Thirteen players moved clubs on deadline day. Sam Naismith wasn't one of them.
But amid the mania of the final day of the trade period on October 18, Richmond called. Reluctantly, the Tigers were finally prepared to grant Ivan Soldo his wish. Now they needed to find a readymade replacement.
Naismith was sitting at the pottery wheel in the tiny studio behind his house in Melbourne's bayside when his phone started buzzing. With Soldo completing a move to Port Adelaide early on that Wednesday morning, Richmond list manager Blair Hartley called Naismith's agent, Ben Williams from Players Ink, to see if his client was interested in trialling for a rookie spot during the pre-season supplemental selection period.
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Everything accelerated from that call. Naismith was summoned to the Swinburne Centre at Punt Road the following day to sit down with Hartley and Richmond recruiting boss Matt Clarke. Then he underwent a medical 24 hours later, where the Tigers were convinced the beaten-up 31-year-old still has the physical capacity to play at the highest level. A meeting with new senior coach Adem Yze was the next order of business.
By the time Naismith returned home on the Friday afternoon, he had a contract for 2024. The Tigers had committed to selecting him as a delisted free agent when the window opened at the start of November.
In the space of 36 hours, Naismith was back in business, the very business that had toyed with his heart for more than a decade.
When Naismith, a 206cm ruckman, was delisted by Sydney last year, he had not played a game at any level in two seasons and just two in the AFL since the end of 2017. In all, he managed just 30 senior appearances across nine seasons at the Swans due to a devastating run of injuries. When he was cut, his time in the AFL appeared over.
Fremantle sniffed around at the end of last year, only to kick the tyres and move on. But after signing with VFL standalone club Port Melbourne, Naismith emerged as one of the best ruckmen outside the AFL in 2023, averaging 37.1 hitouts and 13.9 disposals per game.
Geelong considered him ahead of the Mid-Season Rookie Draft but passed. It appeared that ship had departed the harbour. Naismith was at peace with that. But Soldo's move opened the door for an unlikely second chance, at an age when second chances seldom materialise.
"At the start of the year, I was so keen to prove my body was fine and I could get back on an AFL list," Naismith tells AFL.com.au.
"I knew that I could still play footy, I just ran out of time at the back end of my time at Sydney. I just realised I was happy playing again and knew that if I had a good first half of the year, I would be in contention to get back on a list.
"The mid-season draft came around and I thought I was a chance, but it didn't happen. (But) I didn't think it was the end of the world because I was enjoying footy so much at Port Melbourne.
"That whole season I just fell in love with footy again. I met a great bunch of guys, made a whole heap of friends. At the end of the year, I didn't think this would happen, but then I got a phone call and things have changed.
"When you're not playing, you don't feel part of it. For a long time at Sydney, I was just the guy on the bike; 10 new kids come through every year (and) by the end of 2022, I had played with seven blokes. No one had known that I actually did play footy. So being out there this year was just amazing. But to be honest, through all my injuries, I have always believed that I'm still good at playing footy. That's what I want to prove here."
Injuries are a central part of Naismith's journey, but only reveal part of his story. The three knee reconstructions and more than a dozen other operations have been well documented. The ACL tears were unlucky, they usually are. But beyond the football setbacks that cut him down in his prime, he has dealt with more private, more traumatic battles.
While recovering from his third ACL surgery, when the graft didn't attach and cost him another two-and-a-half years on the sidelines, his sister Kristi was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, less than a decade after his father passed away from bowel cancer.
It was a brutal time for the entire family. Coupled with his injury woes, Naismith's mental health suffered.
Kristi lost her battle in May, 2020. Weeks later, Naismith played what would be his final game for the Swans. He damaged his ACL at training in the days beforehand, but told only two of his teammates and no one else, so determined was he to play in honour of his late sister.
Amid all that heartache, Naismith's mum Debbie has been courageously fighting her own battle with breast and blood cancer in their hometown of Gunnedah, near Tamworth, in north-east NSW.
"At the end of the day, perspective is everything," Naismith says.
"I think in football clubs you get caught up with game after game and you don't have that real world perspective. I went through my ACL injuries when my sister was really sick and that made it clear to me that what I was going through was nothing in comparison to what she was going through. That taught me to push hard through the recovery, because she was pushing hard through hers.
"I had no reason to complain; I was on a really good wage, I was healthy, my knee was just sore. There was nothing life-threatening about my situation. I think that perspective really helped me recover. There was a lot of stressful times and a lot of darkness with my mental state going through all that."
Debbie had been hoping to make it to Melbourne this year to watch her son play for Port Melbourne, but wasn't able to travel due to her chemotherapy treatment. But when Sam gets a game for Richmond in 2024, good luck trying to stop her making the 12-hour drive to the MCG.
"Mum is so excited," Naismith says. "Being able to share this with her and my brother and sister and the rest of my family has been so special. Knowing they can watch me while I'm playing brings us together for two or three hours on the weekend."
At the Tigers, Naismith will again link up with Toby Nankervis, Richmond's co-captain and formerly Naismith's ruck understudy at the Swans. Having been stuck in the queue behind Naismith as Sydney reached the Grand Final in 2016, Nankervis was lured to Punt Rd in a recruiting masterstroke that helped set the club on course for the three premiership wins that followed.
Now they're back at the same club together, but only after Nankervis provided Hartley and Clarke with a glowing endorsement.
"I have always kept in contact with Toby quite loosely – he is hard to get a hold of on the phone – but at Sydney we were tight," Naismith says.
"He has come to Richmond and won three flags and become a captain. What a story. I'm really hungry to either fight Toby for that No.1 spot or play with him. We played a lot of footy together when we were in Sydney and we complemented each other really well."
When Naismith received that life-altering phone call in October, he was doing what he does most days: creating things with his hands. He turned to pottery at a point in his life when he didn't realise how much it would do for him.
During the pandemic, while he was recovering from yet another operation, an opportunity presented to learn the craft in a garage in Tamarama in Sydney's eastern suburbs. It was the escape he needed.
Now it has become a business, a burgeoning pottery start-up called Lucklove Studio, which represents the next phase of his life when the football chapter finally closes.
"It is something that I used as a mindfulness exercise to escape my own thoughts and feelings," he says.
"You can't actually think of anything while you're doing pottery because it is very sensory. The environment is very uplifting.
"All the people I've met in that industry are so supportive and uplifting. There are no egos or competition; you just build each other up, which is worlds apart from football clubs. You learn to go slower and make mistakes. At the end of the day, it is dirt.
"For a long time, it was the first time I was happy. Now being able to teach others in classes or even making stuff for family and friends, it has mentally refreshed me."
As we speak, Naismith drinks out of a reusable coffee cup he made with his own hands. By Christmas, expect everyone at the Tigers to be sipping their lattes out of a Lucklove Studio creation.
It would have been understandable if Naismith opted not to tread this path again. Instead, he is willingly wading back in, ready to see where this path takes him next.
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