When it comes to adversity in sport, a narrow loss or an injury to a key player pales in comparison to the life traumas of AFL Finals 2017 hopefuls, the Adelaide Crows.
Early in 2014, assistant coach Dean Bailey died only three months after a cancer diagnosis.
Then, in the middle of the 2015 season, first-year senior coach Phil Walsh was killed by his son.
Those two events make the loss of star players like Nathan Bock, Phil Davis, Jack Gunston, Kurt Tippett, and Patrick Dangerfield seem a lot less significant than they otherwise might.
Tippett’s messy departure to Sydney also resulted in significant AFL-imposed penalties: the loss of the club’s first two draft picks in 2012, a $30,000 fine, and the suspension of three key administrators.
Now, after several years of heartache and hardship, the Crows have completed an outstanding 2017 season by reaching the Grand Final.
“This playing group has been through so much together it doesn’t surprise me to see the way they’re playing out on the ground,” former club chaplain Mark Purser told The New Daily.
“Sure, they’re a very talented group and have played a lot of footy together, but to go through some of the life issues they’ve been through together has got to make them stronger and flow into the way they play for each other out on the ground.”
Purser says the club has done a lot of things well in the wake of those two traumatic events.
“I call Dean Bailey’s death a deep sadness in the club.
“Phil Walsh’s, I call that deep shock … but we could look back to 15 months prior and how we coped with that.”
He credits the club’s leadership with making sure the players and staff were allowed to grieve and given the support they needed.
“Steven Trigg was CEO when Dean Bailey died, and it was Andrew Fagan when Phil Walsh passed away, and David Noble, the head of football at the time, was huge as well.”
Former Crows coach Neil Craig agrees that strong leadership is the key to getting through hard times and emerging stronger.
“The toughest time to find out whether you can lead or not isn’t when you’re sailing the boat on the mill pond, it’s when you’re going across Bass Strait,” Craig told The New Daily.
“There’s so many opportunities to grow and to develop and to make people better using a tough situation that occurs.”
Craig, who coached the Crows from 2004 through 2011, says an AFL club is an environment of high-performance and of care.
“There’s care, support, a degree of empathy, but there’s also an understanding that life goes on, so let’s look after each other, but the sun comes up and they’re not going to postpone the grand final.
“Your best environments say: ‘Here’s an opportunity to pull the group together’.
“Here’s an opportunity to educate people about gratitude for what we’ve got.”
Craig believes adversity is vital to success “because adversity enables you to learn”.
Purser says the Crows will feel as if they have unfinished business until they win a flag.
“The legacy of Phil and wanting to do him proud was very strong and ‘get the job done’ was a key phrase that Phil used.
“Don Pyke has come in and put his own slant on the whole thing and done a great job bringing that team together, but there’s still a sense that the legacy of Phil Walsh is with the players.
“It’s almost like Walshy and Pykey are coaching the team together.”