Great football finals always bring up tales of heroism and bravery, but few will match that of Roarke Smith when the Western Bulldogs take on the Melbourne Demons in the AFL premiere on Saturday.
The unassuming 25-year-old from Sunbury, Victoria, will take his place on the wing for the Bulldogs after a few gruesome years in which his football career was almost prematurely ended on more than one occasion.
“I wouldn’t think in a million years that I would be playing in a grand final,” Smith told The Age this week.
Since his debut in the AFL in 2015, Smith has battled two knee reconstructions, two delistings, seven one-year rookie contracts, being on and off the team and, just three years ago, a car accident that left him in the hospital.
Tough run: Roarke Smith plays his first-ever grand final on Saturday as the Western Bulldogs take on the Melbourne Demons at Optus Stadium on Saturday, but things haven’t been smooth sailing for the 25-year-old midfielder
He was nicknamed ‘Sunshine’ when he made his debut with the Calder Cannons in the Under-18 Victorian league in 2013 as a 17-year-old, his former coach Andrew Jago said. afl.com.au.
‘[The name was from] the character in the movie Remember the Titans,” Iago said.
“The quarterback who initially comes in with wavy, long blond hair, which Roarke had, [and] a constant smile on his face, which Roarke had.
He probably thought of himself as more of a surfer or skater, which was probably on top of that. And it took him a while to convince himself he belonged to the Cannons side, he’s just so humble.”
Picked up by the Western Bulldogs in the 2014 rookie draw, Smith’s setback started just a week after he made his first top-level appearance in Round 21, 2015, against the West Coast Eagles.
While playing in the VFL the following week, he tore his ACL and only made his second AFL appearance again in the round 22 against Essendon in 2016.
Smith experienced more pain when he fell back from the AFL as the Western Bulldogs broke a 62-year drought to win the 2016 flag.
He continued to play in the club’s VFL side before tearing his ACL again in early 2017 and later being taken off the list at the end of the season after serving the maximum three years on the rookie list.
Since his AFL debut in 2015, Smith has battled two knee reconstructions, two delistings, seven one-year rookie contracts, being on and off the team and, just three years ago, a car accident that left him in the hospital.
The curse continued. Smith tore his other ACL the following year, knocking him off the list again before the Bulldogs picked him up for 2018.
He ended up playing eight consecutive games from round 10, before a car accident on the way to practice sent him hospitalized and off the team again.
On his return, he suffered a concussion and missed two games before returning to the team before the end of the season.
Two more seasons of sporadic appearances followed before Smith was taken off the list for a second time last year.
Personal: Roarke hails from Sunbury in northwestern Melbourne and followed his older brother to play Aussie Rules. Shown here with his partner Ruby
Smith received the news while in a quarantine hub on the Gold Coast.
Bulldogs development manager Jamie Maddocks recalled an emotional and frustrated Smith.
“It was more like, ‘No, I’m going to prove to you that I belong here and I’m going to show you.’ He just felt like he owned his place, and he should be, and I’ve never seen that from Roarke.”
What followed was one of Smith’s best seasons after returning in round nine, which saw the Dogs get a grand finale despite being off the team twice during the season.
The Beginning: Roarke was noticed by recruiters and was drafted at pick No. 5 in the 2015 Rookie Draft. He made his professional debut in Round 21 against the West Coast Eagles
Although he was on the bench twice this year, he was fortunately chosen to be in the club’s grand final.
“Two ACLs, scrapped, two rookie again…it’s been a rollercoaster, but I’m counting my blessings,” he told The Age.
“There must have been times when I thought about giving it away. I struggled a lot with self-confidence and always thought I didn’t belong here.’
“The club has invested so much in me where I’ve seen guys get injured and get them cut out of their clubs and I think that could be me, but for the Bulldogs to hang on for so long and keep that faith in me have – I just want to return a favor.’
The reward: This year was one of Smith’s best seasons after returning in round nine, which saw the Dogs get a grand finale despite being off the team twice during the season.
Roarke plays on the wing for the Bulldogs in Saturday’s AFL Grand Final after a rollercoaster of several years of injuries and other setbacks