When Harry Himmelberg and Tim Taranto got home from an interstate game one-and-half years ago, they found their housemate sprinting up and down the hallway of their apartment: twisting, turning and insisting there was no chance he could have done his knee in Darwin during a NEAFL match one day earlier, like the doctor had told him. “I wouldn’t be able to sprint like this, would I?” he asked his housemates. “No way,” agreed Harry and Tim. “And I wouldn’t be able to change direction like this,” he said, finishing another lap. “Definitely no way!” agreed the pair, who were there when Matthew Flynn got the phone call saying his scan results were bad, that he had done his knee and that he wouldn’t play footy again for a while.
“He went from talking himself into being OK, to getting the worst news you could almost get,” Himmelberg said. “He was in our lounge room at home running up and down, saying ‘it’s not that swollen, it feels fine, I think it might be all right.’ He was trying to convince himself, and me and Tim the same, but that’s just what he’s like. He’s always optimistic, always looking for the bright side and trying to find the good news in everything that happens.
“When the call came through, he was shocked. It was pretty confronting. You can tell if someone is really rocked by something and that’s what happened, but within about an hour of getting that phone call he was in his room writing down all the good things about it. He wrote himself this little note and still has it on his bed. I’m not sure he knows I know, but it’s still there. It’s a little list, a little affirmation about all the positive things that the injury would give him time to do.”
Himmelberg has known Flynn since they played for the NSW/ACT Rams as teenagers six years ago, when the boy from Narrandera was “a big, skinny giraffe” and Himmelberg headed to the GIANTS with him as an Academy draftee. Shane Mumford has known him since he got to the club as a third-round draft pick in 2015 and has played a big part in teaching him the many the things he needed to know about how to become an AFL ruckman. And Callan Ward spent months and months in the gym with him, as they made their way back from the same injury, which interrupted their careers at very different stages.
They are just three of many, many people who will be pleased, proud and relieved to watch Flynn play his first AFL game against St Kilda on Sunday, but three who have had an extra close-up look at his six-year wait. Since Flynn was drafted at pick 41 five-and-a-bit years ago, every player chosen before him has played at least one senior game, as well as 22 of the 29 players chosen after him. He is the last still-listed player from his draft yet to debut; others have already been delisted. In his time at the club, he has watched 29 players play their first AFL games while he had to keep getting ready, and a bunch of senior recruits wear their GIANTS jumper for the first time. He even presented one of his teammates – Zach Sproule – with his first-game jumper in the rooms on match day two years ago.
Other, older rucks – Dawson Simpson, Sam Jacobs and new teammate Braydon Preuss – have arrived, and jumped ahead of him. Just a few days before he did his knee in July 2019, he was in Leon Cameron’s office with Simpson, being told he was closer than ever to being picked for the senior side, but that Simpson had got the nod that week. He returned from his knee injury in the middle of a pandemic, where there were no full NEAFL matches and no real chance to build up his match fitness and push even harder for a spot in the side. This week, the stars have finally aligned; this week, there is nothing and no-one in his way.
Mumford was 28 when Flynn got to the club, and at the peak of his powers. Since Flynn arrived – joining him, Rory Lobb and Tom Downie on the 2016 list – he has watched him inch towards his round one chance, getting a little stronger, a little fitter and a little smarter with each season that has rolled by. He has watched him try to pick up all he can from the other ruckmen to come in, rather than show any annoyance that they might be holding him back. But it was this pre-season that Mumford saw the biggest, best jump and felt absolutely convinced that he was ready to go.
“I guess he was just a big kid when he got here. I don’t think his skinfolds or anything were too crash hot when he first got to the club, but I can’t really talk, I was the same when I got to Geelong,” Mumford said. “He was a pretty easy-going sort of guy, always up for a laugh. I remember he always wanted to kick more than he should have and probably went through that process where he was getting his ambition and capabilities a bit mixed up from time to time.
“It’s just been gradual, with him. He had to be able to run better; he had to be able to run all day and he’s worked away at that every year. He had to get stronger and that was always going to take time too. I think he has always wanted to push himself forward, without having the running and the strength to back it up, but he’s come back this pre-season and given everything and there’s been a massive jump.
