside them, the Hawks carried off their great warrior Luke Hodge, bowing after 305 games to Clarkson’s drive to rejuvenate Hawthorn, just as Roughead is now.

Or so it seemed.

Two years later, Hodge has added 38 games as a Brisbane Lion to his tally, and could yet add a fifth premiership. Murphy jokes that by playing on, Hodge wrecked a memorabilia moment that could have helped fund their pipe-and-slippers dotage.

“[In 2011] I got to carry one of my best mates, Ben Hudson, off after his last game for the Bulldogs, and he went on to play for about four other clubs,” Murphy says of Hudson, who actually spent a year each with the Lions and Collingwood. “I’m starting to lose a bit of trust in this retirement thing.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 24, 2019 as "Calling time".

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Peter Hanlon is a former Age sportswriter turned freelancer and bus driver.

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