Five Knee Reconstructions And 2000 Days: Swans Player's Incredible Comeback Tale
"It's one of the more remarkable stories I’ve seen in professional sport"
Professional sport is a cut-throat business these days. One mistake, one dropped ball, one misplaced kick or pass, can see a player dropped to the reserves quicker than you can say 'sorry mate'. One bad loss, one selection mistake, can see a coach sacked on the spot.
That's what makes the story of Sydney Swans defender Alex Johnson, a hero of the team's 2012 AFL grand final win, even more incredible than it already is. Because while Johnson has stuck with the game through an amazing five knee excruciating and demoralising knee reconstructions, his club has stuck by him.
They've stuck by him for 2000 days.
"Speak to anyone who is close to me. I’d never have given up until that happened," Johnson said this week of his long overdue return.
"But there were times in a hospital bed, after having two surgeries in a week, more concerned about my health than coming back playing footy, you start to question whether it’d actually happen. I'm over the moon."
Johnson's last game of top-grade AFL was that grand final win, on September 29, 2012. In just his 45th game, he helped the Swans to a 91-81 win over Hawthorn. In a March 2013 pre-season, he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee -- a devastating injury feared by athletes above almost all others.
He had a knee reconstruction, starting a bewildering and seemingly cursed string of injuries and setbacks that would prevent him from simply running, let alone lacing up a pair of footy boots, for many hundreds of days.
He had a reconstruction. It didn't work. He had to have another one. In 2014, literally minutes into his first match back, he tore his ACL again. Another reconstruction. It gets infected. In 2015, another reconstruction. That gets infected. In 2016, another reconstruction, and after nearly 1000 days, he starts running again. In 2017, he starts playing reserve grade football again.
On Saturday, he will run out for the Swans in what the club says will be the first time in 2136 days.
Swans coach John Longmire said simply it was "one of the more remarkable stories I’ve seen in professional sport." He joked that, thanks to the long layoff between games, some of Johnson's team-mates on Saturday would have been in primary school the last time he pulled on a Swans jersey.
"Alex and his family have been absolutely wonderful. It's an incredible story of resilience. Many times we’ve looked at each other and thought “how's it going to go?'" Longmire said at a press conference.
"Every one of [the team] can't believe his resilience and his capacity to work so hard on his rehab, time and time again, despite getting so many knockbacks and kicks in the pants. He just picks himself up again and keeps going. He's been an inspiration to a number of players."
Longmire said prior to his injury, Johnson had been pegged as a pivotal player for the Swans for possibly the next 15 years. While the team stood by him, the coach admitted there were points where it almost seemed impossible for the defender to get back to form.
Despite the almost unbelievable run of bad luck, horrifying injuries, painful surgery and never-ending rehabilitation, Johnson said he never wavered from his plan to rejoin the top league.
"I had my sights firmly set on coming back to the AFL, that's why I stuck at it. I had five knee reconstructions, 12 operations on my knee. I've been through a lot over the journey," he said.
Johnson praised the people that stood by him with support.
"The support of this footy club has been unbelievable. John has been awesome," he said, noting his coach.
"My family’s been unbelievable. Mum has been at every surgery over the journey, she’s got pretty good at coming to hospital and looking after me as a nurse."
Despite it being nearly six years since his last top-flight game, Longmire said the player wouldn't struggle to adjust, and had earned his recall.
"What our medical support and conditioning staff have done with him is fantastic, but he deserves it. He's ready to play AFL footy," the coach said.
"He’s a very popular team mate. You don't stay around a football club for as long as Alex has, without playing any football, without being talented, dedicated and popular, and he's all of those."
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