By JESS WEBSTER
Haydn Kiel has achieved just about everything in his football career.
A dual premiership player with Southport as a teenager in the glory days of the Sharks’ dominance in the 2000s, Kiel had his dreams come true when he was drafted to Brisbane in 2006.
Upon his return to the NEAFL in 2012, Kiel was crowned the league’s best player a year later when he went on to win the NEAFL Northern Conference’s Grogan Medal.
Which is why, at 31 years of age and having battled injuries that has sidelined the veteran for two years, most would have accepted Kiel hanging up the boots.
On Sunday, Kiel will have completed an unlikely comeback when he plays his first game for Southport in 764 days, a moment he’s held on to in order to get himself through the dark, lonely days of rehab.
“Just standing there, right before you run out with your mates, nothing compares to that,” Kiel told neafl.com.au.
“I don’t think there is anything better than pulling on the Southport jumper. I was just really chasing that feeling again.”
Kiel thought his career was over the moment he got the news of an ACL tear in the days after Round 3, 2017 against Brisbane. Incredibly, Kiel played out the match with the tear, and it wasn’t until scans days later that revealed the true extent of his injury.
It was Kiel’s second knee reconstruction in four years after his first ACL tear in 2014. He had a goal of returning to the field last May, but had further setbacks.
“I was aiming to come back around April-May, but I had a few complications with my hamstring, so that took a while,” Kiel explains.
“They took the graft from the other leg so that took longer than I thought (to recover from). I got back playing for (QAFL club) Surfers, and then in the third game back I tore my meniscus in my right knee.
“By the time that was right there was only four games left in the season, so I decided to put the season on ice and focus on a big pre-season.”
Kiel watched on as his teammates created history in September with their first NEAFL flag. As the last premiership player left on the Sharks’ list, it was a bittersweet moment.
“It was definitely mixed emotions,” Kiel said.
“It was kind of a cool thing to see, because obviously I’d been with the club for so long and seen the massive shift from the year before in terms of the culture and also the structure of what needed to change.
“So it was cool to see that from the outside, but the feeling of not playing in the premiership, that was kind of tough to watch.”
There was another hurdle for Kiel to climb before his comeback was to be completed; earn a place on Southport’s 2019 playing list.
Admitting he ‘didn’t have much to bargain with’, Kiel then revealed the club’s support never waived, in particular General Manager of Football Operations, Jarrod Field.
“He’s always said the choice is mine, so I had a good think about it with my family and I knew that I always wanted to play. I’ve never thought about stopping,” he said.
“It made me feel pretty special. The support from them has been amazing. I’m pretty lucky to be involved with a club like that.
“After not playing for two years, they had every right to say, ‘look mate, hang them up’, but they’ve supported me the whole way through.”
Having played at Southport since he was 11, Kiel had to work his way back in to the side this week through Surfers Paradise in the QAFL, a club he said he has enjoyed spending time with.
The lonely days of rehab are now behind Kiel as he hops on the plane to Sydney to take on the GIANTS on Sunday in an AFL curtain raiser.
It’s a big stage, one worthy of a club champion who’s journey back to NEAFL level will go down as one of the most inspiring stories this season.
“Last year, I was always at the club doing rehab, which is a lonely place. But I always had that end goal, and the feeling of playing for Southport again in my mind, so it was worth it,” Kiel said.
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