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The Wells story: Injuries, changing stripes, a religious pilgrimage and 'Jackie Chan'

Daniel Wells only played 15 games as a Magpie but has had a profound impact on the club's younger players - AFL,North Melbourne Kangaroos,Collingwood Magpies,Daniel Wells,Lifestyle,Inspire,News,Long read
Daniel Wells only played 15 games as a Magpie but has had a profound impact on the club's younger players

AS FRUSTRATED and dismayed as Daniel Wells became during the depths of his injury-plagued run at Collingwood, he recognised a silver lining.

Those gallingly lengthy stints on the sidelines presented Wells with experiences that helped him crystallise his plans for his next career.

The now-retired playmaker was restricted to just 15 of a possible 72 games as a Magpie, including only five appearances in the past two seasons as the club became a premiership contender.

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The North Melbourne dual club champion didn't play a final in black and white but he still had an influence.

During the long grind of rehab, Wells logged many hours alongside some of the club's younger players and he found it stimulating to play a role in their progress.

The stimulation was mutual. In their annual exit interviews over the past three years, Pies youngsters have spoken glowingly of Wells' advice, support and nurturing nature.

Giving a few pointers to young Magpie Tyler Brown.

Buoyed by this feedback, the 34-year-old is exploring a future in player development, recruiting and list management.

Wells recently joined Collingwood recruiting manager Derek Hine for some virtual work experience at the NAB AFL and AFLW draft combines.

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His retirement is "still fresh" so he's not in a rush, but he's hoping to gain a role with the Magpies, perhaps including involvement with the club's Next Generation Academy. If a job isn't forthcoming at the Holden centre, he'd be happy to try his luck with another Victorian club. (A move interstate would be unlikely given Wells and his family – including wife Ria and daughter Laudate, 10 – are settled in the western suburb of Williamstown.)

"As much as you want to play, and as disheartening as it was when Father Time started catching up with me, I wouldn't change anything that happened in the last part of my career because it's important to the next chapter of my life," Wells told AFL.com.au in a rare, expansive interview.

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I announced today in front of my team mates wife and daughter my retirement from the AFL. What an incredible journey!! So many ups and so many downs. So many victories and so many defeats. These moments I believe have helped shape me into the person I am today. I feel so blessed to have played for two amazing clubs. @nmfcofficial I am forever grateful for all you did for me at the beginning and throughout my career and to the @collingwood_fc for all they have done for me and my family these passed 3 years. Thank you so much for being a big part of my journey. Thanks to all my family and friends for all your love and support along the way and most importantly my wife Ria and daughter Laudate who have been my biggest support and pillars of strength through it all.

A post shared by DANIEL WELLS (@daniel_wells3) on

 

"I enjoy the game-style and game-play stuff but I more enjoy the relationships you form, and seeing players develop and grow, and finding out what they're really made of.

"I've always enjoyed spending time with the younger fellas. They come into the system with these massive dreams and expectations but things can change quickly. A bit like life, really – it's not all smooth sailing; you've got to roll with the punches.

"I try to reassure them and encourage them to give it all they've got.

"My style has always been under the radar, more one-on-one. Going to a new club, people ask you questions about how to do this or that and you share your knowledge a bit more. It's nice to know you've had a positive impact."

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Wells is having a similar impact away from footy. A year ago he started a labour hire company with his cousin Harry Miller – who played 18 games for Hawthorn in 2005-06 – and a couple of mates, with a special focus on helping fellow indigenous people.

"Once again, it's about helping people get where they want to go, but the stakes are higher because people are trying to provide for their families," he said.

The stakes were high for Wells when, nearing 32 at the end of 2016, he rejected a two-year offer from North Melbourne to join Collingwood as a free agent on a more lucrative three-year deal, incurring the wrath of Kangaroos fans.

"It was a really big decision – I tossed and turned thinking about it – but it was the right decision for me and my family. It wasn't so much about footy but life in general – going to a new environment and seeing what's on the other side of the fence," he explained.

Wells played 258 games over 17 seasons with the Kangaroos and Magpies.

However, Wells didn't do himself any favours by turning up for his first pre-season at Collingwood in less-than-ideal condition.

A Catholic since the age of 18, after following Ria's example, he'd spent part of his break on a religious pilgrimage in Israel, where there was little chance to train. He'd also been mindful about the need to rest a grumbly Achilles tendon. In any case, it contributed to his calf issues through the 2017 season and resulted in perhaps the only regret of his 17-year AFL career.

"It was a time in my life where I wanted to enjoy a really important life experience and I came back a little bit overweight. There's no excuses – if you're a professional getting paid really good money, you should come back in better shape," he said.

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"I was always a slow starter in pre-season, but that pre-season I wanted to impress and I tried to spike too quickly and got a couple of calf injuries. The Pies took a risk bringing me in as an older player too, so it was disappointing.

"If I had my time again I would’ve done things a bit differently."

In the 2018 Queen's Birthday game against Melbourne, Wells suffered a season-ending Lisfranc foot injury. Four years earlier he'd had a similar problem that had sidelined him for 15 weeks, but this one was worse. He wouldn't play at any level for 10 months.

Limping off the ground after injuring his foot during the Queen's Birthday clash with Melbourne.

In the meantime, Collingwood charged to a Grand Final, losing to West Coast by five points. Wells was a restless spectator.

