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Comeback Campbell finds his niche

FOR MOST AFL players long term injury is a devastating blow to their football career. Many struggle to recover, not only physically, but from the psychological hangover induced by long periods of time away from the game and the tedious and isolated nature of rehab.

But for Hawthorn ruckman Robbie Campbell, the serious knee injury that forced him to miss the entire 2005 season gave him a whole new outlook on his football. In fact, he cites it as a major turning point in his AFL career.

“I know it’s a cliché but as soon as you don’t have something, you want it I suppose,” he says.

“I couldn’t play football and suddenly it was all I wanted to do. I wanted to get out on the track and train and get out on the footy field and play. Any time I get a little bit flat now I always look back at that time.”

Following in the footsteps of his older brother Stuart, Campbell developed a passion for basketball and when he was growing up, the game was his first love. He had a kick of the footy just to be with his mates.

“My brother had a huge influence on me when I was a kid and he mainly played basketball. So when I was younger, everywhere I went I had a basketball in my hands and was bouncing it.

"But in a country town it’s hard not to get involved in a footy club because everyone loves footy. So I began playing at the club with my mates, just socially though, I didn’t really have a passion for it. I just had a knack for it but my passion was always basketball.”

Campbell’s “knack” for the sport led to an opportunity with the Murray Bushrangers. But playing serious footy was a difficult transition for the then 17-year-old.

“I didn’t really enjoy that year because I went from playing social footy and basketball with friends, to all of a sudden really structured and disciplined football. I struggled with that at first. But I was still playing basketball and that was a good release.”

Despite struggling to adapt, the teenager was drafted to the Hawks.

“When I got drafted, I know it’s really bad to say but in some ways it was an accident … I put my name in the draft because I suppose I realised that I could play football. Then it happened and all of a sudden I was at Hawthorn.

"In the first couple of years I wasn’t really enjoying it. I loved being a footballer and I loved training and all that but just didn’t like the pressures of being a structured athlete.”

For Campbell, serious injury turned out to be the jolt he needed.

“I remember even at the start of that year (2005) thinking, I love all the elements of footy but my mind wasn’t really with it. I think a lot of footballers go through that and then they find that thing that makes it really click with them and then they feel they can do anything …

"It’s funny the way things happen because now the thing I probably love about football most is its structure and professionalism. Now I’m really excited about playing each week which is something I think I was missing before [the knee injury].”

The 25-year-old has never looked back since his return. He’s played every game for the Hawks since and cemented what is a crucial ruck partnership with teammate Simon Taylor.

However, his disciplined approach to all facets of the game and particularly nutrition is a far cry from his younger days. Growing up, Campbell’s parents Annette and Ian ran pubs in Port Fairy (Star of the West) and then Rutherglen (The Star), with pub grub being his favourite indulgence.

“I wasn’t so educated on the whole nutrition side of things back then. I would come home from school and do some homework while eating chips and drinking a coke. Then dinner was a chicken parma with chips,” he laughs.

The chicken parma wasn’t the only by-product of growing up in a pub environment. Campbell was mixing with a much older clientele than your average teenager.

“My dad reckons it affected me a bit because I’d come in from school and I’d be so social with all the older people and I wouldn’t really spend time with a lot of my younger mates. I was really good mates with dad’s mates.”

But then advice from more senior members of the community can be beneficial.

“They’d always ask how you’re going with the girls and always tell you that you’re a good looking lad and you should be trying to get a girlfriend. They were always encouraging and full of good banter,” he smiles.

No doubt the same pub patrons are watching Campbell’s footy career with just as much interest.