By Nick Creely
There has been a lot to digest in the last few months for Cranbourne champion Troy Tharle in the wake of yet another head knock.
Agonising conversations about his future.
Uncertainty about what it all means.
What would it mean for life moving forward for not only himself, but for his young family? Would there be lingering consequences for his health if he continued playing? What would happen if he endured another concussion?
As the Eagles life member affectionately known as ‘Moz’, and one of the most loved characters of the club’s modern era weighed all of these things up with his doctor and his wife, there was an obvious answer.
Not the answer he wanted, nor had come to truly accept.
But the right one in the end – to immediately retire from the game and focus on his health and wellbeing.
Tharle estimates he’s had probably a dozen or more concussions in his 230-game career, as well as seven confirmed knocks in his past five seasons.
Earlier this season, he was concussed in the Round 2 clash against Beaconsfield after waiting so long to get back on the field after Covid-19 robbed local sport of its opportunity during winter last year.
Inside his own mind, he knew there was a tinge of inevitability and uncertainty moving forward at that point despite feeling like there was still so much left in the tank from a playing perspective.
“This season, everyone was looking forward to just coming back and playing,” he said.
“After the first concussion (against Beaconsfield) in Round 2, we then had that lockdown during the middle of June, and knowing you’ve been knocked out once this year, and having that two weeks off, I was like, ‘shit, I’m really itching to play’, and the motivation was still really there.
“With the Covid situation, it’s a bit deflating to know you’ve been concussed already this season.”
But in the first game back from the Covid lockdown byes, in a clash against Pakenham at home, Tharle took to the field in a playing capacity for his beloved Eagles for the final time, suffering another head knock in the final term – his second concussion in the space of just two months.
It didn’t take long for the gravity of the situation to sink in for the lion-hearted big man, irrespective of how gut-wrenching that realisation was.
“You get ready to go back out there, you’re not thinking about coming back after three weeks off and getting knocked out again,” he said.
“It was hard enough as it is getting the enjoyment back after a season that is so split up, but I knew.
“I knew after the Pakenham game (that my career was over), I got hit in the head and everything went really bright, I lighted out.
“I knew before the game was over that I was done, just based after all these discussions with the doctor, and my wife more importantly as well.”
He said the retirement came down to a number of key factors after advice from doctors and tough conversations with his family.
It came down to his quality of life moving forward with his wife Sarah and little boy Kai – it was an easy decision on one hand, but on the flipside a harrowing one that was hard to accept at the time such is his contribution to local footy.
It is one that ensures he can focus on his happiness and wellbeing into the future with his family.
“The discussion was to speak with your family, that’s the most important thing – footy to me over the last few years has been second anyway, ” he said.
“Basically, it was around having so many concussions over the last five years – they were not big ones, but ones that required a lot of thought.
“I was thinking, shit, if it keeps happening, would I be in a bloody wheelchair? Would I be able to speak? Or be able to do stuff with my family? It was all discussions around that.
“I was told that if I had one more, I would need to reconsider everything.
“It can impact you away from sport for the rest of your life. Having a little boy now, it was a no-brainer.”
Tharle suffers from lingering symptoms from his various concussions – some minor, and some severe that can randomly, at any point, flare up.
“When people ask how it feels to have a concussion, I usually say that for every concussion I’ve had, there’s been a different experience,” he said.
“It’s things like just forgetting where you are at times, not remembering what happened but everything leading into the (concussion) incident, I’ve had bad headaches, and blood noses just randomly.”
But one thing intensely personal to Tharle is the mental health battle he’s in.
“I actually got diagnosed with depression this year – that’s the long-term impact and severity of my concussions,” he said.
“I don’t think a lot of people that actually are involved in sport understand that depression can affect people in different ways, but it’s also caused by concussion.
“I was a pretty mellowed out guy before I got concussed a couple of times this year, and it’s sort of brought along a lot of depression and anxiety in my life.
“I’ve had seven concussions in five years, so it contributes to it for sure – it stuffs up the chemical balances in your brain. Obviously concussion is essentially bleeding on the brain, regardless of whether its a minor severe knock.
“I definitely think it’s all connected.”
One thing is certain in the times of uncertainty as he focuses on his recovery and family – Tharle’s legacy at Cranbourne and south-east football is secured.
After 230 senior games, 186 goals, two premierships in 2011 and 2016, life membership and league representative matches, he has nothing left to prove on-field – he’s a bona-fide champion of local football and one of Cranbourne’s most decorated ever players.
He also spent a season at Cora Lynn, but has spent a lifetime of footy in the famous Cranbourne colours, all the way from his junior days.
It’s something not lost on Tharle, who remains immensely proud of his contribution in the number 18, where he has overcome obstacles along the way to forge a mighty career and one brimming with impactful moments in big games.
“I’ve had a lot of pretty bad injuries, and some weird unfortunate ones as well, so getting to 200 and becoming a life member is a great achievement, I didn’t feel like I was able to go out on my own terms, to be honest” he said.
“I got the body pretty good this year after deciding whether to play or not – it would have been nice to get to 300, I got to around 200.
“I’ve missed probably two years just with shitty little injuries, facial injuries, but I’m proud.
“I’m not sure how many people have got to 200 at the club, so I’m in that category of some of those great Cranbourne players.
“I wouldn’t say I’m in the same company as some of the great, great players, but it’s a big achievement considering what’s happened, for sure.”
It’s what made telling his club – people he’s grown up with, shared the highs and lows and everything in between that come hand-in-hand with sport – one of the hardest and most confronting aspects of his journey into retirement.
“Trying to explain to your teammates, to your coach, to the whole club was the hardest thing to do,” he said.
“It was easy to talk about with my family, you’re telling them the situation while they’re looking at you, and you’re seeing how they’re reacting so there’s a sense of relief to my wife in particular.
“The hardest part was telling your mates, guys you’ve been with for over a decade – you kind of feel guilty, because you’ve got so much to offer, but unfortunately it’s out of your control.
“It was hard, but once you’ve got it off your chest, and you can see how much they care and understand, it’s like a weight lifted off your shoulders.”
He won’t be lost to football or the Cranbourne Football Club, however as it chases a senior premiership in 2021.
“You do feel better on Monday’s, that’s for sure,” he said.
“I’ve not really missed playing – you see who’s out there, you know that the club’s in pretty good hands.
“But I’m still involved, still the runner and still helping out, so I still very much feel a part of it.
“I’m yet to get to training, but I can join in group training drills, all that stuff, but it’s no different for me.
“I sort of prepare the same as they would do, that’s just me as a person. That’s pretty much it, really.”
Now focusing on his recovery, Tharle has a profoundly strong message for anyone experiencing similar symptoms or challenges.
And one that simply must be listened to.
“I would just say to not be embarrassed if you’ve copped too many head knocks and make those tough decisions,” he said.
“At the end of the day, you can’t play footy forever, but you’ve got your brain forever.
“You’ve got to think whether it’s that important to keep playing, there’s other avenues like coaching and things like that to stay involved, so don’t be embarrassed to tell people you’re concerned for the rest of your life and that you’re done.”
He believes there’s a lot of work to do in sport to help remove the stigma attached to concussion, and the subsequent challenges – such as mental health – so many athletes face when their careers come to an end.
“It kind of feels like it’s not taken seriously enough – it’s a real thing, I live it,” he said.
‘It’s not something that needs to be laughed off, if you cop a knock make sure you do the right things, take the 12 days off, go get tested, don’t get on the piss that night.
“That all contributes to everything that could happen later on in life.
“I think players, individuals, clubs and coaches need to take it a lot more seriously.”
Anyone needing help can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.