"Finals were hard to watch, especially the Grand Final, because I was an elder statesman and I'd never played in one. I thought, 'Maybe that was my last opportunity'," he said.

There could easily have been another opportunity.

After overcoming his foot injury, Wells regained match fitness with five games in the VFL – his longest stint at state-league level – as the Pies took a conservative approach to his conditioning.

After feeling AFL-ready for a fortnight, Wells made his much-awaited return in round 10 against Sydney at the SCG.

 

It was an emotional occasion in other ways too. It was the Sir Doug Nicholls indigenous round and Wells was saddened that his close mate Travis Varcoe was unavailable through suspension when the Pies would wear a guernsey designed by Varcoe's sister-in-law in memory of his late sister, who'd died on the eve of last year's finals series.

"To represent my family and Trav meant a lot to me. But going into the game I was content and relaxed. It was a bonus to just be playing and I wanted to savour the moment," Wells said.

On reflection, it was a chance for the AFL world to savour Wells one last time.

In an electric first half he kicked three of the Pies' first four goals. "It just clicked for me. I got lucky," he said.

No sooner had we declared Wells was back, he was gone again. Early in the third quarter his left knee buckled in a tackle. He heard a pop and thought the kneecap had dislocated. Scans revealed damage to both the posterior and medial ligaments.

During his last AFL appearance, against Sydney in round 10.

Wells initially thought his career was over there and then, given surgery would have instantly ended his season. However, renowned surgeon Julian Feller gave him a glimmer of hope, putting the knee in a brace for a month to give Wells one last crack at the premiership the veteran believed the Pies were destined to win.

Wells needed a seamless run but there were a couple of setbacks. Soon after returning to full training and feeling "amazing", Wells wrenched the knee when he kicked across his body.

"It wasn't a good sign," he said.

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Wells returned for the last round in the VFL, collecting 19 touches off half-back and moving well despite still being a little proppy. But in a VFL practice match against Geelong in the first week of the finals, he couldn't keep up. The game had passed him by. He retired in preliminary final week.

"My last two injuries were freaky contact injuries that just broke my body down. I still had my speed, my agility and everything up until the last couple of weeks, so it was a hard pill to swallow. But there are worse things that can happen in life," he said.

"I had a good run in my first 10 or so years before I had a few injuries over my last six or seven years. But those challenging times have prepared me for my next stage, so I can't complain."

In his first 11 seasons Wells played 212 of a possible 247 games, but thereafter just 46 of 145. All up he played 258 of a possible 392 games, missing nine finals. In comparison, fellow 2002 draftee Brendon Goddard (who went at No. 1, ahead of Wells at No. 2) retired last year after playing 334 games.

Wells said staunch family support – particularly that of his wife – along with his faith had helped him maintain balance and perspective through his ups and downs.

His body is still in "a bit of pain", but it was all worth it.

"To come from where I came from, I'm rapt," he said.

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"I had young parents – they were 16 when my older brother was born, and 18 when they had me – and they had five kids. But we never went without, and we had all these adventures in life. I was born in South Australia but grew up more in WA.

"The message I got from my family and friends was, 'Thanks for taking us on the journey.' That's why I'm so passionate about making these young fellas realise, 'It's not only you who goes on the ride, so let's dig in and see what you can do.'"

The 'Jackie Chan' goal

Perhaps the greatest example of Wells' elite instincts, athleticism and skills was the effort that iced a 2004 game against Fremantle in Perth and claimed the Goal of the Year.

Just 19 at the time, Wells snared the ball in a ruck contest and kicked in the same motion while in mid-air.

"I'd hardly done anything in that game so it was a good time to do something," he said.

"'Simmo' (then North captain Adam Simpson) was big on third-man-up in ruck duels and we waxed a bit, so that time I jumped up and grabbed it and thought, 'I'll just kick it.'

"It still gets brought up by kids now and I think, 'Hey, you weren't even born then'.

"It was a great moment in my career. I won a car from it, which was a big deal for a young fella."

His best games 

Wells' game-breaking performance in the 2014 elimination final win over Essendon, when he had 28 possessions and four goals assists, immediately comes to mind.

But not for the man himself.

"I don't think much about the games I played – it's more about the relationships you have with people," he said.

In action against Essendon during the 2014 elimination final.

"Some of my best games were low-possession ones. I'm all about impact. That's why I enjoy watching (Bulldog Marcus) Bontempelli – he only needs 15 or 20 touches to control the game. I tried to play like that.

"When I got the ball I tried to put the whole field on notice that, 'I can use your man, or I can run with it'.

"I tell these young kids: 'When you get the ball you control the game, so open your vision and get yourself in a position to do a few things – short kick, long kick, take it on. Don't just give yourself one option'.

"That's one thing from my career; people would say, 'Take it on, just take it on'. I always did what I thought was best for the team, and often that meant passing the ball and enabling teammates to kick goals. I enjoyed doing that."

Daniel Wells Fact File

Born: February 3, 1985
From: Kwinana (WA)/Peel Thunder (WAFL)
North Melbourne 2003-16: 243 games, 150 goals
Collingwood 2016-19: 15 games, 16 goals
Honours: North Melbourne best and fairest 2011 (equal), 2013 (equal); North Melbourne 3rd best and fairest 2006; All Australian nominee 2011, 2013; International Rules Series 2003, 2008, 2013; NAB AFL Rising Star nominee 2003.
Brownlow Medal votes: 73