IT IS hard to imagine a place in Melbourne, let alone Collingwood, where people don't know who Jordan De Goey is. But no one had a clue who he was when he turned up at the Absolute MMA Gym just down the road from the Magpies' spiritual home, Victoria Park, in the days after he was banned from the club for most of Craig McRae's first pre-season in charge.
De Goey needed somewhere to train after Collingwood stood him down from the AFL program following a highly publicised off-season incident in New York. He needed somewhere away from the glare of the spotlight, somewhere where he could get to work so he was ready when he could actually get back to work.
Ryan Vague, De Goey's manager and brother-in-law, reached out to Melbourne-based mixed martial arts fighter Jack Jenkins to see if his client could train with him. Jenkins, who has since ascended a path to the UFC, agreed to try it. They clicked instantly and trained together daily. Boxing, running and MMA, all just around the corner from the Grace Darling Hotel, where a committee met in 1892 to form Collingwood Football Club.
That stint changed De Goey's approach to the game. The little things matter more than ever before. Dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s is now essential. It has taken time for De Goey to improve the off-field side of his life – Collingwood pulled a contract offer last year after a mid-season issue in Bali – but the 27-year-old is now a much more mature version of himself.
De Goey produced the most potent performance of his career in last Friday night's one-point preliminary final win over Greater Western Sydney, amassing 34 disposals, 17 contested possessions and 13 clearances to execute the Giants. Now he returns for a second shot at a premiership after overcoming a period in 2021 and 2022 that threatened to the end of his time in black and white.
"It was a very tough period of time. There was probably a couple of months there where I lived with full anxiety. I didn't want to go out in public. It was a hard situation to be in. I was a shell of myself," De Goey told AFL.com.au at the AIA Centre this week.
"It affects your family, too; they have the same last name, so they are constantly getting asked questions. You're just disappointed with yourself and the position you've put your family members in; that was the biggest thing. As time goes on, you learn to evolve and grow. As long as I have good people around me, I'll be fine in life."
De Goey and Jenkins have remained tight since they spent November and December of 2021 drenched in sweat. De Goey travelled to Sydney to watch Jenkins in UFC 293 after the qualifying final win over Melbourne. Jenkins didn't realise when the Magpie first showed up but he desperately needed someone in his corner when he couldn't train with his teammates.
Jenkins introduced De Goey to Jack Kelly – a former triathlete turned running coach – who also helped take what they did in the nondescript gym in the backstreets of Collingwood to another level across last pre-season.
With the blessing of Collingwood’s high performance boss Jarrod Wade – who has also helped mould him – De Goey completed a training block with Kelly in Bali during a break last pre-season, returning to the place that had previously created some headaches. But not this time. They trained twice a day, focused on eating well and recovering sufficiently so they could get up and do it again the next day. Rinse and repeat for a month.
"Training with Jack (Jenkins) and just watching his aspirations to make the UFC it just makes me want to strive for something greater. Through Jack I met the other Jack (Kelly) and with his running program it was the thing that I needed to take things to the next level," De Goey said.
"Everyone is getting fitter in the AFL; it is getting faster. I knew what I needed to work on and that's what I did. Got myself a running coach and then just put the work in.
"I had a lot of alone time, a lot of thinking time, and just put it all into my work. It's cool having other mates that really want to succeed at something. Both of them have an insane level of drive. It keeps me really focused to be great as well."
Collingwood's sports psychologist, Jacqui Louder, has been a constant presence in De Goey's life since the incident in New York. Sitting inside her office, the St Kevin’s College product has learned what makes him tick and how to make smarter decisions. Louder has left her mark on lots of players inside the AIA Centre, but arguably none more than the guy who wears No.2.
"Jacqui has been huge for me. I think she's just changed my mindset and changed my life, to be honest. Back in the day, I was just a young kid that wanted to have a good time. I was enjoying all the benefits that came with playing AFL footy and was just living in the moment," De Goey said.
"Unfortunately, sometimes the situations you put yourself in doesn't help the cause. That's what I did. I was in the moment having fun and hurting people around me. Now it's changing my mindset, making the right decisions, learning about trigger points, strengths and weaknesses in myself."
McRae didn't see much of De Goey across his first three months as senior coach. He couldn’t. De Goey wasn't permitted at the club while he awaited the outcome of a New York criminal court. But it is under the guidance of the three-time Brisbane premiership player with the Ted Lasso personality that has seen the midfielder blossom into a consistent A-grade player.
"I think he has just been more of a supporter, to be honest," De Goey said. "He takes a back seat as a coach and just wants to support you, get the best out of you, watch you grow as a person – that's what he cares about most. In turn, you play your best footy off being a good person and enjoying life. He has that holistic approach to footy and that seems to be working for me and a lot of the boys. It's not pressure on you, it's how is life? Can we help you? And then get into the nitty gritty of footy. He just cares about you as a person."
No matter what happens in Saturday's Grand Final against Brisbane, De Goey has now produced the best season of his career. He was named in the All-Australian squad for the first time last month and has averaged career-high numbers for disposals (24.2), contested possessions (10.4), clearances (5.8) and inside 50s (4.9) across 20 appearances in 2023. If he hadn't missed three games for a bump on West Coast's Elijah Hewett, De Goey may have collected his first blazer.
Although things could have been different this year. De Goey could have been playing for St Kilda instead. He met with the Saints a few times last year and almost accepted an offer to make a fresh start at Moorabbin. But after careful consideration, De Goey turned his back on free agency to sign a five-year extension, 12 months ago to the day on Grand Final eve.
"I was pretty close to leaving, it was touch and go for a while. But deep down, I always wanted to stay a Pie," he said. When you're not at a footy club, you don't know what the coaching staff is like, you don't know what the culture is like, because I've lived and experienced it here, I knew what I was going to be leaving and that was the hardest part. It made me stay. I couldn't leave.
"For me, I just knew we had the list; I knew we had the potential to go to the end. To be in this position, it's pretty funny looking back on it now and to know I definitely made the right decision. You look at the coaching staff, you look at the culture that's been created. It just makes that decision a whole lot easier. I just thought this was the place where I was going to play my best footy. It is cool to see that decision pay off and see so many others around me rise up."
De Goey has played in the final Saturday in September before. He kicked three goals in the five-point loss to West Coat in 2018, finishing with 12 goals across a brilliant finals campaign that solidified his reputation as a big-game player.
Only eight other players – Scott Pendlebury, Steele Sidebottom, Jack Crisp, Brayden Maynard, Jeremy Howe, Brody Mihocek, Mason Cox and Will Hoskin-Elliott – who faced the Eagles five years ago will play again on Saturday. Only Pendlebury and Sidebottom have gone all the way. The wounds are still raw, but De Goey now knows opportunities like this don’t arrive often. If Collingwood is to win, his fingerprints will be all over the victory.
"It's almost like a bit of the heartbreak has come back now and you start to think about it again because you pushed it away for so long," he said.
"It was five years ago. At the time, you think you'll be back in the next couple of years. I was 22. Now, five years later, it is kind of make or break. I've got that mindset going into the game where I'll put it all on the line to taste that ultimate reward."
You are the company you keep. De Goey has made a concerted effort to surround himself with those who are going to help him fulfil the potential that prompted Collingwood to select him at pick No. 5 in 2014. Through the help of Jenkins, Kelly, Louder, McRae, Wade and many others, De Goey has finally become the author of his own story.