From No. 1 draft pick to million-dollar man, Tom Boyd looked set for a stellar AFL career. But the demons he put down to homesickness were far stronger than he could have predicted. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

The unravelling of Bulldogs star Tom Boyd

Tom Boyd of the Bulldogs celebrates kicking a goal in 2018.
Tom Boyd of the Bulldogs celebrates kicking a goal in 2018.
Credit: Quinn Rooney / Getty Images

In 2014, Tom Boyd was a professional footballer, the AFL’s top draft pick, a great prospect. He was also a teenager experiencing chronic insomnia, depression and anxiety – and the weight of his own intense doubts and expectations. A Melburnian, Boyd was drafted by Greater Western Sydney and was also experiencing considerable homesickness. The thought of fulfilling his two-year contract there was intolerable and, within months of starting, he was dreaming of returning south.

But Boyd would later come to see his self-diagnosis of homesickness as a furphy. Unquestionably, he missed home. But the notion he was homesick became an “infectious” idea, he says – he thought it might be the root problem of everything else. And so, if he could return home, perhaps everything would be fine. He was wrong. 

“I think as people, we tend to sort of do this bundling of issues and just go with whatever is most efficient: if we can name it, we can deal with it,” Boyd says. “And that was true in my experience when I got told that homesickness was a thing. [Homesickness] is always the talk of the town prior to the draft because there had been a lot of player movement in the past couple of years before my draft – you know, players who are high picks who have moved back to Victoria or SA or whatever. 

“And for me, when I was having sleep issues, even in the early stages of my time at the Giants, and had my first brushes with anxiety, which I had never really sort of experienced in the way that I was experiencing it then, which was, you know, basically sitting around … and stressed out of my mind for no reason. When someone said homesickness to me, I figured it made sense to attribute those specific symptoms to this concept of homesickness. 

“Being a logical and relatively naive 18-year-old, it seemed to make a lot of sense.”

Despite this, Boyd says he was committed to finishing his second year at the Giants and had signed a new 12-month lease on a house in Sydney. Regardless, at the end of Boyd’s first AFL season, he was dramatically traded to Melbourne’s Western Bulldogs. Boyd was coming home. There was intrigue to the trade (some complicatedly arranged dominoes fell to trigger it), but it’s best remembered for the astonishing size of his contract – $7 million over seven years – a historic amount for a man who’d played only nine games for eight goals.

The contract transformed Boyd’s public image. Still just a teenager, the money intensified the public’s expectations and seemed to dissolve an unspoken rule among the game’s reporters that the league’s kids be treated less harshly. A tone of incredulity, scepticism, even hostility, emerged in the media’s treatment of him. 

“I think over the course of being a No. 1 pick and then getting traded, it seemed like I shedded my age, and just turned into a 28-year-old somehow. And I never felt that I got given the – particularly when it came to criticism – the time to grow. Now, when it came to my success in the [2016] premiership, the young age thing was a massive tool that they use to promote how good I’d been at such a young age. 

“But more consistently over the course of my career, I just felt like, you know, I was just not given the room to be 19 or 20 … I think if I had anything to do differently, though I don’t like playing hypotheticals much, it would have been nice just to have been given a little bit more patience and for me to be more patient with myself.” 

Interestingly, Boyd says there was another dimension to the often vehement criticism: “When I got traded from the Giants, I think one of the really significant undertones of the criticism that I got, other than being paid so much at 18 or 19 years old, was that I left the Giants still under contract and forced my way out of that footy club to go and join the Western Bulldogs,” he says. “And I think what that sort of represented to people was the power dynamic shifting away from the clubs back to the players, and even more so it was [seen to be] a real sort of spit in the face to the football loyalists who go, ‘We’ve given you this opportunity, you should be grateful and you also should be loyal back to us.’ ”

We often celebrate and poeticise fans’ relationships to their clubs, but fandom can also engender some intensely weird feelings of ownership over players. Footy pros aren’t in an ordinary job but participate in the dream lives of the public, and as such are capable of conferring great pleasure or pain to a great many strangers. In this way, they receive greater reverence than most – but also much greater contempt.

Boyd’s contract intensified this. He soon switched off from Instagram and Twitter. But while you can walk away from social media, you can’t stop walking down to the shops. Boyd copped abuse wherever he went, and his partner heard it constantly in the stands. 

“You can tell yourself whatever you want, that you’re a good person, or whatever it is,” Boyd says. “But if you get told that you’re not, 1000 times a day, eventually it just starts echoing. For me, it was the volume and the chronic nature of the criticism that really started to get to me. And I’ve spoken to a lot of Dogs fans since, and they’re all very friendly and nice and they say, ‘We loved you’ and all this sort of stuff. And I think it’s difficult for fans to put in perspective, the fact that they’re saying one thing is not the end of the world. But it’s the thousands of interactions that go the same way that ends up being a challenge to deal with.”

Boyd recalls a story from a few days after the Dogs’ historic premiership in 2016, a game in which he distinguished himself. It was the club’s best and fairest, one of the many functions that blossom in the week after the grand final. A coterie member, who’d “had a few skinfuls of alcohol”, grabbed Boyd’s arm and told him that he’d always thought he was shit but he’d finally shown up on the big day. “I’m like, ‘Mate, we just won the first premiership in 62 years a few days ago, and this is the way that you want to approach a 21-year-old kid with his 20-year-old partner next to him?’ ”

Some readers may consider that story in isolation and think, “Who cares? A drunk old-timer got loose, toughen up.” But Boyd’s point is that none of this was in isolation: there were years of very public abuse, scepticism and condescension. The totality mattered. The accumulation. 

“I threw quite a few profanities back at him, which was not normal for me at all,” Boyd remembers. “I’m glad that I stood up for myself in that moment, because most of the time I didn’t – I just ignored it and copped it … [The sense of] ownership of fans is one thing, the [sense of] ownership of coterie members is another, particularly if they’re donating money to the club.”

As actors in our imaginations, we don’t really know these players beyond what we project upon them or read in the paper. We don’t allow for their complexity, and while some personalities might be expressed, to a degree, on the oval, their media training also conspires to make them less knowable. They become, for many, well-paid cartoons. “There was a 2D version of me,” Boyd says. 

In one way, Boyd’s new memoir, Nowhere to Hide, is an act of reclaiming his third dimension from the flattening caricatures of the media and fans – and from the cold and nullifying box of career statistics. 

His memoir is not interested in dishing gossip but rather in walking readers through his mental illness and treatment. But it also describes well the experience of his team’s triumph and corrects the mischaracterisation of why, at the age of 23, he walked away from it all.

This is part one of a two-part series.

Read part two: Tom Boyd's change of heart.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 24, 2022 as "Boyd meets world".

For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.

All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.

There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

Use your Google account to create your subscription