AFL

While much of the speculation surrounding Tom Boyd’s early exit from AFL was around the state of his mental health, the real reason was much simpler: he no longer loved the game. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Tom Boyd’s change of heart

Tom Boyd celebrates his iconic 2016 grand final goal with Toby McLean.
Tom Boyd celebrates his iconic 2016 grand final goal with Toby McLean.
Credit: Adam Trafford / AFL Media / Getty Images

This is part two of a two-part series. 

Read part one: The unravelling of Bulldogs star Tom Boyd.

Arguably Tom Boyd’s greatest match coincided with his club’s most important. It was the 2016 grand final, and the Western Bulldogs had implausibly and romantically qualified along with the Sydney Swans. To start, the team had not won a flag since 1954. Also, no team in VFL/AFL history had won the premiership from seventh place. In each of their four finals games, the Bulldogs were also underdogs.

And before 99,981 fans, Boyd played brilliantly – 14 disposals, 14 hitouts, eight marks and three goals. One of those goals has become iconic: swooping on a loose ball, Boyd unleashed from the centre square and the ball bounced through. The goal cemented victory. “The noise was unfathomable,” Boyd writes in his memoir. “It was so loud that I couldn’t really hear it, but I felt it shaking the ground beneath my feet.”

Throughout that season, Boyd had been seeing the club psychologist for anxiety and depression. His insomnia was also worsening. Only a few months after the grand final, in the 2017 preseason, Boyd experienced his first panic attack. He thought he was dying. Things were getting worse but at least something had changed: he was no longer keeping things to himself, he was asking for help.

“One thing I would have done differently at the start of my career is not thinking that I was so unique that people couldn’t understand me,” Boyd says. “Just because you are the No. 1 [draft] pick, and just because you’ve signed the second-biggest deal in history at 19, and just because you won a premiership – these were all of the things that I told myself that no one could possibly understand what I was going through, were really the catalyst for me not getting help. And not seeking more support or learning more from others. And that’s the biggest mistake that I made. It wasn’t the trade, or playing badly, it was not feeling that I could access the full breadth of people’s insight because I thought people couldn’t understand what I was going through.”

By the time Boyd retired, his anxiety and depression were being well treated. He was in a vastly better place than he had been in 2017. In fact, in his 250-word statement announcing his immediate retirement, only half a sentence refers to mental health. Despite this, it was widely reported – and is still characterised – as a decision born largely or solely by Boyd’s past issues with anxiety and depression. “All the media fixated on was the idea ‘he’s retired because of his mental health’,” Boyd says. “And I think [Bulldogs coach] Luke Beveridge gave a press conference at that time, where he may have doubled down on some of the challenges that I faced, and perhaps that drove some of that narrative. But after my retirement speech, I left that room, genuinely, with all the boys smiling.”

The principal reason for his retirement at 23 was something arguably more stigmatising and controversial than mental health: ambivalence. Boyd just wasn’t enjoying the game, and he hadn’t been for a long time. It was 2019 when he decided to retire. He was sitting in his car at Victoria University, where he’d just arrived for a lecture. Boyd was then studying a business degree part-time and he realised he was more excited about the lecture than he was about playing footy. “The moment that I decided to retire, in the car park,” Boyd says, “I wasn’t feeling depressed or anxious or angry or bitter. I was actually feeling excited about what was next.”  

You’ve got to really want it. Pro sport demands manic commitment and it’s unkind to those whose interests or curiosities partially lie elsewhere. The missed social events started to weigh on Boyd; so too the increasing length and pain of injuries. Boyd had recurring back problems, which had cost him many months of footy and had condemned him to bed for weeks. There was also an increasing discomfort with the zero-sum calculus that follows from having more men than starting positions. Teammates are simultaneously rivals and the duality exhausted Boyd. Plus, he was feeling guilty about clouding his home with the funk of his unhappiness – and feeling as if he were cheating his club.

“There’s lots of great things about being an AFL footballer but it is an enormous strain on the family,” Boyd says. “It always will be. Anna [Anna Von Moger, now Boyd’s fiancée] has spent most of her time sitting in the crowd watching me [and] listening to dozens of people around her abusing her partner with no ability to say anything. Everything is a secondary item to football. Everything is a secondary item in terms of priorities, when it comes to recovery and sleep and training and extra work and all that sort of stuff.

“And for me, you know, if I wasn’t in love with the game anymore, I wasn’t going to be able to tolerate the inherent adversity that comes with playing professional sport. And it felt extremely inauthentic for me to just pretend like I still wanted to play just to go and get a pay cheque, whilst I was probably going to cost three or four players their dream of playing AFL footy simply by a function of how much I was getting paid. It was really a remarkably self-aware moment, I think, where I had clarity about what I wanted to do next and I had clarity that football was going to be in my past.”

 

An enthusiastic English student in high school, Boyd had long been interested in writing and he had a very clear idea of what his memoir would, and would not, be. “The typical positioning for books like this is they have one really big, quite controversial story that they delve into to grab attention,” Boyd says. “When I approached Allen & Unwin, I explicitly said that I wanted to have absolute control over whatever was in the book, and that this book was really going to be a journey of my own experiences. If they wanted an exposé, I was the wrong person to work with. But we all wanted this book to be exactly what it turned out to be, which is an in-depth sort of experiential piece around how mental health really does play a significant part in athletes’ lives, not just in regular people.”

The problem was finding the time. Then the pandemic swept the world and Melbourne became one of its most locked-down cities. Here was the opportunity. Boyd made a study from the spare bedroom and made good time on the first draft. It wasn’t unusual for him to sit in that room and write for eight straight hours, anxious that if he didn’t, certain “threads” wouldn’t be properly picked up later. “It was that, or learning how to make sourdough,” Boyd laughs. “The real lack of control [at the beginning of the pandemic] was the challenge for me. I mean, I experienced many challenges, particularly in the mental space, across the course of my career. And one of the things that I had learnt was the ability to take control of certain things in my life that would help. But much of that was taken away. I couldn’t fill my days with work, because work was getting cancelled, left, right and centre. I couldn’t fill my day with exercise, because we were stuck inside except for your 30 minutes in the sun, and so on and so forth. There was also some health things going on in my family, unrelated to the pandemic, and I couldn’t see these people. And so the vehicle that I used to really deal with it and to give myself structure was the writing that I did in those early stages.”

Boyd’s book will be met with some hostility. No matter how careful or qualified someone is, or how plain and earnest their own testimony, there will be some who want from former footy players nothing but gratitude. And so, to a few he’ll appear ungrateful, bitter, weak. And he knows this, which is why what he’s done is a little bit brave: he’s risking some hostility in order to fully explain himself. He’s decided to breach the prison that’s made from others’ expectations of him. 

Tom Boyd’s Nowhere to Hide: A memoir of football, mental health and resilience is out now.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 1, 2022 as "Quitting pretty".

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