When Campbell Heath’s left knee buckled under him for the third time in four years in 2011, he feared the worst.
“I thought that was it,” Port Adelaide’s new defensive superboot said. “That was the headspace I was in because it had been a pretty tough journey.
“I was devastated, had hit rock bottom and was doubting my body and whether it would be able to handle the demands of AFL footy.
“If I’d needed a second knee reco that year I probably would have called it quits.
“I was pretty close to throwing it in but fortunately I was given a glimmer of hope.”
After twice tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee – in 2009 and 2011 – and undergoing a traditional knee reconstruction and the new-age LARS surgery, former Swan Heath said one more major blow at that stage of his career would likely have ended it – at the age of just 20.
His once-promising career would have amounted to not much more than pain, surgery, rehabilitation and disappointment.
But scans showed far less serious damage and Heath was back playing within weeks.
On Easter Sunday last week, one day shy of his 22nd birthday, he tasted AFL success for the first time and kicked his first goal in the Power’s 79-point opening-round romp against Melbourne at the MCG.
Suddenly the pain, hard work in rehab and on the track, frustration and persistence were all worth it.
“It could easily have been so different,” said Heath, who played just two games in four years with Sydney, losing both.
“Luckily when I thought about giving it all away I took the attitude that I didn’t want to die wondering.
“I was only young, just 20 at that stage, and thought I had heaps of years of footy left in me if I could get my body right.
“Footy was something I really loved and if I’d have given it up then my AFL career would probably have been over forever.
“Once you give it in, that’s it, there’s no turning back and you have to live with that for the rest of your life.
“I didn’t want to live with regrets, that would be the worst thing, to spend the next 60 years of your life with regrets.
“So I kept giving it a shot and it’s turned out to be a good move.”
Heath learnt a lot about football from working hard on his rehab from LARS surgery with Swans premiership defender Nick Malceski, who was recovering from the same operation.
Mentally, former Sydney captain-turned-development manager Stuart Maxfield was a mentor. Maxfield also helped him with his defensive skills.
Not that there weren’t more hiccups.
Heath’s rebuilt knee has held strong but it didn’t stop him from being delisted – and then rookie-listed by Sydney – at the end of 2011.
He did not play an AFL game last year because of the Swannies’ outstanding season
which led to their second premiership in eight years.
BUT his form for Sydney’s reserves in the NEAFL was strong and caught the eye of Power list manager Jason Cripps and recruiting manager Geoff Parker, who liked him when he was drafted by the Swans as a bottom-age player at pick 61 at the 2008 national draft.
When defenders Troy Chaplin and Danyle Pearce fled in the AFL’s first free agency period and Jacob Surjan was delisted, Port sought defensive reinforcements.
“We were looking for some mature-age players with mature bodies who could play straight away because we needed to limit the damage of losing Pearce and Chaplin,” said Parker, who also brought in two other backmen from rival AFL clubs – West Coast’s Lewis Stevenson and GWS’s Jack Hombsch.
Knowing his history, the Power put Heath through a full medical before offering him a contract.
“They were a bit worried about the knee but the scans were good,” said Heath, who at 188cm can play on talls and smalls.
“I haven’t had any dramas with it at all for the past 16 months or so, so I’m hoping my troubles are behind me.”
After a strong pre-season, Heath was a standout in Port’s impressive first round win against the Demons.
“It’s been a long, tough road for me.
“A bit of a roller-coaster so far, having been delisted and had a couple of knee recos,” he said.
“But it’s great to be back playing with such a great club with all these guys and to get my first AFL win was a great feeling.
“To play so well at the MCG and kick my first goal at the home of footy, on the big stage, was a bit of a dream come true.
“It made all the rehab and the hard work worth it.”