Football grand finals never fail to throw up stories of heroism and bravery but few will match that of Roarke Smith when the Western Bulldogs take on the Melbourne Demons in the AFL premiership decider on Saturday.
The unassuming 25-year-old from Sunbury, Victoria, will take his place on the wing for the Bulldogs after a horror few years in which his football career almost came to a premature end more than once.
‘Not in a million years would I think I would be playing in a grand final,’ Smith told The Age this week.
Since his debut in the AFL in 2015, Smith has battled two knee reconstructions, two delistings, seven one-year rookie contracts, being in and out of the team and, just three years ago, a car crash which left him in hospital.
Tough run: Roarke Smith will be playing his very first grand final on Saturday when the Western Bulldogs take on the Melbourne Demons at Optus Stadium on Saturday, but it hasn’t been smooth sailing for the 25-year-old midfielder
He was nicknamed ‘Sunshine’ when he made his senior debut with the Calder Cannons as a 17-year-old in the Victorian under-18s competition in 2013, his former coach Andrew Jago told afl.com.au.
‘[The name was from] the character in the movie Remember the Titans,’ Jago said.
‘The quarterback who initially comes in with flowing, long blonde hair, which Roarke had, [and] a smile on his face constantly, which Roarke had.
‘He probably thought of himself more of a surfer or skater which probably added to that. And he took a little while to convince himself he belonged in the Cannons side, he’s just so unassuming.’
Picked up by the Western Bulldogs in the 2014 rookie draft, Smith’s run of bad luck began just one week after he made his first top-level appearance in round 21, 2015, against the West Coast Eagles.
Playing in the VFL the next week, he ruptured his ACL and did not make his second AFL appearance again until the round 22 clash against Essendon in 2016.
Smith experienced more pain when he was dropped back from the AFL as the Western Bulldogs broke a 62-year drought to win the 2016 flag.
He continued playing in the club’s VFL side before he ruptured his ACL again in early 2017 and was later delisted at the end of the season after serving the maximum three years on the rookie list.
Since his debut in the AFL in 2015, Smith has battled two knee reconstructions, two delistings, seven one-year rookie contracts, being in and out of the team and, just three years ago, a car crash which left him in hospital
He was picked up and continued playing for the Bulldogs in 2018.
He ended up playing eight consecutive games from round 10, before a car accident on the way to training put him in hospital and out of the team yet again.
On his return he suffered a concussion and missed two games before making his way back into the team before the end of the season.
Two more seasons of sporadic appearances followed before Smith was delisted for a second time last year.
Personal: Roarke comes from Sunbury in north-west Melbourne and followed his older brother into playing Aussie Rules. Pictured here with his partner Ruby
Smith received the news while in a quarantine hub on the Gold Coast.
Bulldogs development manager Jamie Maddocks recalled an emotional and frustrated Smith.
‘We went up to one of our rooms and got quite emotional. All of his frustrations from over the years spilled out. It was like a switch flicked,’ he said.
‘It was more like, “No, I’m going to prove it to you that I belong here and I’m going to show you”. He just felt like he owned his spot, and he should be in, and I’ve never seen that from Roarke before.’
What followed has been one of Smith’s best seasons after his return in round nine, making the Dogs grand final side despite finding himself out of the team twice during the season.
The beginning: Roarke was spotted by recruiters and was drafted at pick No.5 in the 2015 Rookie Draft. He made his professional debut in round 21 against the West Coast Eagles
‘Two ACLs, delisted, re-rookied twice … it’s been a rollercoaster, but I count my blessings,’ he told The Age.
‘No doubt there’s been times I thought of giving it away. I struggled a lot with self-belief and always thinking I didn’t belong here.’
‘The club have invested so much in me, where I have seen blokes do injuries and they are getting chopped from their clubs and I think that could be me, but for the Bulldogs to keep me on for this long and have that belief in me – I just want to return the favour.’
The pay-off: This year has been one of Smith’s best seasons after his return in round nine, making the Dogs grand final side despite finding himself out of the team twice during the season.
Roarke will be playing on the wing for the Bulldogs in Saturday’s AFL Grand Final after a rollercoaster few years of injuries and other setbacks