AS HE hobbled to the dais to address 99,000 fans at the MCG in the aftermath of the losing 2012 Grand Final, football mortality was staring Luke Hodge in the face.
Tired, sore and sporting an unsightly head bandage, Hodge looked very much as though 11 years of brilliant, but physically taxing football for Hawthorn had taken its toll.
He played just 10 games that season because of persistent calf and knee injuries and after the season would have surgery on his posterior cruciate ligament.
A battered and dejected Hodge (l) after the 2012 Grand Final loss to the Sydney Swans. Picture: AFL Media
Fast-forward three years.
Hodge has appeared on the dais three more times, each time receiving the premiership cup. He added another Norm Smith Medal to his collection in 2014 and his freakish banana snap goal in last year's flag decider was one of the great Grand Final moments in recent memory.
Little wonder his peers have just nominated him as the fifth best player in the AFL Players' Top 50, brought to you by Mars.
The key to Hodge's second wind as a footballer might have been a suggestion a few years back from Adam Simpson, then a Hawthorn assistant coach, but now the senior coach of West Coast. Simpson played 306 games for North Melbourne and finished up at age 33.
"(Simpson) said once you get to 30 … it helped him if he dropped a kilo every year," Hodge told AFL.com.au last year.
And it was with a degree of trepidation that Hodge went under the knife. "When you get to late 20s and you've got to go through a PCL (posterior cruciate ligament) reco it obviously puts a bit of doubt in your mind.
"But once I went through it, I could automatically feel as soon as I had the operation it felt really good."
Luke Hodge's honour roll
|271 games||Four premierships (2008, 2013, 2014, 2015)|
|All Australian 2005, 2008, 2010 (captain)||Club best and fairest 2005, 2010|
|Norm Smith Medal 2008, 2014||128 career Brownlow votes|
And how. Hodge has missed just five games because of injury in 2013 and 2014 and none at all last year. Yes, there have been blemishes with the AFL Tribunal, but when it comes to the admiration for Hodge from his peers throughout the competition, this appears to matter not a jot.
In a team that places a premium on flexibility, Hodge is right at home. Just when you think his best work comes as the defensive general and setting up the play from the back half, he can swing through the middle to win key clearances or play out of the forward line and keep the scoreboard ticking heavily.
With Jarryd Roughead missing the first half of this season, Hawthorn coach Alastair Clarkson has flagged a smaller forward line as one possible workaround. Can you imagine Hodge playing primarily as a second or third permanent forward?
He'd be good for 40-50 goals and dare we suggest it, another prominent ranking on this list in 12 months time.
The AFL Players' Top 50 is compiled with the support of the AFL Players' Association.