How the AFL helped Rabbitohs' halves duo
South Sydney Rabbitohs rookie Connor Tracey has had the same girlfriend for three years but she'd never had the opportunity to watch him play until his comeback from a third knee reconstruction in last week's NSW Cup trial against Wentworthville Magpies.
Tracey, who has been named in the Rabbitohs squad for Saturday night's match against Wigan Warriors, ruptured his ACL playing under 20s for Cronulla Sharks in round four of the 2015 season and has suffered two recurrences of the injury without playing another game.
Since his first knee reconstruction, the 21-year-old former Australian Schoolboys halfback has switched clubs, almost finished a finance degree at UOW and met his girlfriend, Hannah.
"It was pretty huge for me and my family to get through that game," Tracey told NRL.com. "It's really hard when you can't do something that you love so last Thursday night was one of the best nights of my life, getting back after three years without footy."
Understandably, Tracey had been ready to give the game away when he suffered the third injury during training with the Rabbitohs physiotherapist in October 2016.
He had undergone his second reconstruction earlier in the 2016 pre-season, while training with the Sharks.
"After that third one I had some pretty dark places, I didn't know what to do," Tracey said. "I had had two [injuries] that I did just in rehab - not even training - and the way that I did them should never have happened.
"The first time I just landed on one leg, it was the simplest movement. I had surgery, rehabbed it and eight months into that rehab I was training with the Sharks in the pre-season and then I did it again.
"I had surgery and signed with Souths. I was training with the physio and eight months in again, I was sidestepping and did it again. It has been a long journey back but I'm glad I stuck with it."
After considering LARS surgery, which usually enables athletes to make a quicker recovery, Tracey had a patella tendon graft for his third reconstruction, whereas the previous two had involved donor grafts – a popular option for younger players.
It is very hard to watch games when you can't play.Connor Tracey
"It was one final crack at it, so I had the patella graft, which is definitely stronger," he said. "It was a heaps painful rehab for the first two months, I could hardly walk but it's worked out well."
During the past three years, Tracey has needed support from friends and family and he has rarely attended a game.
"I worked behind the bar at the Sharks for a bit while my team was playing to get some extra money but it is very hard to watch games when you can't play," he said.
"I started fishing a lot, I bought a drone – I just tried to find heaps of hobbies to keep myself busy because on the weekends when everyone is playing I'd have nothing to do.
"One positive is that I was able to study fulltime for the first two years so I am almost finished my [finance] degree."
After playing the first half of last Thursday night's match for North Sydney Bears, Tracey posted a photo on Instagram of himself in his playing kit with Hannah and his parents.
"I met Hannah when I was 18 and she had never seen me play a game before," he said. "She had to put up with me while I was going through all the rehab for three years.
"I would say that all I wanted to do was play footy but she doesn't really understand the game so she was sitting in the stands asking my parents about the rules and how long does the game go for and things like that. The support from her has been huge."
Understandably nervous before the game, Tracey was happy with his first performance in open aged football and believes he can only get better.
"The last time I played was under 20s so the contact was much more in a NSW Cup game," he said.
"It was good last week to have that first hit out and blow the cobwebs off but as soon as the game was over I started focusing on this week. I want to step it up a bit.
"I just tried to do my job for the team. I wanted to keep it simple but I know I can do a lot more than what I did so I can't wait to play against Wigan."