A devastated Justin Clarke blames neither the AFL nor the brutal nature of the sport for the concussion that has forced him into retirement at the age of just 22.
The Brisbane Lions defender’s career has been cut short after 56 AFL games across three seasons due to a freak head knock in a pre-season training session earlier this year, the debilitating effects of which he has been unable to overcome.
Three independent specialists all recommended that Clarke would be risking permanent damage if he was to play contact sport again.
Since the incident, he has suffered painful headaches and memory loss, and is unable to do any exercise beyond a brisk five-minute walk without reaching total exhaustion.
“I’ve gone through a box of tissues and got it all out,” a teary Clarke said.
“It’s something that I guess the finality of it got to me, the fact that I’m not going to be able to play with the boys and experience that comradeship.”
Unlike most concussion-related retirements, Clarke’s issues don’t come from an accumulation of knocks.
During a routine training drill on January 18, Clarke was lightly shoved at a marking contest, and as he fell forward, his forehead hit just above the knee of a teammate running the opposite way.
He was out cold for about 15 seconds and says he has no specific recollection of the three weeks that immediately followed, most of which he spent at home in bed, unable to do anything.
“I’m probably fortunate in the respect that I can’t remember the first three weeks around that injury,” Clarke said.
“If I was able to it would probably be even scarier, to be frank.”
Clarke said he leaves the game with no regrets and no concerns over the AFL’s concussion management policies. He would also encourage any children he may one day have to take up the game.
“It’s been a risk I’ve always been willing to take, going out onto the park. It’s such a minimal risk and it’s just a freak accident that’s occurred,” he said.
“I think the game itself in terms of the processes around concussion is fantastic. My health has always been the focus, and I should return to full function in time.”
An aeronautical engineering student who achieved the highest possible ATAR score of 99.95, and got his pilot’s licence while still at school, Clarke will resume full-time studies when physically capable.
Clarke is the third Lions player to retire due to concussion symptoms in recent years, following Matt Maguire last year and club great Jonathan Brown.
“I went through this with Browny, but Browny had won three premierships and been a star of the game and fulfilled his dreams,” coach Justin Leppitsch said.
“It’s a little bit different, whereas Justin’s missed out on that. That’s what makes it sad – he was going down that path to do that.”
Originally from the small town of Booleroo, three hours north of the South Australian borner, Clarke was drafted with the fourth pick in the 2011 AFL rookie draft and was one of Brisbane’s brightest key-position prospects.