Let’s hope it’s not a knee

By Anson Cameron, 2012

The knee is the damnedest joint in the human skeleton, a hinge between long levers carrying a deadweight of dreams and driven personalities. Every stone-hard ego-fuelled warrior has a knee to bring him down. It’s God’s little joke on the Spartan and the Navy Seal, the knee. Even Mickey Mantle had knees.


For a lot of us knee pain is a reminder that, by evolutionary rights, we should be dead. Until we reached this easy society knees killed far more of us than the heart or the liver or lungs did. An elder with a bung knee would lie down by the fire and chant prayer, left behind to die as the tribe wandered on in search of game. But we carry our broken olds with us now. These days it’s the young that are left behind because of knees; the wounded athlete lays and prays as the show moves on without him.

Playing in the feeder game Dan Menzel swooped and gathered the ball and fed it off and if your eyes followed it as it ricocheted away you told yourself the kid who moved like a white Wanganeen was back. But if your eyes stayed with Menzel you saw him fall and grab at his left knee wincing in… puzzlement. Everything he’d been taught about life; that you get back what you put in, that hard work is rewarded, all the reflexive maxims of parents and coaches, said this Could Not Be. His good knee could not collapse half-an-hour into a ten-month comeback from a reconstruction.
As he was driven from the field on a stretcher, his face was absorbed with curiosity and he felt his newly stricken left knee, then his newly healed right, comparing them, a kid trying to diagnose not just his medical condition but his future, feeling for corporeal damage, and at the same time trying to locate a pulse in his dream. Only an irresistible curiosity can make you feel your own wound. The need to know if it’s mortal. If you’re finished. This was a kid asking questions of God.

If holding a cup aloft on a dais is the culmination of a dream, then holding a knee while exiting the field on a moto-stretcher must be its antithesis. And as this handsome kid was carted from the arena he gazed around as if not recognizing where he was, stalled in purgatory and as confused by limitation as the talented always are. Then Dan Menzel disappeared under the stands and his coming dark days disappeared with him and the biggest footy story of the week became a political one: Eddie said Mick would be good for Carlton. Sticks told Eddie to shut up.

An anterior cruciate ligament is one of four meaty hawsers that attach the lower leg to the upper. When it snaps it will not heel. Without a replacement you might play golf. Tiger Woods famously played and won tournaments with a torn ACL. But you will not play football. To fix it a surgeon takes a ligament from another part of your body (or from a cadaver, a young, green road victim would be ideal) and screws it to your upper and lower leg.

John Coleman gave us ninety-eight games before one of his knees went at twenty-five, by which time he was immortal. But what if your knee gives out after the first intriguing pulse of potential? What if your knee cuts you down after twenty-one games before fame shapes your life?

In a sense we all come up against a “knee” of our own. For most of us it’s simply not being good enough. But that “knee”, that limitation, comes early, piece-by-piece, in digestible measures. We miss selection, we’re dropped for the big game, our expectations are modified and other pleasures seep into the hole the dream left behind; girls, waves, deals, long nights in loud bars. Our world becomes varied with new ventures. But the world of the prodigy stays intimate, specialized, like a Prince or a kelpie he is trained for one specific act and by eighteen, to become good at this act, he’s had to deny himself the pretty baubles a free society offers. Those are for later. Maybe. If he enters the field of play and wins the dream.

Football isn’t just football to these kids. It’s destiny. Imagine the agony of the virtuoso when his instrument is taken away. Buddha Hocking always held a ball. Even riding his bike no-hands doing his paper round in Cobram he would bounce a ball. Old men in that town would wake blinking before dawn, asking themselves, “Did I hear a footy bounce.”

Likewise Hendrix always had a guitar in his hand. Jeff Beck said when he first saw Jimi at a party not holding his Fender he knew he was in trouble. The relationship between the prodigy and his art is dangerously symbiotic.

Not to say Dan Menzel is a prodigy, but he had taken marks over Big Names and kicked goals in big games, some from out in the geometrical wilderness where the white line looms and only Stevie J and the Improbables operate. It was all coming true. The things the grown-ups had promised. The dream you hardly want to dream in case it eludes you. That frighteningly beautiful future… El Dorado looming out of a fog. Cam Mooney, on the day of the second knee, said he thought Menzel might have won the Brownlow he was that good. Mooney unwittingly used the past tense. That tells you how frightened players are of knees.

Dan Menzel has already sat in a stand holding crutches and watched his team mates run out and win a flag without him. That day he would have felt like a man trying to work both ends of a crosscut saw, a bipolar push and pull of joy for what his friends were achieving, and despair that they were playing out the glorious fate that had been promised to him.

But knee injuries aren’t permanent anymore. If Coleman played now he might have got two hundred games. David Schwarz came back from two knees, before doing a third. You can be back in a year, with increased risk to both your good and bad knee. But even if you only lose a year to each knee injury, which years are they, your best, or worst? Maybe two years of groundwork that would have laid the base for the crescendo of your career? If Gary Ablett Snr sits out 1984 and 1985 does he ever perform the throat-freezing wonders of ’89 and ‘93? Nobody knows the truth of what might have been. But these are surely the phantoms that chant at midnight in the mind of Dan Menzel and the other cruelled knees of the AFL in 2012.

So today, as the ball is bounced and the surrounding players are sucked hunchbacked toward it like hyenas to a hare, think of the kids sitting in the stands flexing pained knees and running scraps of dreams to see if either will ever carry them as they once did.

First published in The Age, 2012


Matt Zurbo on D Menzel’s comeback game, 2015 Round 22 – Geelong v Collingwood


  1. Don’t know what word you learnt JTH. But on rereading I see I’ve used “heel” for “heal”, but might have got away with it as pun. And I think Stevie J and The Improbables is a top name for a band.

  2. Not as good as Fat John and the Disappointments. That would be my band.

    Hawser. When checking up, Google also pointed me at hawsehole. I may even dust off the Shorter Oxford on this.

  3. this piece is brilliant!!!

  4. Always enjoy Anson’s all too rare ventures into sporting territory.

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