Nathan Murphy gives reminder that courage in AFL comes in many forms

<span>Nathan Murphy runs out onto the MCG. The Collingwood defender has retired from AFL football on medical advice around concussions.</span><span>Photograph: Quinn Rooney/Getty Images</span>
Nathan Murphy runs out onto the MCG. The Collingwood defender has retired from AFL football on medical advice around concussions.Photograph: Quinn Rooney/Getty Images

Just before Covid hit, and just when Australian sport was beginning to properly come to terms with the effects of concussion, the former Hawthorn footballer Tim Boyle wrote a piece for The Sunday Age titled “The new form of courage may be not to play at all”. I thought of that piece when Daniel Venables retired, when Angus Brayshaw retired and when Collingwood’s Nathan Murphy called time on his career on Tuesday morning.

These days, when a footballer retires, they stand in an auditorium before their teammates. There are sniffles and trembles and tortuous pauses. Many now read from the Notes section of their iPhone. But for those who are retiring as a result of concussion, there’s a giant exhale. There’s a life to lead. There’s a world outside football.

Related: Collingwood’s Nathan Murphy forced to retire from AFL due to concussion

And there’s solace from those who support and report on the game too. If Murphy had continued playing, it would have been an awful experience watching him. When Paddy McCartin was concussed in the most innocuous of circumstances, there was almost a sense of shame watching him being assisted off. Murphy spoke beautifully about his mum, and how she compared the rooms after last year’s preliminary final to the airport scene in Love Actually. Now she no longer has to watch her son risk long-term brain damage on the football field.

Murphy didn’t really celebrate with his teammates following last year’s grand final. While they were drinking two handed, he had an appointment with a medical board who were deciding on his sporting future. He waited outside for half an hour while they deliberated. It’s a scenario that is becoming increasingly common. They eventually said he was OK to play on. But pre-season training sowed further doubts. Physically, there were no concerns. But mentally, he wasn’t ready to fully commit. He had to be all-in. He knew he could no longer be that player. He didn’t want to be that player.

His former coach Nathan Buckley on Monday spoke of a footballer who took a long time to find his feet, a long time to figure out exactly what sort of player he was. He’d been an excellent cricketer as a junior. He dreamed of opening the batting for Australia. In his fledgling footy years, he was tried further up the field. But it gradually became clear he was a defender through and through.

He thrived under Craig McRae. He became the glue of what was an outstanding Collingwood backline. Their defenders would rearrange themselves, work for one another and devour space. Like all of them, Murphy had the perfect balance between risk and reward. He knew exactly when to drop off, when to man up, and when to block for a teammate. He was dependable and resolute. He allowed the likes of Nick Daicos and Darcy Moore to roam and flourish. In their premiership year, he played 24 matches and was crucial in so many of those close finishes. When Collingwood made a stuttering start to their premiership defence, his absence was sorely felt.

Buckley spoke of a footballer who in many ways was too brave for his own good, who had to be reprogrammed, who had to be taught to protect himself. Whenever Murphy was concussed, the coaching group would give him extensive instruction in how to manoeuvre his body and how they didn’t expect him to recklessly commit to every contest. Murphy would nod his head. And in his very first minute of his return match, he’d hurl himself back into a pack. It was constitutional in him.

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That sort of courage used to be universally admired and more importantly, encouraged. Coaches like Grant Thomas would conduct a review on a Monday morning, run through the tape and single out every player who had pulled out of a contest. It was almost a badge of honour to be concussed. Luke Ball called it “being shit mixed”. “Every player who ever played league football did so under the threat of embarrassment, in one form or another, and there is no faster way to achieve it than by demonstrable cowardice,” Boyle wrote. Another former Hawthorn forward, Dermott Brereton, recently spoke about being sent back onto the field when concussed. “That was a mark of your manhood,” he said.

Those attitudes are changing. They’re certainly changing within clubs. It’s not always evident in the way the sport is analysed and commentated, particularly by its former hard men. But such reckless abandonment is no longer non-negotiable. A concussed player is no good to his team, or to himself. And it’s no longer considered weak, or that you’re letting your mates down, if you opt out of football.

Nathan Murphy was in the system for seven years. He polled just one Brownlow vote. He kicked just one goal. He had at least 10 concussions. The decision to play on was taken out of his hands, but he accepted it with grace, with a laugh and with a certain relief. He reminded us that courage in football comes in many forms. He emerged with his health, his premiership and the admiration of all who watched him play.