SHAUN Smith remains adamant the image of football’s warrior hero must change for the long-term health of all players, particularly amid the boom of the women’s game.
The former Newlyn high-flying coach has agreed to donate his brain to science at the newly launched Australian Sports Brain Bank. The 48-year-old wants to help provide answers to the depression and uncharacteristic moods he is experiencing and believes is linked to a long football career, including 20 years in the AFL/VFL system.
Smith has been vocal in his concerns on the game, but particularly in the past year as his mental health has notably spiralled.
Meeting up with former teammates and players like dual Brownlow medallist Greg “Diesel” Williams, who are also struggling, adds to his drive to make the game he loves safer.
Smith is calling for smarter play and greater awareness at all levels of the game.
“You brain controls your whole life. Basically all the repetitive knocks rewires your brain, your life,” Smith said.
“There were early signs things weren’t real flash. Some specialists thought it was bad depression, that it was just life, but I just knew something was not right...There are a few people out there who don’t reckon there’s a link to football but I reckon you’d have to be blind to not notice.
“I’m not saying football is a bad game – and there are going to be times when there are knocks to the head – the AFL has cleaned the game up but there needs to be a stronger focus on treatment after getting hit. I’m a big believer you’re not right for a month, no matter if you think you are.”
Smith, immortalised for his 1995 AFL mark of the century, built a career on a fearless, carefree approach to the contest in 109 AFL games with North Melbourne and Melbourne.
Scans after a knock in the Central Highlands about five years ago revealed lesions on Smith’s brain, the lingering scars from old-school, tough football. The physical effects reverberated for about four months and doctors urged Smith to retire.
Ongoing mental effects have worsened. Smith has become forgetful but changes in mood bother him more: the self-professed lover-not-fighter gets angry easily; once outgoing and highly-driven, Smith can struggle to get out of bed; there are days when he hardly cares about general life.
What concerns Smith most is the general approach women are having to the game. Smith coaches Richmond’s Victorian Football League women’s team, set to launch into AFLW next year, and had a stint coaching St Kilda Sharks.
Smith said women tended to play how he used to play – trying to prove toughness.
“Some girls really don’t know how to protect themselves. They remind me of me,” Smith said. “I make it clear they are not going to bluff me when it comes to signs of concussion. I’m a big advocate for at least a month out of the game.
“I’ve seen players in the AFL last year get hurt and come back on. That’s ludicrous. If it’s bad in the AFL, it’s got to be a lot worse in local competition. You want your best players on the ground – they might look fit and say they feel fit, but that does not mean they are fit.”
Smith said the tough warrior image in the game and societal stigma about mental health had likely kept larger issues with concussion buried for so long. Mental hurt was not easy to talk about.
Talking to players like Williams, and former Essendon/Geelong ruckman John Barnes (who also has epilepsy), has helped Smith realise he was far from alone. A former North Melbourne teammate had felt “lunatic” but was only now starting to open up about his feelings.
They were from a football era where it was a badge of pride to take a whack and keep playing. Smith said that attitude was not worth the later pain. When you got to his age, you realise you were not so tough after all.
Smith’s plea for stronger concussion rules
MODERN AFL warriors worry Shaun Smith. While the former North Melbourne and Melbourne footballer says such hard-at-it players might be all right in the long-term, Smith says emerging history might suggest otherwise.
Geelong fans celebrated the 250th game of Cats skipper Joel Selwood this season with commemorative head bandages.
The Brownlow medallist is one of the toughest in the game right now but Smith, known for his own ferocious play, is struggling with the lingering mental effects of concussion.
Smith, whose son is on Melbourne’s list, is calling for public perception to change, and to do that the game has to promote greater risk awareness and stronger treatment guidelines when it comes to head knocks.
Meanwhile, Western Bulldog Liam Picken, a former North Ballarat Rebel, remains sidelined indefinitely after a second major concussion in 12 months. Picken was knocked out in a pre-season game at Mars Stadium last month.