BAILEY Smith wanted to go back. A couple of days after he had decided to not re-join the Western Bulldogs for the start of their pre-season last November, Smith wanted to be there at Whitten Oval, sweating in the sun, running time trials and revelling in the Dogs' summer campaign.
He wanted to be getting ready to help the Dogs bounce back from their Grand Final loss to Melbourne. He wanted camaraderie of teammates, getting lunch together, chatting and laughing through sessions. He wanted the routine that comes with being a footballer and the purpose of being part of something bigger than himself.
He also knew he could do all those things while acting like he was in a good space, but that would limit what he really wanted above all: to feel better.
"I had two days off and I was craving all of that, but I just knew to follow through with taking the time off – although it sucks having to do it and you just want to be doing what everyone else is doing – was the best thing for me," Smith told AFL.com.au.
Nearly four months on, Smith is glad he stuck to it. In total, he missed nearly four weeks of the start of the Dogs' pre-season before taking part in the club's final two sessions ahead of their Christmas break. Call it a circuit-breaker, a reset, a self-reflection, whatever you like – the 21-year-old knew he needed more time to deal with his mental health and prioritised it.
The club, led by coach Luke Beveridge, was supportive. In fact, they encouraged a thankful Smith to take his time.
"I was really tossing it up because I don't like missing any training whatsoever and I was still smashing myself on my own. It was tough. I had a convo with 'Bevo' and the club was obviously fully supportive of it and it was actually their suggestion to probably take time instead of coming in and battling something and not giving your full self to the club. Who I was at the time and the space I was in, it was probably not good for the group for me to be in," Smith said.
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"That's why I took 3-4 weeks off and came in for those last two sessions and it was the best thing I've done to get on top of it and work intensively on the issues I was going through and my mental health at the time. It helped me tons. And it helped the group as well because when I came in I felt I was more of my bright, bubbly self and was happy to be there. It was good to get on top of it so during the season I'm not falling behind and I can focus on my footy when I need to and not have this other burden."
Known for his relentless training habits – from age eight he would go to the park and do chin ups at night and his backyard pool became a recovery centre – Smith kept up his program while away from teammates. But his biggest training was within.
"I do lots of physical work on myself, so it was more training my mind and working on that," he said. "It's so much harder than going and lifting weights or smashing yourself running, because that's pretty easy. It's when you have to look internally and try to analyse certain patterns in your behaviour and triggers that weren't helping me at the time that was probably the hardest bit.
"But it was also the best bit because the more you're in tune with yourself, the more you understand yourself and the less susceptible you are to anything knocking you off your path."
Smith's football has stood for itself. He is one of the AFL's best young midfielders. By the end of this year, we will have probably removed the young part of that sentence. He hunts and runs and fights for the ball and when he has it he kicks well on both feet, slots goals and makes things happen.
Since landing at the Bulldogs as their prized No.7 pick at the 2018 NAB AFL Draft, Smith hasn't missed a game, playing 67 straight since his debut in round one, 2019. It is perhaps why, in some ways, his absence to start the Dogs' pre-season was unexpected for some. 'Where's Baz?' read social media comments from fans who noticed his non-appearance in December.
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But if his star was on the rise before the finals series last year, then he really shone when it mattered. After playing a strong elimination final against the Bombers (20 disposals, one goal), he was a game-breaker in the knockout semi-final against Brisbane at the Gabba, kicking three goals from 27 disposals, including the left-foot goal that came with his now famous 'ice in the veins' celebration.
The following week, as the Bulldogs trounced Port Adelaide in the preliminary final, Smith kicked four goals from 23 disposals. He was also among his side's best in the Grand Final loss with 26 disposals. His performances on the big stage meant plenty to his football reputation. But it also saw his celebrity status pop into a new stratosphere and if it is rare to hear an AFL player talk about his mental health as openly as Smith, it is also rare to find anyone who can match his current experience and exposure. His is an old-age phenomenon, but in the iPhone generation.
"It was a bit different for me because I try to steer as clear as I can from that and to be exposed to that after the Granny was a bit of a shock. There's a correlation between that and the time off in December and how detrimental it was to my mental space at the time," he said.
"But I've gotten a lot better at understanding that side of things and not putting weight into anything other than what I can do each day in here at the club. The more I'm around the boys at the club the more you're brought back down to earth and it's good. The more I try to steer clear of those environments and being out, which I fell into the trap of a little bit, and just try to focus internally, then the less pressure you see and scrutiny you feel."
Scrutiny comes with the job and Smith is very good – and getting better – at his job. This season, as was the case during the finals, he hopes to be based mainly in the Bulldogs' talented midfield as an inside ball-getter, with his toughness and competitiveness key attributes in his make-up.
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He felt a little rusty coming back to training, and again in his first game back in the AAMI Community Series against Brisbane after missing the practice match against Essendon with groin soreness, but worked into the night against the Lions. Although his preparation was different, he has the same excitement as usual about Wednesday night's season-opener against the Demons at the MCG, which he hopes is the starting point for another Dogs flag tilt.
Smith knows he captures attention for things outside the field – his AFL-leading Instagram following, ambassador roles with Cotton On and Monster Energy as well as, of course, Australia's most famous mullet – but he is also serious business on it.
"I'm trying to let my footy do the talking, not this Instagram stuff and getting mixed with being this social media person. It's like, nah, I'm here to play footy, don't get it twisted. That's what I've done for so many years and I want to be one of the best personally and I want to win a premiership this year with our team and the boys we've got and the great list we have," he said.
"I don't think [some] understand that all that social media and outside noise comes second. I'm here to be the best footballer I can be and that was the good thing about finals that hopefully people start to see there's more to me. I just want people to take my footy serious and understand I'm not here to mess around. Footy is the No.1 priority for me. Everything that happens because of that is just a by-product of how hard I try to work."
As his world booms around him, Smith has found ways to keep grounded. He is studying a bachelor of business at Victoria University. He plays online gaming for hours each day and enjoys the social element of that with teammates and friends. He explores new restaurants whilst also knowing his favourite places, drawing helps him wind down and he's recently started teaching himself (via YouTube) how to play guitar.
"I just learnt to play 'Where's My Love' by SYML. That's my first one. It took me about a week and a half and I'm so obsessive about stuff that I just do it," he said.
But while that's a developing hobby, Smith's focus is on one place, something he credits to his decision to put his hand up and ask for an extended break last year.
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"I could have [come in] and pretended but it would have nipped me in the arse down the track," he said. "It's almost made my hunger and passion for the game increase because when you're in a better place everything just seems so much better and it's something you really want to do. When you're passionate about stuff that's when you work your hardest."