Bríd Stack: It’s sobering to think being paralysed or not came down to a matter of millimetres

In the first of her dispatches from Australia, Cork’s Sydney Giant reflects on a tumultuous first month Down Under
Bríd Stack: It’s sobering to think being paralysed or not came down to a matter of millimetres

GIANT STEPS: Bríd Stack in her new club colours with husband Cárthach, and their son, Cárthach Óg, before her shocking injury.

When the AFLW season began on Thursday evening, Alicia Parker and Katherine Smith invited the whole GWS Giants squad over to their apartment in Adelaide to watch the Collingwood-Carlton game.

My husband Cárthach had some work to do for our business at home, Mycore Supplements, so I brought young Cárthach Óg over with me. It was a bustling, busy, and really warm atmosphere but, with the small man in the middle of me trying to nibble at the cheeseboard, watch the game and chat to the girls, Cárthach Óg was wrecked by half-time. So I decided to walk across the road and bring him back to the apartment on Glenelg beach.

Cárthach had finished his work by that stage and when I arrived in the door, he said that the presenters had just been discussing Ebony Marinoff’s tribunal appeal for her three-match ban for the challenge which had fractured my neck. The gist of the discussion was that they expected Marinoff to get off.

After sitting down to watch the second half, the news came up on a strapline across the bottom of the screen at the end of the third quarter that Marinoff had been cleared. My heart just sank. I broke down in tears.

Within minutes, my team-mate Cora Staunton, Alicia, the team-captain, and our head coach Alan McConnell, were in the apartment, trying to console me. I was beside myself with anger. Disillusionment. I felt so totally disheartened by the outcome.

My emotions almost felt trapped in this vortex of disbelief because I suddenly felt like a scapegoat. The emotional trauma of dealing with such a serious injury was exacerbated when the blame for what had happened suddenly seemed to be sitting at my door.

Thursday was a long night. It can be hard enough to sleep anyway with a neck-brace but the tribunal decision turned the noise in my head up to maximum volume.

Having looked at the footage so often, I replayed the incident a thousand times over in my head. Having spoken to Alan, and another AFL expert, I was in no doubt as to the gravity of what had happened.

The tribunal had access to a second camera angle, which conclusively proved that my feet were planted, that I had my head over the ball, and I didn’t have any forward momentum. Most importantly of all though, the footage shows how Marinoff takes three steps forward from when I plant my feet until she made contact with my head.

The biggest issue the AFL repeatedly stress is that the duty of care lies with the player who chooses to bump or tackle, no matter the opponent’s position. Marinoff’s tackle was much more than a footy collision and trying to justify it as such only further underlines why high tackles are so dangerous in sport.

I didn’t want Marinoff to be hammered for the incident, but I wanted the tribunal’s decision to at least reflect that she didn’t show any duty of care to me. The outcome just triggered an emotional war in my head. It also reignited difficult memories of the incident. As soon as the impact occurred, I got an immediate surge of excruciating pain down my neck and my right arm. I actually thought I might have broken my arm. I never experienced pain like it.

The first scan was very scary because the doctors initially feared that more damage may have been done. But thankfully as the night went on and the results came back, that chronic worry and fear gradually eased.

The lingering distress though, is still there, hammering away at my subconscious like a woodpecker out of control. At the moment, the nerve damage in my right arm is more of a concern than my neck. Trying to get my arm firing again is my biggest priority.

This wasn’t supposed to be how my debut would go. I was so absolutely determined to prove myself in that game. I felt my form had been improving every day in training. I was out in front of all the runs.

The lead-in to that game has been so trying anyway with the passing of Éamonn Ryan. But the emotion had been dialled up further because, knowing how much Éamonn meant to me, the Giants wore black armbands to remember my former Cork manager.

Once the whistle sounded that afternoon, I was like someone possessed, driven by that raw desire to prove I really belong here. I was going well. Alan, the head coach, praised me at quarter-time for the intensity with which I was playing. Then time almost stopped. Time presents the opportunity for reflection, but it also grants the opportunity to view something through every possible prism, which can refract every kind of pain. What upset me the most was the lack of empathy shown by others involved on the day.

The trial by social media over here has still left a really bitter taste in my mouth. The Crows had every right to appeal the original three-match ban but some of the evidence in their argument was laughable — they tried to suggest that I got injured in the first quarter.

