Sam Taylor walked the 16 steps from the bottom to the top floor of his apartment one morning last week, and felt an immediate rush of relief. There wasn’t much pain. His back didn’t ache like it had been, and his ankle wasn’t sore. He didn’t need his crutches and the trip up to the kitchen didn’t take forever, like it had been. “It was such a good feeling,” he said. “I was hating those stairs. It’s a little thing but it just felt so good to walk back up them.”

It’s been a rough month for Taylor, but the 21-year-old is on the mend. For the next two months he will still have to carry a portable bottle filled with antibiotics with him wherever he goes. He still has to completely kill off the bacterial infection that put him into hospital – sick, sore and feverish – for almost two weeks. But he’s home, he’s been back to the club, he’s starting to get moving and he is feeling a lot, lot better than he was. “I really am, 100 per cent,” he said. “I was in this daze for ages. I didn’t feel normal, I couldn’t concentrate,  or focus, or anything. But now I feel better. I’m starting to feel like myself again which is good.”

It all started the night after the GIANTS beat Collingwood on a Friday night back in round four. The next day Taylor started to feel stiff and sore, more so than usual but not enough to really worry. He stretched, went to bed early and then woke up at midnight, in agonising pain wondering what was going on.

“I just thought it was so random,” Taylor said. “The pain was so bad it woke me up, it was like this sharp, piercing sort of pain. It was sore to walk, sore to touch and I was just in a lot of pain and I couldn’t get rid of it. I got up and I couldn’t even walk it was so bad. So for the next few hours I just tried to stretch it out and it took ages but finally I got back to sleep.

“It felt a bit better when I woke up. I went into the club and could do my ice baths and everything like, but the next night it came back and I was constantly sweating. I remember waking up on Monday morning just drenched in sweat. When I woke up I thought, ‘something isn’t right here,’ and after I got out of the shower my body wouldn’t even move. It just felt strange, really strange.”

It was sore to walk, sore to touch and I was just in a lot of pain. I couldn’t get rid of it.

- Sam Taylor

Other weird things started happening from there. Taylor’s wrist started to ache just as much as his back. His ankle, which he had slightly rolled a few weeks earlier, swelled right up. He would start to feel a bit better, then everything would get worse than it had been. The pain was intense, and he just felt off. He was sent for some blood tests, and there were some initial fears that he may have developed an autoimmune illness, something Taylor did not like the sound of at all.

“I was freaking out when the specialist said that. I was really freaking out, I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “That would have been long-term, and I would have been taking medication every day. He thought my body was attacking itself and he said if that’s what it was then I would have it my whole life. But this infection, as bad as it was, it will be gone forever once I get rid of it.”

It was on the Friday that Taylor – unable to walk without the help of crutches by then – was admitted to hospital. There he was told he had septic arthritis – an infection that, somehow, had sneaked its way into his body. “That’s what they diagnosed me with, but they still don’t know how I got it,” Taylor said. “The doctor said he’s not sure – it could have been a boil, a scratch. You can even get it through your teeth. He wasn’t sure, but they were saying how rare it was, how unusual to be in all the different spots on my body. And that Friday night was bad. It was one of the worst nights ever. I had a fever so I was shaking, and I couldn’t move. They kept taking blood tests all night. I was pretty dazed. I had no idea what was going on.”

Slowly, he got better. But it felt really, really slow. For five days, Taylor barely moved. He had no appetite and wasn’t able to eat much. He needed heaps of help – to get up, go to the toilet and get back into his bed. He lost 10 kilograms in a week, and that in itself was demoralising. “You do so much work, all the preseason, all the training, and it felt like it all went away in a week,” he said. “We already had one big break, and then this comes along and knocks out most of the year. It just annoyed me more than anything. But for a while there I was too sick to really think about it. For a few days I couldn’t imagine playing football again.”

Sam Taylor

Now, he can. Taylor rested up for a few days post-hospital at welfare manager Dylan Addison’s house, and is now back home. He was grateful for Jack Buckley dropping off a few McDonalds meals – “that’s probably not allowed but then again I did lose 10 kilos. If I hadn’t gone to hospital I honestly think I would have died from not eating” – and in his time off watched almost every single game of AFL on TV, something he hadn’t done since before he got drafted. In his first couple of days back at the club, last week, he was able to start some light rehab work.

He knows he needs to let his body heal and not push himself too hard or too soon. The cord attached to his arm and the bottle he needs to cart everywhere are a reminder that he needs to patient. But Taylor misses the game, misses his teammates and he hopes and will try to be back out there soon.

“It’s so good being back at the club. The first day it felt a bit weird walking in with a drip and looking so different. Everything had kept going on as usual in there and it was like I’d been away on a bad holiday,” he said. “Now I’m just happy to be back. I’ll get going and it’s going to be ok.

“I need to wake up my glutes and get them working, because they’re non-existent at the moment. And I’ll do some other things to get back to base one, and then I’ll go again. I’ve really been enjoying watching footy, sort of analysing the other teams and watching them, and my love for the game has never been bigger, which is good, so I can’t wait to be out there. I’m a bit of a footy head now and I want to turn theory into practice when I get back.

“It’s been hard to think about because I don’t like being on the sidelines watching, I want to be out there playing. It’s a bit depressing not to be able to do anything. But it’s not like a simple injury, it’s an illness and it’s going to be a different path to getting better and a lot of work to get back to where I was and put on weight, but I hope I can be back out there soon.”

He also hopes he never, ever has to go through something like his last month again. “A lot worse things can happen, but it just was not any fun at all,” he said. “It was so hard not being able to walk and not being able to move. When someone has to help you get up, it’s not good. But now I wake up and get up and start moving, so it’s little things in life that you appreciate in the end. I just have to get through the next few weeks and make sure its fully gone. Once it is I want to get back in there, start training, enjoy myself, get my body right. It’s a good chance to do all that work, do it properly, and come back feeling better than ever.”