LUKE Davies-Uniacke finds himself scrolling back through old text messages, a new routine that has had to replace the old one. After games, too, the emerging North Melbourne midfielder has had to find a different way to debrief on how he went, what he did well and where he might be able to lift a notch.
So much in Davies-Uniacke's life has changed since his father, Peter, died earlier this year after a stoic three-year fight with cancer. But it is the rituals that bring the starkest reminders for the exciting Kangaroo, whose career-best season on the field has endured a deep sadness off it.
"His pre-game text was always there so before games now I always read back over those because I play for him. I miss that, and his text after the game. It's just not there anymore. That's the hardest part to accept. After every game I'm always thinking of him," Davies-Uniacke told AFL.com.au this week.
"He'd always text me before games saying 'Good luck, love you' and all of that and it's just shit that it doesn't happen anymore. People say it gets easier with time, and I'm hoping it does. But there isn't a day that goes by where I don't think about him, that's for sure."
Peter was Luke's avenue to football.
"He was always the biggest footy nuffie and I never was, so he probably ingrained that more into me as I grew up," Davies-Uniacke said. He introduced him to barracking for Hawthorn and having a kick at the local club in Rye, a coastal town in Victoria's Mornington Peninsula where the pair would partake in Davies-Uniacke's other passion and surf together. "Until he put on some weight and had to hang up the boots for that," Davies-Uniacke said.
Peter was at every one of Luke's junior games with a hand-held camera right up until his time with the Dandenong Stingrays in Victoria's elite under-18 competition, filming his son's performances from the sidelines – the hard drive is full of Davies-Uniacke's strong-bodied runs and explosive bursts – and occasionally pulling those up who mispronounced their surname. "It's his side of the family that name so he'd hate it when people got that wrong," Davies-Uniacke said.
Peter and his wife Cath's pride in their son was evident on draft night in 2017, when cameras captured their emotional and tearful embrace with Luke after the Roos selected him with their prized No.4 pick. But just three weeks later the family's world turned, when Peter was diagnosed with lung cancer.
"You just sort of think he will be alright," Davies-Uniacke recalled. "It was a surreal feeling."
Peter went in for treatment, undergoing regular bouts of chemotherapy. Luke would drive back to Rye from his host family closer to Arden Street every week and see his dad be knocked around by the chemicals in his body.
That continued throughout his first three seasons at AFL level as Davies-Uniacke worked to establish his credentials in North Melbourne's midfield. He would do craft sessions with teammates Ben Cunnington and Jy Simpkin, and lean on assistants for further guidance. He also had his injury concerns – last year it was osteitis pubis which ruled him out for the first half of the season.
But as Davies-Uniacke dealt with the "weight" that comes with being a highly touted top draft pick, there was also the worry about his dad, who went to as many AFL games as he could, including one interstate trip when Luke was an emergency, just in case he came in as a late change.
"It was difficult at times. I'd find myself wondering when his next text was going to come so I'd give him a buzz and keep him updated," he said.
"It didn't go away but the size of the tumour didn't grow from scan to scan so the chemo was working and they were happy with that. But once the cancer got into his blood stream things turned really quickly. He couldn't walk for more than five minutes, he was really out of breath and coughing all of the time."
The early stages of this year saw Davies-Uniacke and his family prepare for the worst. Ahead of round seven, with North Melbourne set to face Melbourne in Tasmania, Davies-Uniacke asked new Roos coach David Noble if he could have the final training session of the week off to visit his dad, who was in hospital.
"We spent all day with him by his side and it was a really rough night, I didn't get much sleep at all, and the following day he passed away," said Davies-Uniacke, who missed the clash with the Demons.
He returned the following week against Collingwood, with the full squad wearing a black armband for his family, and hasn't missed a game since, although he admits sometimes the grief has been overwhelming.
"I definitely have my ups and downs and have my moments, that's for sure. I think I'm going OK. I have the help of the footy club, my mates, mum and my sister. I've got plenty of support around me and I lean on them a lot. That's how I'm getting by I guess. I still think about him a lot," he said.
North's support was never more clear than at a celebration for Peter's life at St Andrew's brewery, connected to the famous golf course where he had spent plenty of time, including becoming golf "buddies" with Hawthorn goalkicking great Peter Hudson.
"Dad couldn't believe they were mates," Davies-Uniacke said.
Hudson, regaling groups with stories about Peter, was one of nearly 300 people there that afternoon, alongside nearly every one of Davies-Uniacke's teammates, coaches and many officials from North Melbourne. It was hosted by the Roos' chaplain, Andrew Smith, whom Peter had grown close with since Luke arrived at the club.
"That was just great support from the club and I just loved what they did that day. It's basically like a family at the club and we all support each other," said Davies-Uniacke.
The 22-year-old also has his own family to support, and knows how tough this year has been for Cath.
"I get a bit worried about mum because I feel like it's hard for her to escape the grief and everything that comes with someone so close passing. I still get down to Rye every day off," he said.
Davies-Uniacke is determined to make sure he becomes the player his dad knew he could.
He has focused on staying in games more, getting out of stoppages as quick as he can, reacting fast and backing himself. The turn of speed and commanding presence in the midfield has been more evident as this season has gone on, with his last six weeks being his best stretch of football of his career, marking him clearly as one of the club's most important players of the future. And whenever he needs a moment of inspiration, he knows where the messages are on his phone.
"When I came back from the injury and the hub last year I just wanted to really prove to myself and the fans that I've got what it takes," he said. "I think that the attributes I can bring to the table are starting to come out a lot more this season and hopefully everyone can see that."