Fallen star’s fury after NRL banned his farewell
They were the lucky ones - blessed with talent, passionate and on a path that led to riches and fame. Then it all came crashing down and they had to rebuild lives that would never be the same. Michael Carayannis continues our series profiling rugby league players whose careers ended all too soon.
Tim Moltzen had no idea the final moment of his NRL career would involve being carted from the field at Campbelltown Stadium.
Moltzen was trying to tackle Brisbane's Justin Hodges when he ruptured the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee on April 27, 2013.
He'd done it once before, but the 24-year-old never believed his 90th NRL match would be his last.
"No way, I would've laughed at you," Moltzen says. "I would've said you're kidding aren't you? I've already come back from one. Nah mate. It didn't even enter my mind."
Moltzen had cause to be optimistic.
As a 17-year-old Moltzen not only suffered a "golf-ball sized" skull fracture after trying to make a tackle, he played a week-long touch football tournament with the injury after being incorrectly diagnosed.
Doctors told him the smallest of knocks could have been fatal. He was warned off playing rugby league for a year and used his time to get fit and fine-tune his skills.
His return earned him an instant contract with the Tigers after starring for Central Coast's under-18s SG Ball side.
But nothing could prepare Moltzen for the dramatic turn his career would take. What followed was a story of resilience, dedication and heartache put down to his love of the game.
The beginning of the end for Moltzen's career came during December 2013 when he had started to make some in-roads into his recovery from his second knee reconstruction.
"I had kneecap pain for a while," Moltzen says. "It was a Friday so I thought I'd see the doctor the following week. We were playing two-handed touch and as I poked my head through a gap I just heard what sounded like a branch snapping. I had tape over my knee cap and I looked down and half the knee cap was below the tape.
"The physio rushed out and the first thing he said was 'f--- off'. I was like, as long as it's not my ACL I'll be fine.
"I just remember the ambulance officers shutting the doors and I just broke down in the ambulance as we left Concord Oval. I didn't know what this injury meant but it was so serious."
Moltzen showed no signs of wanting to quit. He had age on his side and a long-term deal at the Tigers gave him hope that this setback would only be a blip in a long career.
"From there it was downhill," Moltzen says. "I had no appetite. I was lethargic. I just felt and looked like shit. I was gaunt and pale.
"I kept going back week on week to get blood tests. They kept saying nothing was wrong. I'm walking around watching the boys at Leichhardt (in 2014) with butterfly stitches on. I went to bed that night and woke up and felt like my leg was wet.
"I had white sheets and my bed was covered in blood. I looked down and the stitches had popped. It was a public holiday so I had to sit in a waiting room for hours to get re-stitched."
The confines of a rehabilitation room rather than a football field became Moltzen's rugby league home.
He eventually made it back onto the field - this time the final reserve grade game of the 2014 season. He says it was for his "own mental well-being".
"But my knee blew up straight away," Moltzen says.
"I said to my club doctor, 'I need to go to another knee specialist'.
"Within 10 seconds he told me I had staph and that I needed surgery tomorrow.
"They removed all the hardware out of my body from both ACLs. I'd had staph for three months. It was supposed to be a 40-minute operation. It went for three-and-a-half hours… on my 26th birthday."
A nurse visited Moltzen every day for the next six weeks.
He had to swallow nine tablets a day.
But Moltzen still craved an NRL comeback in 2015.
He strung some reserve grade games together but his season was cut short when the AC joint in his shoulder popped out.
"I didn't have a deal for 2016," Moltzen says. "There was absolutely no market for me. I was disappointed in the way it ended at the Tigers. They weren't open to a conversation about keeping me there but not even that, they didn't even wave me goodbye or say thank you at a function. It was pathetic.
"I didn't want to be around it. It had become a toxic environment and it was no surprise what happened in the following years. They didn't care."
After being at the centre of a tug-of-war for his services for his last contract, Moltzen faced the daunting prospect of being unwanted.
Still desperate to prove he could cut it at the top level, he reached out to Manly coach Trent Barrett ahead of the 2016 asking for one last crack.
"I went to Manly and trained my arse off," Moltzen says. "If it wasn't the knee it was something else. I dislocated my elbow in reserve grade then I'd come back and I couldn't make it through a full game.
"After one game my knee was a balloon. I couldn't bend it.
"The moment I sat down with my mates, we had a chat about how my body was feeling and what did my life look like without footy. It was then I felt I'd lost that hunger to keep going and I'd lost that spark or love for the game.
"Just before seeing them I had just come from the doctor and had six syringes full of blood and fluid drained from my knee so I guess that was another hint as to how the body was.
"Mentally I was tapped out. I'd gone through all I thought I could go through. I was looking forward to doing something new where I wasn't worried if my body was going to let me down or if I was only going to get through half a game. That part of the game really ate me up.
"I'm so relieved I don't have to worry about that now."
Moltzen, who has transitioned into a successful real estate career, retired midway through 2016 at 27 having not played first grade for three years.
The end was a far cry from the beginning, when Moltzen enjoyed a near dream debut in 2008.
"I didn't expect to play so soon but Tim Sheens liked carrying a utility on the bench," Moltzen says. "Benji (Marshall) went down in the first six minutes and I was on. I was shitting myself. We were playing in the old Magpies strip and Noel Kelly had come and spoke to us before the game about playing St George. It was full on.
"I ended up scoring a try and winning."
Moltzen played 10 games in his first season before being earmarked to replace veteran Brett Hodgson at fullback the following season.
He fought back from his first knee injury to enjoy a breakthrough year in 2011 when he starred in the No.1 jersey and played in all 26 games for a Tigers side which eventually lost a semi-final to the Warriors.
"I started only wanting to play one game," Moltzen says. "There were plenty of people that didn't think I had to make it. It's pretty cool to say that I did.
"I'm proud of what I achieved."
Moltzen was dealt one last blow by the game he first started playing as a five-year-old at Terrigal.
"I'd been invited by the NRL to the retirees' parade on grand final day and a lunch," Moltzen says. "I was excited about the chance to get a farewell. A few days later they rang me up and uninvited me because I hadn't played 100 first grade games.
"People in higher places decided I hadn't done enough in my time to earn the acknowledgement from the game I sacrificed everything for.
"To be forced into leaving something you love and have no control over that is hard. The way you get ushered out adds insult to injury. I felt like a used car.
"They are happy to put you on cards and get kids to cheer your name but when you become no use to them they spit you out pretty quick.
"When it all starts to slowly fall away there was no one to lend a hand. If I didn't have my family or friends it might've been a different story."