Jye Caldwell thought all his troubles were over when he flew from Melbourne to Sydney after the draft in 2018. His draft year had been interrupted, over and over again, by soft tissue injuries. They had tested his patience and made him wonder which team would take a chance on him. But he was drafted now. He was at his new club. He would be there every day, surrounded by physios and coaches who would all keep a close eye on him. “In my mind I was ready to go,” he said. “I had it in my head that, I’ve been drafted now so as soon as I get up there my injuries will just go away and I’ll be able to play footy. Obviously that wasn’t to be.”
Caldwell did play plenty of footy, as it turned out. He got going in the NEAFL, he played his first senior game in the Canberra snow and when the season finished he realised he had played eight games in a row and couldn’t remember the last time that had happened. “I felt pretty good about that,” he said. “It could have gone better and I wanted to play more, but it was good to finish off like that and get some games in. I just had a few lessons to learn along the way.”
The first one was that he couldn’t just pretend his draft year hadn’t happened, or wish his injury issues away. He couldn’t jump straight into all the training, or play every minute of every game from round one. There were things he had to work out for himself: about when his body felt good, when it felt a bit sore and when it felt too sore. It wasn’t always easy to do.
“It’s funny because when you get drafted everyone says, it’s for 10 years not one year. People say ‘don’t worry too much about the first year, just get yourself right,’ but it’s such a big thing to be at an AFL club. You get all excited and you think everything will just start again and that you can play and do everything and be fine,” Caldwell said.
“I know what they mean now. I believe it. I look back and wish I’d been a bit slower and got used to things a bit more. It was like every time I got close to playing there was a reminder that I had to slow things down.”
One was harsher than most. After being managed carefully through his first pre-season and overcoming some groin issues in the first few weeks of the season, Caldwell was playing for the NEAFL team, and starting to find some form. He felt comfortable, and was beginning to build some confidence. He started to think he was close to being picked for the AFL team, and heading into the round eight state league game against Brisbane knew he was: one or two more good games, the coaches told him, and you’re going to be right in the mix.
Caldwell wanted that, badly. So when his calf started to feel a little sore leading into the game, he ignored it. It wasn’t too bad, he told himself. It was just a little bit tight. He had another game in him, for sure. So he ran out, got a couple of kicks and then headed to the bench, injured again.
“I pinged it. And it was annoying, so annoying,” he said. “It was just a tiny bit sore. It was more tight than sore, but I did it, it was grade two, another six weeks out and there you go.
“That’s when I realised, ‘hang on.’ It just hit me, you’ve got to be honest and say exactly how you’re feeling even if it’s the smallest thing. The thing is, I was nervous going into the game, but I just wanted to get through. I was telling myself it would be fine but it wasn’t, and instead I was out for all that time when it could have been one or two weeks and back into it.
“It was tough. It was probably the worst I’ve ever felt, to be honest. I’d been feeling so good. I thought I’d figured it out and was thinking, ‘yeah, I’m good to go now.’ And Leon had told me I was close. So I was pretty flat thinking, ‘not again, not more rehab.’
“The first few days were really bad but after that I thought there was no point sooking about it, you’ve just got to push on. It was the biggest lesson I had to go through but it was my fault and it made me realise we’re all different and it’s up to you to work out how your body works. Everyone’s here to look after us and they’re the best at what they do, but if we don’t talk up then there’s not much they can do about it.”
New things are important to Caldwell now. Like pilates, and trigger rolling, and extra glute exercises. He’s got better at understanding what he needs to do to make himself feel good, “and knowing that I have to do a lot more extras than some other people because that’s just how my body works.” One year in, he has settled into the club, settled into Sydney and put together a pre-season he was happy with. “I did the majority of it, which was good. I worked pretty hard and felt like I was getting better. I just want to try and do more and more each year, hopefully. Especially now that I’ve played. That makes me want it more.”
His debut came, as it turned out, with not much build up at all. Caldwell was at home in Sydney, where the NEAFL team had a weekend off, when he got a call from Canberra. Jacob Hopper had a bit of a sore hamstring and needed to train the next morning to play, meaning the team might need Caldwell but might not. Either way he headed to the airport, got on a plane and flew over, letting his parents in Bendigo know that they may have to jump in the car.
The game in Canberra was played in weather so cold that it snowed. And the GIANTS were badly beaten by Hawthorn. Caldwell crashed in and competed. He didn’t feel out of place. It gave him a clearer idea of what he would spend his second summer working towards.
“It wasn’t nice to get smacked like we did and it was a weird night. Normally you warm up no matter how cold it is and you don’t really notice, but it was colder than cold,” he said.
“I thought I started well, and things went downhill a bit after that but it was good to get out there and good to get my hands on the ball. We had a loss the next week as well so I haven’t been able to play in a win yet, but it’s good to know what it’s like out there.
“Being around and being able to watch us go through the finals, that was pretty good as well. It showed me what it takes and what I have to get to, what all of us young players do if we want to get a game. It’s up to us to push each other and keep the pressure on, which I think we’ll do. We all want to play, we’re pretty competitive and when you think about the finals, that’s why. That’s what it’s all about and that’s why we’re here, it’s what we all want to do.”