The concussion that ended Katie Brennan’s season as Richmond’s first AFLW captain saw the competition star confined to darkness, debilitated by headaches, deeply frustrated by enforced isolation and a sense of helplessness.
Brennan has detailed symptoms and an eight-week period of rehabilitation, in the tenth episode of The Originals podcast; re-living a mid-match injury she sustained in Bendigo and the extended aftermath where her head “was not okay”.
On field, her 2020 season ended at round four. Off field, Brennan was navigating what, for her, was unchartered territory, featuring loss of memory and balance.
“I definitely had my moments then. That was a pretty tough time,” she says.
“I missed two games that I couldn’t actually even go to, to see the girls. And during those two weeks I was barely at training … because I had to be in a dark room for most of that time.
“I was not okay. And I think after a head knock you’re extra emotional.
“I was pretty devastated that I couldn’t be out there with the group. I couldn’t contribute a lot, as well, because my head was not okay.
“I couldn’t be in light. I couldn’t be in noisy rooms.
“If I did go to training it would just be for meetings. For a couple of hours, in the dark. We had to turn the lights off and then head home when the girls were out on the track.”
Guided by a brain physiotherapist, Brennan was only permitted to deliberately increase her heart rate about six weeks after her concussion. That began with daily cycling sessions and built to running. Preliminary steps of her rehabilitation consisted of eye exercises and a vastly more simplified existence.
“It was a very different experience to what I’ve ever experienced with ankle injuries before, where the rehab’s pretty structured and you sort of know what you’re going to do every day,” Brennan says.
“With the brain you wake up and you’re not quite sure how you’re going to feel.”
Brennan recalls how she “pleaded” with medics to return to play, after her February 29 head clash with Geelong’s Jordan Ivy, just before three-quarter time. She lay motionless on field, for a period, before being assisted to the sidelines.
“I was out for a while, got up, quite dizzy and I didn’t feel very good,” Brennan says.
“We had so much momentum and that’s all I could think about – I just wanted to be out there with the girls; that thought of our first win.
“During the concussion test, I felt really strange. My memory wasn’t amazing and I didn’t feel right. But you sort of just say: ‘nah, I’ll be right, it’s just a little head knock’… but I got the post-concussion syndrome symptoms the next morning and just wasn’t okay.”
From the clear season high of Richmond’s AFLW debut match and captaining the Tigers that night, the Western Bulldogs’ skipper of 2017-2019 also reflects on distinct lowlights. Brennan drew intense media scrutiny personally during her inaugural season at Punt Road, but credits her new club for its support. Head coach of the men’s team, Damien Hardwick, was moved to lend his backing of Brennan publicly and privately.
“I would be the first to say that … I wasn’t playing my best footy. I already knew that. I’m my biggest critic,” Brennan says.
“But … there’s boys out there, we referred back to Tommy Lynch and how many articles were written about him. He was four or five games into the season and people were saying he was the worst recruit.”
Brennan says the focus is clear for the Tigers’ AFLW unit, winless in a season ultimately cancelled due to Coronavirus: “My feedback for the program … is just about that we really need to raise the standard,” she says.
“We talked about North Melbourne. They’re a few years into the competition and, yes, they’ve got some really incredible talent but that is the benchmark.
“The teams that stay the most connected, and work hardest over this time, are the ones that are going to come out on top. Those who are willing to do more than the other groups.
“I don’t think we’re far behind.”
Beyond her club’s backyard, Brennan is a vocal advocate for extending AFLW seasons and states, in The Originals, how she favours merging elite men’s and women’s competition through winter.
The Originals podcast; charting the arrival of a new breed of Tiger.
Produced and edited: Matt Kelada, Ian Ngo, Elizabeth Yore, Andrew Coster
Photography and graphic design: Ashley Caygill
Written, presented and executive produced: Samantha Lane
Subscribe and listen to the entire first series on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts or Spotify