NICK Coffield was there in 2016. He was at Giants Stadium after making the nine-hour road trip to Sydney with his dad to witness one of the most famous preliminary finals of the modern era. And he was at the MCG for two unforgettable games that September; the semi-final win over Hawthorn, a fortnight before the drought-breaking premiership win against Sydney.
But despite growing up as a passionate Western Bulldogs supporter in Melbourne's northern suburbs, it was Coffield's head - not his heart - that steered him to the Whitten Oval during the trade period in October.
The 2017 No.8 pick hasn't played at AFL level since the final round of the 2021 season. Having ruptured his anterior cruciate ligament during match simulation on a pre-season camp in Ballarat in February 2022, he has since undergone hamstring surgery and dealt with recurrent calf strains. The injuries have stalled a career that was on the rise in 2020 when he finished fifth in the Trevor Barker Award, but had started to wither on the vine.
Coffield didn't return to VFL level until late July this year but he quickly found his feet, playing four games for Sandringham to build some confidence, both for himself and for potential suitors looking to prise the defender away from RSEA Park.
"I think I just needed a fresh start," Coffield told AFL.com.au. "I have obviously had a tough couple of years with injuries with my knee, some hammy stuff and a fair bit of calf stuff in more recent times.
"I felt like I just needed a different environment to get the most out of myself. Hopefully I can bring on a bit more luck and opportunity here. The Dogs made me feel really wanted in the whole process once we started speaking. It really appealed to me being a Melbourne team and not being too far away."
Coffield met with Luke Beveridge at the coach's bayside home at the end of the season to discuss a move that became far more complicated than anyone envisaged. In all, his trade to the Dogs involved four clubs (Carlton and Essendon were also part of it), two players (Coffield and Paddy Dow) and nine draft picks, and wasn't completed until two days after it looked like it was finalised.
"I spoke to (Beveridge) for the first time just after the season finished and he acknowledged that I hadn't been out there the past couple of years, but they still believed my best footy is ahead of me. You can doubt (that) at times when you're in rehab a fair bit," Coffield said.
"It was nice to hear they still had that confidence in me and backed my ability to play when I'm fit and healthy. They put a lot of confidence in me that I could come and contribute to the team."
After exactly 700 days between games at any level, Coffield collected 28 disposals in his return against Collingwood's VFL side at the end of July and backed it up with strong showings against Box Hill, the Northern Bullants and Williamstown. Bulldogs list manager Sam Power or a member of his recruiting team watched each of those four games to convince the club the defender was over the issues that had wiped out two years of his career.
"That month was massive for me. When you miss a full year with your knee, you are obviously pretty optimistic about the year following. But when it doesn't go your way from a soft tissue front, you start to doubt if you'll ever come good," he said.
"When it got towards the back end of the year, it was probably a good thing for me just to focus on playing VFL and get a few games under my belt and prove to clubs like the Dogs I can back up games and I am fit and healthy still. That was part of the aim of getting back when I did.
"It gave me confidence coming into this off-season fit and healthy. I think the September to December block is crucial and something my body hasn't had for the past two years."
It has been a long couple of years for the Northern Knights product. He has had to watch other top-10 picks from his draft – Andy Brayshaw, Luke Davies-Uniacke and Aaron Naughton – emerge as stars of the competition while has been stuck putting his body back together.
While eight other first-round picks from 2017 have reached 100 games, Coffield has been stuck on 52. Mature-age recruits like Bayley Fritsch (126 games), Brody Mihocek (126) and Tim Kelly (124) have all made up for lost time, while Coffield has been left wondering if he would ever get his body right.
Through many hours spent with sports psychologist, Dr Ben Robbins, who has moved from St Kilda to Essendon during the off-season to reunite with Brad Scott as head of psychology and wellbeing, Coffield learned how to combat the doubt that hovered over him during his time on the sidelines.
"It has been really tough, especially watching all your mates play every week. You want to be around the club and bring a positive attitude, but it is tough when you are deprived of something. There were times where it was really tough and you do doubt if you can get back. And if you do get back, will you still be any good? The game moves so fast and there is always new blokes coming in," he said.
"There has been a lot of self-doubt, but full credit to the psychologists and people in the mindfulness space at the Saints, like Benny Robbins. He was awesome for me. A lot of stuff we spoke about was about perspective in terms of you as a person and as a footballer, which makes you think outside of your own bubble at times. Even though you do struggle, there is always stuff you can control. I'm really grateful for him and the perspective work we did."
Coffield spent most of the trade period in Byron Bay with his now former teammates, waiting patiently for updates from his manager, Adam Ramanauskas from TLA Worldwide.
When he flew home two days before the deadline, he thought the deal was done. But it wasn't. The complex four-way trade took far longer than anyone expected and wasn't officially signed off until after 2pm on that final day, just hours before the deadline.
But now he has the fresh start he craved, at a club he has always loved.