Sam Naismith’s journey through his AFL career is littered with an abundance of emotions, heartbreak, devastation and frustration to name a few.

A stern resilience epitomises a perspective, attitude and perseverance that emanates from heartbreak, culminating in a tenacious attitude never to quit when times are tough.

An AFL Grand Final appearance in a career best 2016 season with the Sydney Swans, where the Swans were agonisingly defeated by the Western Bulldogs on the day, saw Naismith as the main and starting ruckman and was one of the Swans’ best performers on the day.

Tragically for Naismith, a former Gunnedah Bulldog, he hadn’t played a solitary AFL league match since the 2017 season – numbers can often tell a story and as of earlier this month, the duration was 1354 days.

In the midst of those 1354 days, Naismith endured three torn ACL and knee reconstructions that have included multiple patch-up surgeries, family tragedy through the loss of his much loved sister Kristy to cancer and a further cancer diagnosis to his number one supporter and mother, Debbie.

After a move from the harbour city of Sydney when cut from the Sydney Swans AFL list in 2022 – who first drafted Naismith via the rookie draft from the Gunnedah Bulldogs with pick 58 in the 2014 AFL rookie draft – to the AFL capital of Melbourne, Naismith has persevered prospectively in his personal life and AFL journey.

On the back of his first torn ACL in the 2018 pre-season, while contracted to the Swans, Naismith endured a cruelty and timeline of events that can barely be fathomed, let alone be understood for comprehension.

Yet through it all, Naismith retains his open mindset.

“At the end of the day, perspective is everything” Naismith told AFL media.

“Injuries are unlucky, and in a professional environment you can get caught up in your own bubble or hard luck.

“But at the same time (since his first ACL tear in 2018), my sister and mum fell sick and anything I thought was going wrong with me, was quickly put into perspective.”

Part of his perspective during those tough injury-riddled years – nine seasons to be exact – was the loss of older sister Kristy, who battled valiantly through pancreatic cancer but tragically had her life cut short in 2020 – 10 years after the loss of his father Michael to bowel cancer.

Injuries are a central part of Naismith’s journey, but only reveal part of his brave story to continue to push forward in pursuit of a fight back onto an AFL list.

Particularly the timing of the three knee reconstruction operations are unlucky, as Naismith was beginning to forge a reputation as a premier tap and aerobic around the ground ruckman of the AFL competition, built on the back of his stellar 2016 and 2017 seasons that stretched 28 consecutive matches – the ACL tears were untimely.

During the injury-plagued nine seasons thereafter, it was a brutal time for the entire Naismith family and privately, Naismith fought a battle that only one with a strong mind, consistent of perspective, could have the ability to garner the strength of character needed to endure and conquer.

In the meantime, the time and patience that the Swans had invested in Naismith ran parallel with his contract expiring, ultimately putting his career on hold as the Swans cut him from their professional list at the end of the 2022 AFL season.

But as time ultimately ran out on that chapter of his AFL story with the Sydney Swans, Naismith decided to use his heightened perspective of personal and family tragedy during nine luckless seasons.

Instead of kicking stones, he kicked onto AFL-frenzied Melbourne by the end of 2022, optimistic and surveying the opportunities 2023 may present.

Nationally regarded as reserve grade to AFL level, Melbourne VFL club Port Melbourne came knocking.

In desperate need of an experienced tap ruckman for their 2023 VFL season, the suburban club took a chance on a knockabout, heart of gold country kid from Gunnedah.

Despite Port Melbourne’s brave intuition, many AFL experts believed that after his excruciating vigil at the Swans and at 30 years of age, he was all but washed up and finished as an AFL league footballer.

Perspective in mind, Naismith decided he would give AFL one last crack using the pure enjoyment of playing AFL footy at the forefront of his mind, despite the setbacks of previous seasons that included numerous lonely and dark times.

Sam Naismith played his first AFL game in more than 1300 days earlier this month after enduring heartache and family tragedy.
Photo: Richmond Football Club

“For a long time at Sydney, I was just the guy on the bike,” Naismith said.

“Ten new kids come through every year and by the end of 2022 – I had played with seven blokes on the (Swans) list.

“No one had known that I actually did play footy and to be honest, through all my injuries, I have always believed that I am good enough at playing footy and have something to offer.”

With the courage to pack up and move interstate, the catalyst of a whirlwind 2023 for Naismith was a stronger and fully matured body that had previously denied him consistent opportunity. In return it began to repay him the faith he always maintained within himself.

Through perseverance and his strongest attribute – perspective – Naismith leaped and bounded his way around Melbourne’s suburban footy ovals for Port Melbourne.

He developed into the consistent performer which deep down he always believed existed.

While Port Melbourne initially knocked at Naismith’s door, he punctuated his arrival in Melbourne by kicking the door down.

Immediately he became the competition’s premier standout ruckman, leading the hit-outs from centre bounce and stoppages around the ground during the first half of the 2023 season, while remaining in the top echelon of average disposals per game for ruckman in the VFL competition.

During the mid-season draft, AFL foundation club Collingwood sniffed around for his services but kicked the tyres and passed, as did Geelong and Fremantle.

Richmond loomed large late and the most likely, but were keen for Naismith to continue the body of work he was putting together and showcase it for a complete season.

