James Hird is modern sport’s ultimate cautionary tale.
About power, ego, spin, agendas, QCs, money, supplements, pressure, trolls.
Think about it – this time four years ago, Hird was one of the AFL’s most respected figures.
He had done it all at Essendon, playing in two premiership teams including one as captain, winning a Brownlow Medal, reaching 250 games, multiple club best and fairests and All-Australian selections.
Yet a year ago he wrote a lengthy newspaper article about the extraordinary saga that had left his reputation in tatters.
He wrote of his intense, and conflicted emotions about the protracted scandal, the biggest in the game’s history, that led to doping suspensions for 34 current and past Essendon players after three stressful years.
“I feel deeply, deeply sorry for the players. I believe the players are innocent,” he wrote.
“I feel guilt, shame, anger and regret all at once.”
As a player, Hird was often derided as golden boy outside Essendon for his blond good looks, but most detractors shut up after that handsome face cannoned into Mark McVeigh’s knee at Subiaco.
He was back playing two months later, his face surgically reconstructed.
That is courage.
Hird retired in 2007 and off the field he was finding his way, having a key role in the sports marketing firm Gemba, when Essendon and fate came calling.
The Bombers lured their favourite son back as senior coach.
Things were grim at Essendon. In the latter years of Kevin Sheedy’s legendary reign, a black hole had formed on their playing list between their veterans and the kids.
Matthew Knights was on a hiding to nothing as Sheedy’s successor and had been sacked.
The band was reunited, with famous Essendon figures Mark Thompson and Danny Corcoran also returning to the club as part of Hird’s football department team.
It soon became apparent that the young list needed fast-tracking. Their bodies just weren’t big enough for AFL crash-and-bash.
So fate intervened again, in the form of Dean “The Weapon” Robinson and Stephen Dank, who were brought to the club for their exercise and sports science expertise.
Through 2012 Dank oversaw a supplements program at the club that went horribly wrong.
So much remains hotly debated and unclear. Damningly for everyone involved, there is still no definitive list of what the players were given.
But what is crystal clear is that on February 5, 2013, Hird joined Essendon chairman David Evans and chief executive Ian Robson at a landmark media conference.
Essendon were under a joint AFL-ASADA investigation.
Three days later, AFL chief executive Andrew Demetriou was among Australian sporting leaders who fronted a Federal Government media conference to talk about a major investigation into alleged links between organised crime and sport.
It was dubbed the blackest day in Australian sport.
The stakes could not be higher.
Within weeks, Demetriou was saying publicly that it might be in Hird’s interests if he stepped aside from coaching.
As the pressure ramped up and the media leaks grew in number and scope, Hird was resolute.
While he conceded mistakes may well have been made, he was adamant there was never any doping. The players were innocent. And Hird was determined to fight tooth and nail.
What unfolded brings to mind the old saying, you can’t fight city hall.
In August 2013 the AFL came down on Hird and Essendon like a ton of bricks – fines, suspensions and loss of draft picks.
Hird was suspended for 12 months, but Essendon stuck by him and guaranteed a return to senior coaching.
In 2014 Hird went to the Federal Court, initially with Essendon, and then by himself when he appealed the original verdict against them.
Hird and his wife Tania remained adamant throughout that this was an AFL stitch-up, an orchestrated plan to discredit him.
It is instructive that in the wake of the Essendon supplements debacle, Hird polarises opinion.
There are those at Essendon who swear he is as much a victim of the whole sorry mess as the players.
But a lot of others either view him suspiciously or shake their heads at what they perceive is a pig-headed, stubborn coach who should have handled a very bad situation better.
In August 2015, at an emotional media conference, Hird announced he was resigning as coach.
In his newspaper article last year, Hird spoke of his pride for the players and the resilience they showed throughout.
He also suggested his failing had been to be too trusting of others.
“I trusted that the protocol was followed, that when I and others issued further instructions, they were followed,” he wrote.
“That’s why if I were to do things differently, it would be to trust less, to ask more questions, and demand more answers.”
Since leaving Essendon, Hird has kept a low profile. But rumours continue to abound about him, his personal life, what happened at Essendon in 2012. Everything.
On Wednesday night. Hird was rushed to hospital after what has been described as an “intentional poisoning overdose”.
Beyond Hird’s glittering playing career and his controversial times since, he is a husband and a father of four.
He is a human being, just like everyone else. Only his highs and lows have been much greater than most.
Readers seeking support and information about suicide prevention can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.
Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467.
MensLine Australia 1300 78 99 78.
Multicultural Mental Health Australia www.mmha.org.au.
Local Aboriginal Medical Service available from www.vibe.com.au.