“I don’t know if he’s just decided to take Preussy on, or if he can see that I’m near the end, but he’s attacked everything. His fitness has gone to the next level, he’s been having a really good battle with Preussy and he’s been enjoying that. And he’s always been a good learner, so he’s just at the point where he’s putting it all together now. I’d love to have him hooked up with a little earpiece because every time I give him an idea or suggest something, he wants to try it out and he just goes out there and does it perfectly.”
Ward watched Flynn’s persistence from up close in the gym; he was a couple of months ahead of Flynn while coming back from his own ACL injury, but found himself appreciating the ruckman’s optimistic outlook and enthusiasm for whatever each boring day would deliver them to do. He had spent the previous few years watching Flynn slowly work out what he had to do in order to get himself ready and thought he was just about there before he did his knee. He was definitely there after it.
“An injury like that can be a turning point and I think it was a turning point for him. But to be honest, I think he’d reached that point just before his knee, where everything he did had got to an elite level and he was just reaching that point where he was ready to be picked, ready to be given a go. He was really close,” Ward said.
“The knee could have knocked him off that path, but I think he actually thought ‘I was so close because of how hard I was working, so this is my time to work even harder.’ I think he worked out what his weaknesses were and pushed himself and trained really, really hard so that when he came back, he was better, to the point he’s one of our hardest trainers these days.”
He did most of it, at least, with a smile. “Rehab can get tough and sometimes you can’t be bothered but he was always fronting up, he was always positive about it,” Ward said. “There was one point where he got some swelling in his knee that held him back for a bit, but all he said was ‘no, I’m right, I’ll be fine.’ He has this optimistic way of looking at things; he’s a very positive person. I’d be complaining about all the cross training we had to do and he’d come in and love doing it all. Everything we got told to do, he just seemed to find a way of enjoying it.”
Himmelberg saw that too, but not all of it at close hand. At the end of the 2019 he headed off on holidays, travelling with Taranto to the US. Flynn stuck around in Sydney to keep up his rehab and Himmelberg worried at times about how he would be coping, doing all that work on his own in a quiet, empty gym with no teammates there to talk to, laugh with and feed off. Knowing it was up to him to push himself, that no-one else could do it for him, and that there were no more games for ages.
He was almost shocked when he got home. “You don’t notice little changes when you live with someone, but not seeing him for those two months, I came back and his whole body shape had just changed,” Himmelberg said. “I wondered how he was going to go with it, because some of the things I’d seen him go through mentally around that time were just crazy. Living with him I saw every bit of it, and there were times I thought, ‘he’s going to fall apart eventually, I don’t think he’s going to be able to keep rocking up like he is.’
“It all rolled into that off-season and I was kind of worried for him to be in Sydney all by himself, with just the physios, but the change in him was amazing. It was always a running joke that he had sausage arms and stuff, but all of a sudden, we got back and he was looking like Stef Martin. Actually, I won’t give him Stef Martin, but he was looking like a big, strong ruckman.
“And mentally that’s what I think he’s become. Physically the change was huge, but there’s a big difference even between last pre-season and this one with the way he carries himself. He’s acting like he’s an AFL player now, he’s not acting like a NEAFL player. I know in the past he’s admitted he’s been comfortable being a NEAFL ruckman and being a good NEAFL ruckman, but the way he sees himself now is as more than that. That’s the biggest shift I’ve seen, in the way he carries himself. And that’s what you want your ruckman to have, to be that that big presence. He’s figured out that’s what he wants, and that that’s what he needs to be. I’m so happy for him.”
Himmelberg knows he is ready, albeit after one small scare; when Flynn rolled his ankle two weeks ago Harry the graphic designer did up a picture of him as the boy who cried wolf and sent it to the players’ WhatsApp group. Mumford knows he is good to go, too, and Ward is looking forward to playing with him for the first time. “There’s no doubt in my mind he’s ready to go. To be honest, at the end of last season Leon and the coaching group were almost ready to pick him, and he was pretty much ready for it then too. Now he’s just even more ready,” he said.
“It’s a pretty remarkable journey and he’s had to wait, but he’s also worked so hard and learned a lot about himself and he’s been a good teammate and a good person to have around the club all that time. I think everyone will be happy for Flynny to play, and everyone will love running out with him.
“I’m really proud of him. He’s a good person, he’s worked really hard and he’s had to hang in there, but he’s also done the work and made sure that his turn would come. You can’t not be happy for him. It’s going to be a good day when we see him out there for the first time.”