I remember that incident as clear as day. I cleared a pass down by the boundary and a number of Crows players descended on me to bump me once I had done so. I was knocked over the boundary line but I got up immediately and played on. To me, using that case-example as a defence was like trying to say that the blood gushing from a wound from someone who had been shot, had come from a cut on their finger almost an hour earlier.

I’d be some woman if I broke my neck in the first quarter and kept playing until the fourth quarter. That sums it all up. To me, it was too easy to blame a ‘rookie’. It may be a different game, but I have played football all my life. I know how to protect myself. I’ve played in enough big games to know it’s not chess. But it’s even harder again to take when your character is being questioned by people who don’t know you.

Bríd Stack and her son Cárthach Óg with team-mate and Mayo legend Cora Staunton.

Bríd Stack and her son Cárthach Óg with team-mate and Mayo legend Cora Staunton.

It’s been a difficult few weeks but there is another side to every story and the most positive by-product has been the huge outpouring of support I’ve received since the incident. What began as a trickle grew into a torrent and soon developed into a tsunami that has certainly helped wash away some of the stress.

The support from Ireland has been mind-blowing; I’ve received thousands of messages of goodwill from people across the country. It was also so heart-warming to get kind messages from some of the Irish lads who have played, or are still playing, AFL over here — Colin O Riordan, Setanta Ó hAilpín and Nicholas Walsh. It was also lovely to get so many supportive messages from other AFLW players outside of the Giants that I don’t even know. I was thrilled to hear from AFL legend Heath Shaw, who agreed the tackle did not follow duty of care. All that kindness and goodwill has made things easier. I still feel aggrieved but the most important thing for me now is to park the negatives and look towards the positives, particularly focusing on my rehab and recovery. We’re still here in a hub in Adelaide for one more week and I’m really looking forward to getting back to Sydney, having a base there, and pushing my recovery as fast as I can.

I’m due my follow-up X-ray on Tuesday, which will tell a lot. When I first met with the head spinal consultant, he was initially very worried. It’s a very cold and very sobering experience to hear that not being paralysed came down to a matter of millimetres. In that context, I’m just so, so thankful that I am almost fully functioning again, and that I have now have a plan in place to get back to full fitness.

The consultant told me that I’ll be six weeks in the neck-brace, and that it could be another six weeks before I can play again. That’s a long period of inactivity but I’m confident that I can shave a couple of weeks off that timeline.

The hardest thing for me is trying to control that absolute desire to prove myself, which has been strait-jacketed for now. But I’m even more determined than ever to do so once I do get back. And I’m confident I will play some part in this season once we return to Sydney and I can establish a more settled routine.

We’re the only AFLW club that has had had to relocate and we’re still hubbing here in Adelaide. With the capital city of the south of Australia also providing an access point to Western Australia, which is base to Freemantle and the West Coast Eagles clubs, the AFL have been able to group us together with Freemantle, the Eagles and the Crows to get the first two rounds played over the opening two weekends of the season.

Moving around so much throughout so many different levels of quarantines over the first month has been difficult, but it’s also enabled us as a family to see parts of Australia we might otherwise have not seen. It’s also allowed me to get to know the girls, which has been brilliant, because we’re spending so much time together in our hub. The Giants are wonderful people and have been nothing but supportive since I joined. Alan McConnell and Bri Harvey, head of operations, have been incredible. My new team-mates are now like old friends. They adore Cárthach Óg. I have offers of 30 babysitters most days.

I have been blessed to have so many great people around me. Cárthach and Cora have been incredible in providing the greatest support systems imaginable from the moment I got hurt. They have both suffered significant sporting injuries in the past, but their greatest input has been in helping me mentally cope with such a challenging ordeal so far away from home.

For now, I just want to look ahead, keep working through each phase of my recovery as diligently as I can. This morning, I will be in the pool doing an aqua recovery session, before we get on a chartered flight with the girls, and the Adelaide Crows, to Perth. The Crows play today while the Giants play Freemantle tomorrow. Our pre-booked seats have us down the back of the plane. Ebony Marinoff will be up the front. If the Crows board first, I’ll probably pass her on the way to my seat.

You couldn’t make some of this stuff up.

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