AFL stars push for glory after ACL angst

Of the 176 AFL footballers involved in week one of the finals there are a select few who are arguably more deserving of a premiership than the rest.

Dan Menzel, Brendan Whitecross, Jon Patton and Clay Smith have been forced to work harder than most of their teammates through no fault of their own.

They have all become potent players after recovering from the anguish, isolation, malaise and doubt that follows multiple knee reconstructions.

No three letters strike fear into the hearts of footballers quite so much as ACL.

On four occasions Geelong forward Menzel has ruptured his anterior cruciate ligament.

Menzel’s comeback spanned some 1450 days.

He will never be the same livewire he was but, as Cats coach Chris Scott notes, the 24-year-old has been very effective in 2016.

“We really value the united approach that we take at our club … but with four knee reconstructions there’s a lot of lonely moments in the journey back,” Scott said.

“It’s a great story. He’s worked incredibly hard and … he loves a big moment.

We’re really confident that when the stakes are the highest he will perform at his best.”

The same can be said of Whitecross.

Jack Fitzpatrick stole the headlines against Collingwood last week but Whitecross was likewise immense in the final quarter at the MCG, lunging to deny a near-certain goal and help Hawthorn clamber into the top four.

Whitecross’s right knee has been reconstructed twice.

The timing of the setbacks could hardly have been more cruel.

The 26-year-old hurt his knee in a 2012 qualifying final against Collingwood and again in the 2013 preliminary final against Geelong.

“He’s been to hell and back,” Hawks veteran Shaun Burgoyne told AAP.

“All the way through he’s just thought about the team and what’s best for the team. He’s always been bubbly around the guys.

“He’s holding his own spot and showing how versatile he is.

“It’s similar to Max Bailey a few years ago when he had his knee recos and everyone was happy for him.”

Fairytale is an oft-used cliche in sport but how else do you describe Bailey lifting the 2013 premiership cup after his final game?

Or Nick Malceski kicking the sealer in the 2012 AFL grand final?

Few would begrudge Malceski or Bailey their moment after three knee reconstructions.

Likewise Greater Western Sydney star Patton, a former No.1 draft pick who has dealt with two knee reconstructions and a serious patella tendon injury.

Key forwards generally take a long time to develop, let alone when they take detours to Sweden and the United States during extended rehabilitation stints.

Patton’s 11 goals and 17 marks in the past fortnight have been a timely reminder of why he attracted so many Jonathan Brown comparisons as a teenager.

The 23-year-old worked incredibly hard after his first rupture in 2013, having termed it the “worst night of my life”.

Then it happened again in round 21 of the 2014 season.

Teammate, housemate and close friend Stephen Coniglio stayed in Melbourne the night of that game for support.

“My role is just to be there for him,” Coniglio reflected last year.

“He’s had his bad days and he’d be the first one to admit that, but especially with this second knee he’s been positive from the get-go.

“I remember when he did it and seeing him that night he was all about when he was going to come back. He’s very strong and determined.”

So is Smith.

Western Bulldogs skipper Bob Murphy, himself recovering from the second knee reconstruction of his career, called 23-year-old Smith the “comeback king” earlier this year after he successfully returned from a third bout of knee surgery.

The 23-year-old has now played nine AFL games on the trot.

“My last recovery period was 13 months and it was the longest out of the three injuries and I’ve come back feeling really confident,” Smith told the AFL website earlier this year.

“I ended up having a quad graft this time to repair my knee and the doctors believe this will be the strongest one yet, but if it goes again that’s pretty much the (end of my career).

“But as soon as I step on the ground I don’t think about my knee at all.”

Smith, Patton, Whitecross and Menzel have leaned on each other for support at various points.

None of them want to be defined by a ligament in their knees. They’re very much focused on being premiership stars instead of feel-good stories.

And as they’ve pointed out at various points in the journey – in some ways they are lucky.

Sydney’s Alex Johnson underwent a fifth knee reconstruction earlier this year, while Mitch Brown is unlikely to feature in West Coast’s finals campaign despite doing all the hard work after two ACL ruptures.

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