Richmond was blessed with ruckman stocks and Canberra young gun Ivan Soldo at that stage was their back-up ruckman. He was drafted to and groomed by the club to potentially replace their main man in the future, Richmond captain and triple premiership player Toby Nankervis.

Again, perspective and perseverance reiterated the thesis of Naismith’s story.

Transpiring from a simple and fundamental aspect is exemplified by the original reason Naismith set foot into the sport of AFL as a teenager, during his high school years at St Mary’s College in Gunnedah with local club, the Gunnedah Bulldogs in the NSW North West AFL.

Two key aspects of his personality were rekindled from this and in combination with an underlying love for the game, they acted as a compass in redirecting Naismith towards two essential feelings that were previously suppressed by his previous setbacks – fun and enjoyment.

Renewed enthusiasm thinking of his grassroots days were synonymously intertwined with regular appearances of competitive AFL footy, something he so desperately craved in the previous nine seasons and inevitably were regenerated during his Port Melbourne stint.

For Naismith, it was a shot of adrenaline that his career was revived, forging ahead in leaps and bounds with his to his ability on the field as a premier ruckman.

“The mid-season draft came around and I thought I was a chance, but it didn’t happen,” he said.

“I didn’t think it was the end of the world though, because I was enjoying footy so much at Port Melbourne – I was back enjoying the game.”

What could be seen as a setback by not immediately landing at an AFL affiliated club, Naismith continued his season with Port Melbourne following the mid-season draft.

In the back half of the 2023 season he maintained his stellar and dominant form, continuing to lead the VFL league averages in hit outs and in top bracket of disposals by a ruckman.

Although Port Melbourne couldn’t forge their way into finals contention by the end of the regular 2023 VFL season, Naismith’s reinvigoration and love of the game injected love and happiness back into a career previously riddled with devastation and frustration.

Following the conclusion of the 2023 AFL premiership season, of which Collingwood won, the national draft was on the horizon in November.

After the season, Naismith sat content in his personally-owned Lucklove pottery and craft studio, quietly reflecting in his personal pride for his ability to complete an injury-free, full season of competitive AFL footy.

Naismith furthered his interest in pottery upon his move to Melbourne, enabling him the peace, quietness, patience and solace to soothe the mental strain of his darkest personal times. At times, the beige of mud and clay pottery meant more to Naismith then the bright red or yellow of a Sherrin.

Coincidentally – or unintentionally – pottery became a metaphor for two of Naismith’s new found loves and emotions, reinstating fulfilment toward the unbridled feeling of fun and enjoyment.

Naismith, a 6’8, 208cm giant, depending what scale you determine to use to measure height, successfully compartmentalises his mind from the week-in, week-out fun of applying his vice like hands in manoeuvring the red or yellow Sherrin to the advantage of his team mates.

Following the final siren, Lucklove studio and pottery takes precedence for Naismith, embracing his enjoyment, clarity and peace of mind towards his art.

For the effort it takes for Naismith to use those same soft, gentle and gigantic fingers linked with palms to create an art masterpiece, turning mud into clay, clay into stone, the art provides precisely the same gratitude toward the prosperity for his naturally-gifted AFL football machinations.

As an AFL delisted free agent, foundation AFL and mega-club Richmond continued to keep tabs of Naismith’s progress during the back half of the VFL season.

A similar pattern evolved to that of the mid-season draft, as Naismith had slight interest but nothing seemed to be forthcoming, so for his peace of mind it was back to his other love, pottery.

But, when Richmond traded off their back up ruckman Ivan Soldo to Port Adelaide on the last day of the November trade period, the swings and roundabouts of Naismith’s journey was on the cusp of completion.

The inspiring tale of Naismith’s perspective and perseverance was about to come to fruition, epitomising the theory there’s no such thing as can’t.

As Richmond were in need of a ruckman, Naismith was summoned to Richmond’s home base on Punt Road, next door to the colosseum that is the Melbourne Cricket Ground, to undergo a medical examination with the club which he passed.

That Friday afternoon of the trade deadline day – consisting nine years of heartache, turmoil and an unwavering resilience in between – Naismith signed with the AFL and the Richmond Football Club where he once again became a contracted and listed AFL player.

His whirlwind ride of swings and roundabouts was complete this month during opening round of the AFL season. Naismith made his run on debut for the yellow and black of Richmond against the Gold Coast Suns, 1354 days since his last match for the Sydney Swans in 2020, in front of his partner, high school mates, friends and what he cherishes most, his family at Gold Coast’s Metricon Stadium.

In a truly inspirational story, that began by having a kick of AFL with the Gunnedah Bulldogs 13 years ago, simply for the fun of it with a few mates during the back end of his high school years.

That exact desire for enjoyment has seen Naismith’s AFL career reinvigorated. But it’s the myriad of feelings, emotions and adversity – from the family heartache and devastation, to the elation and tribulation for those closest and dearest to him, his family – Naismith’s stern resilience is combined with an attitude of perspective and perseverance that culminate a tenacious attitude never to quit.

Although Richmond was defeated that afternoon against the Gold Coast to kick off their 2024 season, Naismith is already a winner on levels that can’t be judged.

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