Sport AFL Nathan Burke: Retirement looms, but not all players are prepared

Nathan Burke: Retirement looms, but not all players are prepared

Jarryd McVeigh is hoping to get back in the Swans team for one last game. Photo: Getty
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We saw the first apple fall from the AFL tree last week when Sydney champion Jarrad McVeigh announced his retirement.

Now that the tree has been shaken, it is only a matter of time before more start to fall and we will have to say farewell to more of our favourite players.

McVeigh was undoubtedly one of the best and most loyal players to ever pull on the Swans red and white jumper.

With a career that included being a dual best-and-fairest winner, a premiership player and All-Australian in 2013, he was admired by his own and opposition supporters alike.

For McVeigh it seems his inability to overcome soft-tissue injuries was the catalyst in his decision to hang up the boots.

He has managed only five games this season, and is now in a race against time to be fit for a sendoff against the Saints in Round 23.

While it would be unfortunate if he didn’t make it, he is actually in a very fortunate position.

Very few footballers manage to orchestrate their departure from the game like he has. The vast majority receive what is quaintly called ‘the tap on the shoulder’ and are shortly after ‘shown the door’.

This is unfortunately how it ends for 95 per cent of footballers that have time called before they are ready.

I qualify that, most are ready to retire, they just don’t want to leave the game.

Footballers are competitive beasts and they spend their career convincing themselves they are good enough.

To turn around and suddenly admit they are fallible is a leap many are not willing to make.

For some, the fear of the unknown is what keeps them trudging on.

Football and the bubble it provides is all they have known for many years, and the big, wide world can be scary.

When you hang up the boots, you are no longer told where to be and at what time.

You aren’t told what to eat, how much to sleep and your exercise time isn’t scheduled for you.

You haven’t got a doctor or physio on hand whenever you have a sniffle or a stiff muscle.

There isn’t welfare and development staff to help you get a loan, put your electricity on or buy a car.

In many ways modern footballers are ‘institutionalised’ to the point where the outside world can be a scary, unknown quantity.

Why would you want to leave that safe little cocoon?

For others it is the fear of losing their identity that sees them hang on too long. They are first and foremost a footballer.

When people ask them what they do, they say footballer.

Suddenly in the blink of an eye they are no longer footballers.

If you haven’t built a life and identity for yourself outside of football then all you have is a void waiting to be filled.

My motto was ‘Football is what I do, it’s not who I am’.

Unfortunately for many players they wait too long to find out who they are besides being a footballer.

And if being a footballer comes to a sudden end, it can be quite a shock.

You can see how easier it is for players like McVeigh who, at age 34, has his life pretty well sorted. He has already signed a four-year deal to be an assistant coach at the Swans.

It is the 22-year-old that has managed a mere 40-odd games in four years that face the most problems.

Sure he will leave the game with a nicer car than his mates, but not the four years of an apprenticeship or degree under his belt like they have.

These guys have missed ‘real’ world experience and are back there quicker than they thought they’d be.

In the next month we will read a lot about the lucky ones who can call time on their careers.

We will rejoice in their greatness and be sad that we will no longer get to see them play.

We should all make sure we spare a thought for those who aren’t lucky enough to be masters of their own destiny.

Nathan Burke is a former St Kilda captain who played 323 AFL games for the Saints, winning three Trevor Barker Awards as best-and-fairest player.

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