In an engaging public forum yesterday hosted by the SA Property Council, Smart and fellow premiership teammate Tyson Edwards joined former Port Adelaide captain Dom Cassisi to reflect on the sometimes rocky transition from the highs of AFL football to finding a new path in the “real world”.
Smart’s career was curtailed in the days after Brendan Fevola, the showman spearhead for the struggling Blues, kicked seven goals on him in a match-stealing performance in 2004. Two weeks later, he played his final game for the Crows, even managing to kick one last goal in a surprise win against the Bulldogs. The following week, Gary Ayres followed him out the door.
Nigel Smart: “We were training and Gary Ayres threatened to knock me out; that was when I knew it was time to move forward and try something else.
“I was 34 at the time, so I was quite comfortable in retiring and moving on. At the time I hadn’t had a great preseason and I had an ongoing injury, so my form was inconsistent.
“Certainly there was frustration in the way Gary was coaching as well.
“That confrontation with Gary: it happened, I left the club, Gary left a short time after, and we moved on…
“As an AFL player, you get pumped up and your ego becomes quite large… I look back and probably didn’t really like who I was.
“Leaving a football club is not easy: it’s challenging.
“Everyone has a different story… my story in terms of separation from a footy club, it was pretty good. I had a last game and played really well.
“You get that balance between the performance mentality of the coach and the emotional thing of saying farewell to a player… fans have got opinions and views [as well] and sometimes they want to see a player farewelled in the right way.
“I found it incredibly difficult going from one career into another… when you’re in a club you have this purpose, you have a reason to get up. You’re mentally and physically training for a common goal.
Leaving a football club is not easy: it’s challenging
“The transition to try and find your next purpose can be quite a difficult one for players to find. I think it took me a couple of years to find that out.
“At the end of your career, you think you know a lot [but] after a period of time it’s been redefined and you need a new clarity of purpose to find out why you’re here and what you’re doing… I found that a real challenge.
“[Issues of] mental health, depression, anxiety… they all stem from that leaving one system and going into another.
“[For Adelaide Football Club] it’s about keeping players connected with us when they leave.”
Dom Cassisi announced his retirement halfway through the Power’s 2014 season – a year in which they narrowly missed a Grand Final. After three losses in succession, Port won Cassisi’s farewell game against the Demons by a nailbiting three points.
Cassisi, who was drafted at pick 50 in 2000 played in Port’s 2004 premiership and went on to captain the club through its lean years of 2009 to 2012.
Under the tutelage and guidance of real estate doyen and Power board member Anthony Toop, Cassisi has established mortgage brokerage and finance advisory form Funding Options, of which he is managing director.
HEAR MORE: Cassisi in conversation with Adelaide podcast Rooster Radio:
Dom Cassisi: “My final match confirmed in my mind that I was too slow for the game, so that was a nice feeling – that I’d made the right decision.
I didn’t miss being told what I should have done on the weekend
“I was very fortunate [to be given a farewell game] and the week was so memorable, the way Ken [Hinkley, Power coach] and the club approached that week. [All the attention] was a bit embarrassing… but we won on the day after we’d lost a few going into it.
“I was a little bit paranoid throughout my whole career about what was going to happen next… In general with a pick 50, unless you’re showing good signs early you get shown the door. Even when I was getting picked each week and playing quite well, I always had this element of feeling that my career was going to end around the corner.
“[When I retired] I didn’t miss being told what I should have done on the weekend… what I did do well, what I didn’t do well.
“I was good friends with Toopy for a long time, since he’s been on the board of the footy club. He said he’d support me in any way possible [and] we get a lot of residential business from [Toop and Toop], which has been a great start for the business.
“To be able to have him as a sounding board, I’m very fortunate.”
After playing his 300th game for the Crows in 2009, Tyson Edwards endured what he has since described as “year from hell” in 2010.
He announced his retirement after being dropped from the struggling Crows’ lineup, but unlike Smart, then-coach Neil Craig was not disposed to affording him an on-field sendoff.
However, a fan backlash changed his mind, and Edwards played his 321st and final AFL game in an unlikely win against He was later an assistant coach at the Crows’ crosstown rivals Port Adelaide, before pursuing business in real estate, working as an agent for Harris with his wife Mandy.
The guys out there live in an unreal world… everyone thinks they’re superhuman
Tyson Edwards: “I’d decided 2010 was going to be my last year but coming into preseason I was diagnosed with testicular cancer.
“I still made the decision to keep playing, which was probably a bad call and it took a fair toll trying to hide it [from the players].
“I wasn’t playing super football and the club was struggling a little bit, we weren’t winning as many games as everyone would like us to have been [and] the cancer thing didn’t help things.
“In fairness to Neil [giving farewell games] wasn’t the done thing then, there wasn’t a lot of farewell games… I was part of Dom’s [as an assistant at Port] and I was rapt to see how he got to say goodbye. Dom will always want to come back to the club because of the way he left as well.
“But looking at the Crows now, if someone was looking at retiring, you can’t give them a farewell game because they’re trying to win a premiership.”
“[When you retire] the money side of it drops, the lifestyle changes completely… I didn’t miss the fat test and those sorts of things, that’s for sure.
“The guys out there live in an unreal world, so to speak… they play in front of 50,000 people, everyone thinks they’re superhuman. I call it an unreal world.
“I had a young family, so as soon as I finished footy I was happy to go home and be a Dad or a husband… I wasn’t in it for the limelight.
“I do miss the team mentality, everyone striving for the one goal [but] I didn’t have a huge problem stepping into the real world. I was looking forward to it in some ways.
“Is my football profile an advantage in real estate? Yes and no… yes, because it’s a talking point [but] I guess the negative is people know what you’ve done, and they know you haven’t been in the game for long, so you’re starting from the bottom again. You don’t just come in at the top.”
Despite a greater emphasis in recent years through the AFL Players’ Association on pathways from professional sport to what Edwards calls “the real world”, the journey remains a difficult one for many former players.
Next week, the South Australian Leaders Advisory Board will launch its Future Leaders strategy which, among other things, will target sports people in a bid to bolster their knowledge, skills and networks “to ensure a successful and sustainable transition into the business world”, targeted particularly to those looking to establish or grow their own business.
SA Leaders director and former cricketer Cameron Borgas says the program will be “the most efficient way to catch up on the business skills and networks [they] may have missed while pursuing their sporting ambition for the past 10 to 15 years”.
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