Alex Woodward recovering at home with his Australian Sheepdog Koda after surgery for his fourth ACL knee injury. Picture: Andrew Henshaw
Alex Woodward recovering at home with his Australian Sheepdog Koda after surgery for his fourth ACL knee injury. Picture: Andrew Henshaw

The heartbreaking story of the Collingwood runner

AS the final siren sounded on a gripping AFL Grand Final the cameras zeroed in on the ecstasy of victorious West Coast, the agony of Collingwood then the interchange bench where a young man in a fluoro pink vest was in tears with head in hands.

He is the Magpies runner, he is Alex Woodward and he is hurting right now.

Amongst a tense third quarter, Woodward accidentally blocked the path of Collingwood's Jaidyn Stephenson which opened up a clear path for Eagle Elliot Yeo to mark then kick a crucial goal.

It gave the Eagles the lead and they went on to win the premiership by five points.

Inconsolable, Woodward was comforted by Collingwood coach Nathan Buckley in the rooms post-match. The vision was heartbreaking.

Buckley revealed in his press conference that Woodward was blaming himself.

Blame, from some corners of the football public, has been directed at the 25-year-old and it's utterly misplaced and cruel.

Woodward has suffered more personal heartbreak in football than any athlete should but this cut him the deepest because that's who he is - selfless and the ultimate team man.

The talented midfielder was drafted to Hawthorn as an 18-year-old. Playing for the Hawks' VFL side, he won the league best and fairest medal and earned an AFL debut.

Nathan Buckley comforts Alex Woodward in the rooms after the game. Picture: Channel 7
Nathan Buckley comforts Alex Woodward in the rooms after the game. Picture: Channel 7

But Woodward's time in the AFL system was marred by not one or two but three serious ACL knee injuries, each sidelining him for 12 months.

Head down, bum up he repeatedly and quietly completed his recovery, became stronger, more resilient and never complained once. Woe was never me for Woodward.

The Hawks let him go at the end of 2016 and last year he joined Collingwood's VFL team and devastatingly his knee gave way for a fourth time.

As he embarked on yet another journey down the rehab road, he lost his passion for the game.

This year it was reignited by Buckley who asked Woodward to be his game day runner and deliver his messages to the players.

It was a special gesture by Buckley, a man becoming known for such special gestures (just witness him taking the time to console the Collingwood cheer squad after their banner disintegrated before the team could run through it yesterday).

And it's a role Woodward fully embraced and played until it was comeback time. Again.

With his body right to go, Woodward turned out for the Magpies' VFL side and not only got through unscathed but quickly found a rich vein of form.

In just eight matches, he polled so many votes that he remarkably finished equal second in the VFL best and fairest count.

As soon as his team's campaign was over, he grabbed the vest and returned to his match day AFL role for the finals.

Alex Woodward recovers with his Australian sheepdog Koda after his fourth ACL surgery. Picture: Andrew Henshaw
Alex Woodward recovers with his Australian sheepdog Koda after his fourth ACL surgery. Picture: Andrew Henshaw

Woodward should be on an AFL list in 2019, he has so much to offer on and off field. He is a brilliant footballer but more importantly a superb person who can add much to a club's culture and vision. It may not be too long before he's receiving Buckley's message rather than delivering it.

He is universally loved in footy circles because he is so resilient, so positive and so selfless. It says a lot about him when yesterday's mishap has gutted him more than the personal heartbreak his body has endured.

And to put it all into perspective, Taylor Adams' errant kick didn't find Stephenson and the wayward Eagles kicked 3.6 in the final term and really should have put the Pies away. That's footy.

The football community is so good at wrapping its arms around its own when they need it the most and we've seen it time and time again with untimely injuries, on-field heartbreak and more tellingly personal tragedy off field.

Alex Woodward does not deserve blame for a Grand Final loss, he deserves our embrace.



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