Good luck to this kid tonight, it’s been a long way back.
28 Aug 2015 Herald Sun
LAZARUS WITH A QUADRUPLE RECO
THE beers were flowing fast at the Gold Diggers Arms Hotel. It was the Sunday session after Geelong’s 2011 premiership triumph and Daniel Menzel was on crutches.
Three weeks earlier, Menzel had torn the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in the qualifying final against Hawthorn at the MCG.
“I remember the moment — it was over the other side of the ground to where I was,” Menzel’s captain Cameron Ling recalled this week.
“Then in the rooms after the game the doctor told us that he’d actually done his knee. We were really flat for him because we were part of a finals series and pretty excited about everything that was happening.
“He was a young bloke playing some brilliant football and he was going to miss out on being a part of it.
“It was a sliding doors moment — if he doesn’t do that knee, two or three weeks later he’s a premiership player and away he goes.
“We were shattered for him but we also thought, he’ll be right, he’s such an exciting young player, he’ll have the 12 months recovery and will be as good as gold by August the following season.” It didn’t work out that way. Nine months later, Menzel tore the ACL in his left knee in his VFL comeback match at Simonds Stadium.
“That already put him in difficult territory,” said leading AFL medical expert Dr Peter Larkins.
“Because once you’ve had two knees done — not the same knee twice — you think, ‘Oh geez, which is his good knee and is he going to be as quick and as agile’.”
Menzel had another reconstruction using a traditional hamstring graft.
He was on the road to recovery just days before Christmas 2012, when he re-ruptured the left ACL in a simple pre-season training drill.
“Psychologically that was a pretty big setback,” Larkins said.
“Doing it in December means you are cooked really for the whole of the following season.”
Willing to roll the dice to make it back to the big time, Menzel opted for LARS — Ligament Augmentation and Reconstruction System — surgery.
It’s a risky procedure, using synthetic fibres, that promises a speedy return but has failed more times than it has worked in the AFL. And so it was for Menzel. In just his second game back in the VFL in April 2013, his left knee gave way again, forcing a fourth reconstruction.
“There was nothing you could say to him,” Menzel’s younger brother Troy says in a two-part documentary to air on Fox Footy next week.
“You couldn’t put into words what you wanted to say, it was just disbelief.”
Menzel, 23, is one of six brothers and dodgy knees run in the family.
Troy had LARS surgery as a 16-year-old, which didn’t stop Carlton from taking him at pick No.11 in the 2012 draft.
Larkins believes Menzel’s attitude throughout his 1448-day torment has been the secret to his comeback.
“Every time I have spoken to Daniel, and I don’t mean this in a negative way, it’s almost like he didn’t understand what a difficult task was in front of him,” Larkins says. “He was just so positive about it.”
But the mental demons tried their best to beat him.
“In 2011 we won the premiership and it’s the only thing I’ve thought about every day since,” Menzel admits in the documentary.
“Every time footy pops into my head, which is every day, I sit here and go it’s never going to happen again. “It hit me pretty hard. “You know that you probably should have played and probably should be a premiership player and that is pretty difficult to comprehend at first.
“You have all the celebrations afterwards and you want to enjoy it with the boys and you want them to have a great time, but you don’t want to burden anyone or be down at all.
“I’ve heard people say in the past, ‘You got us there, you’re a part of it’, but to be brutally honest, unless you actually play in the game, unless you are a part of the 22, it feels like you are not a part of it.”
Menzel’s four-year journey back to the big time stalled again last year because of chronic tendinitis.
All up there’s been six operations — one on his right knee and five on his left.
There was even a stint in Philadelphia with renowned sports injury expert Bill Knowles, who has worked with Tiger Woods, Frank Lampard and Peyton Manning.
The fourth reconstruction required two major operations.
One to remove the failed LARS hardware and old ligament from past reconstructions and another to install a piece of his patella tendon for the new ACL.
Bone from his hip was also packed into tunnels made for previous reconstructions to help grow the new patella graft.
Geelong coach Chris Scott has been witness to every stage of Menzel’s fight.
He recalled the sadness of his second knee blowout.
“It was a curtain raiser to the GWS game and the feeling
in the rooms was like nothing else I have experienced,” Scott says.
“We actually played pretty poorly early in that game and I’m sure it was because everyone was just so devastated because they’d seen the work Dan had done.
“I tried, in vain I think, to comfort him a little bit and do my best to convey to him that this was only a bump in a really long road.
“I’d love to sit here and say it’s been pretty seamless, and he’s been able to train and get around the boys, but that’s not true.
“There have been some really dark times for him and it’s been a really lonely place as much as we’ve tried to support him through that.”
On the sickening instant when his knee collapses, Menzel says: “It’s a really weird feeling because you know that you you’ve done something but you’re mind tricks you … you’re trying to tell yourself that you haven’t done anything but deep down you know that you have.”
It’s a feeling he and the football world hope he never experiences again.
Menzel’s return to the big time tonight is one of footy’s greatest stories.
But Ling believes the kid Cats fans once dubbed “the new Stevie J” has his sights on more than just a comeback.
“The thing that has always struck me with Menz is that in his own mind he has that quiet, just absolute confidence and unwavering belief that ‘I’m going to play AFL, I’m going to be a good AFL player and I’m going to be a great AFL player’,” Ling says.
“No doubt he’s had those darker moments of doubt in his body … but I almost don’t think he would have made it this far to get back if he hadn’t of been so strong willed.
“He’s a very mentally strong young man but he’s also got that inner belief of ‘I’m not just doing this to come back, I’m doing this to come back and play some damn good footy’. “He was so explosive. “He would have been an excitement machine without those injuries.
“But if his body can hold up, he seems to still have that explosiveness and that agility.
“It’s a great story for him to come back from this but I’m most excited about seeing him actually going on and playing some great footy.
“I hope he can leave all this behind him and go on and have the career we all want him to have and he enjoys it.”