DANIEL McKenzie watched on from the Gabba stands last October as St Kilda broke its 10-year drought without a finals win with a thrilling elimination victory over the Western Bulldogs.
Like other teammates outside the Saints' 22, he was unable to head down to the rooms to celebrate the victory due to tight COVID-19 protocols, instead being whisked onto a waiting bus parked outside the stadium minutes after the final siren and heading on the two-hour trip back to Noosa, where the club's 'hub' was based for the second half of last year.
McKenzie had become familiar with watching on: after playing 15 games in 2019, he didn't manage any in 2020, which was the first season in a three-year deal he had signed. But it didn't make it any easier missing out on a key moment after being a part of the Saints' build since joining the club at the 2014 NAB AFL Draft.
"I was just lucky that I had another two years on my contract so I wasn't thinking, 'This is the end, I'm done if I don't get a game here' so I was fortunate with that. But I knew I had to get a move on soon otherwise I could quickly be out the door and the AFL dream could be gone," McKenzie told AFL.com.au.
McKenzie has more than kept it alive this season, with his move to the wing and resultant best stretch of form of his career one of the highlights of St Kilda's inconsistent season. His athleticism, running power and bravery have made for an impact through the midfield after breaking back into the Saints' line-up in round one.
That came after a pre-season where he was focused on proving his traits to his coaches, and to himself.
"Not playing for a year and a half probably put doubt in my own head and potentially even the coaches. Like, 'Can we play someone who hasn't played for that long?'," he said.
"If I had another season like that and didn't play another game this year it's two and a half years and even though I do have another year on my contract it's almost done. I still had a bit of belief though, I knew that when we were playing those scratch games I felt really confident playing them and felt like I should be playing AFL level.
"There was just enough belief that I could come back, have a really good pre-season and then prove myself, but it was pretty shaky for a while there."
McKenzie is now on far firmer ground, reinvigorated by a return to the wing role that he played when he first arrived at St Kilda. Then, after struggling with the sometimes-unrewarded effort in the position, he was shifted to half-back for four seasons. But a Brett Ratten re-think saw him train up as a wingman after some convincing from the coach.
"There was opportunity on the wing and 'Ratts' saw my running capability as a really good benefit for a winger and had another crack there. At first I was a bit unsure but it really has turned out as a positive and got me back on my feet," the 25-year-old said.
McKenzie played five of the first six games of this season before being suspended for a week after a bump on Port Adelaide's Ollie Wines in round six. Then, while training through his ban, he tore his calf and took six weeks to return to full fitness.
That felt a blow, particularly given his form was on the rise, including an important 21-disposal and one-goal game in the Saints' much-needed win over West Coast in round four, but he stuck to his plan and St Kilda brought him straight back in when ready in round 15.
He booted two goals from 14 disposals at the MCG against Richmond in his return game, and then was excellent against Collingwood in round 16 (21 disposals, one goal) and Brisbane in round 17 (18 disposals, one goal).
He was on track for another solid game against Port Adelaide in round 18 before being concussed in a crunching tackle, which saw him miss the Saints' trip to Perth under the AFL's mandated 12-day absence after a head knock and also the following week against Carlton.
"The actual head knock I have a pretty good memory around the whole incident: I remember playing the game, the build-up to the game and I even remember tackling and I only blacked out for a short period," he said.
"The next day I caught up with one of our doctors and I had to do a SCAT test – a few memory word games, number games and balance things. I passed that with flying colours, I think I even tested better on that than my baseline. They were pretty happy with me early days and our doctor was really good about it and didn't push it too quickly. I missed two games but I felt more than ready to come back when I did and get physical again."
He returned again to be a key player in the Saints' win over Sydney last week with 20 disposals as St Kilda kept alive its faint finals hopes, with the Saints winning four of the past five games McKenzie has played. His attack – on the body, ball and contest – has been a feature and his seventh season at the club has been a boost, for the Saints and himself.
"I did consider myself as a half-back for three or four years and wouldn't have said that I'd be much of a winger but now I am it's about making sure I am able to go out there and play a wide range of roles," McKenzie said.
"A big part of it is maintaining that confidence in myself and my ability that even if things do go poorly like they did for a while back then just to know I do have the traits to be an AFL player."