MATT Kennedy's story is one of footy and faith.
Footy, by his own admission, had once become a constant struggle for the popular Carlton midfielder. After a game against Port Adelaide early last year, Kennedy trudged slowly from the MCG honestly believing that his time in the AFL system had reached its natural conclusion.
On the fringes of a struggling Blues team, he had been delisted at the end of 2020 and then re-drafted as a rookie. He had lived on one-year deals ever since, not knowing when his next chance in the senior team would come or whether that would be his last one.
"I'd had a bit of a stinker in my 50th and I got dropped the following week. I said to myself, 'ah well … that's probably my time'. It was my opportunity to seize the moment and I missed it," Kennedy told AFL.com.au from Ikon Park this week.
But faith, the most central aspect to Kennedy's life, brought him back. A practising Catholic, he sought to reclaim a purpose beyond footy. Despite the setbacks, the frustrations and the ongoing uncertainties, the 25-year-old set about finding enjoyment in moments of his journey he had previously lamented.
So, even when he left the field on that cold Saturday night after defeat to Port Adelaide last year, Kennedy was appreciative. He still had his family, he still had his friends, he still had his farming – Kennedy jokes that his family farm, a crop and sheep farm, gives him "peace of mind" for life post-footy – and he still had his faith.
Just a few years earlier, when life was more complicated and footy more stressful, that outlook had not appeared so simple for Kennedy. But his faith, as it so often has for the Collingullie product, brought him much-needed perspective.
"There was a stage there where I didn't fully lose my faith, but I look back on it and I was a bit selfish. It was all about me and having my footy career. I forgot about my faith," Kennedy said.
"I've always went to Mass on the weekend, but there were times there where I was probably just ticking a box. It's changed the way I go about it off the field. Morally, I wasn't living the life I knew I should be. Some of my behaviours probably didn't line up. For me, it was about working on that.
Kennedy has mentors on both sides of his story. The club's midfield coach, Tim Clarke, and its head of development, Luke Power, have both played a central role in the tough clearance-winner emerging as an important mainstay in Michael Voss' new-look midfield group this season.
But it's the club's psychologist, Dr Tarah Kavanagh, and his housemates and best friends, Sam Walsh and Paddy Dow, who have given Kennedy the support to be who he is away from the game. That, as much as anything from a tactical footy perspective, has been pivotal to his on-field form.
"Walshy and Paddy have been awesome for me and my career as well. To be honest, they gave me a lot of confidence and encouragement to be who I am. They are really respectful of me and my faith. Moving in with them was probably one of the best things I've ever done," Kennedy said.
"I also thought about why I play footy and that's for my family. I've got a very close family, with all of my uncles and aunties and cousins. They just get so much joy out of watching me play and they always watch, no matter if I'm playing VFL or AFL. They just love to see me doing what I love doing.
"Obviously, at the minute, it's going well and I'm playing AFL and they love that. But it wouldn't worry them if I came home tomorrow or didn't get another contract. To see them get such enjoyment out of it, it's probably another reason why I play and why I love doing what I'm doing."
The newfound balance in Kennedy's life has been reflected in each and every match he has played so far this season. He is averaging career-highs in disposals (25.1), contested possessions (11.4), clearances (5.1), inside-50s (4.6), score involvements (6.1) and metres gained (326.4m) to become one of the side's most important midfielders.
His rapid rate of improvement was rewarded with a fresh three-year contract extension, signed on Wednesday, taking him through until at least the end of the 2025 campaign. It has meant the thought of worrying about one-year deals is no longer.
"Vossy and the new coaching staff, they've just come in from day one and said there would be a clean slate. They said at the start of the year that they hadn't picked the 22 yet, so I just thought I'd go out there and show them what I've got. For me, that was really good. It sort of felt like a fresh start. I wasn't being judged on what I'd already done. I just went out there and cracked in and was enjoying my footy and my training," Kennedy said.
It hadn't always been that simple. Kennedy's first four seasons at Carlton yielded just 40 starts from a possible 83, while a fair portion of them were spent playing as an undersized key forward at just 188cm. Not that he believes anyone was to blame, but himself.
"Individually, you probably always feel like you're getting harshly done by when you're not playing. But the reality is I had my chance when I first got to the club, they gave me a lot of opportunities and I didn't take them," Kennedy said.
"I probably wasn't very professional in the way I went about it off the field. It comes and goes in your favour at times, but I don't think I've been hard done by at all. I feel like I'm very grateful now that it's all working in my favour.
"I wouldn't say I was unlucky. There were just other players in front of me and, fair enough, they probably deserved a game. I'm pretty proud of myself to be able to hang in there and keep working hard and finally get my spot now. I know that's not always going to be smooth sailing, in the AFL there's a lot of ups and downs and it can change pretty quickly. I'll just keep my head down and keep working and hopefully ride it out as long as I can."
But, despite now having the comfort of a contract extension under his belt, Kennedy concedes his toughest time in football didn't occur as a result of the insecurity of one-year deals. Instead, they came right after his move from Greater Western Sydney in 2017.
A first-round selection after graduating from the Giants Academy, Kennedy was traded to the Blues in exchange for pick No.28 after just two years in the AFL system. It was a move met with much scrutiny, but the expectations he placed on himself internally far outweighed what was being said elsewhere.
"It was probably before that when I was feeling the pressure a lot more, when I first came across to the club on the three-year deal. I put a lot of pressure and expectation on myself to perform and it felt like footy was everything," Kennedy said.
"I probably lost my way a bit with my purpose. But, to be honest over the last couple of years, I've felt great. I actually haven't been worrying about the one-year contracts at all, I just learnt to enjoy the little things and embrace it a bit more. You never know when your time is going to come to an end.
"Working with Tarah was the best thing for me because I learnt how to enjoy footy again. I'm enjoying the training sessions, the slogs, the game days. There was a stage in my career where I thought I'd probably never play another game. So, every game I play now, it's a bit of a bonus. I'll try and never take that for granted, being able to run out in front of a packed crowd of 50,000 electrifying Carlton fans."
Kennedy has endured a bigger rollercoaster ride than most since arriving at Ikon Park. It's taken him nearly five years to reach his 50th game for the club, a milestone that will be celebrated this weekend against his former side Greater Western Sydney.
So, when asked to describe his first 50 games in the navy blue of Carlton in his own words, the answer is hardly surprising: "Character building," Kennedy chuckles, after a moment's thought.
"No, it's pretty hard to evaluate. It's been quite difficult, really. We've gone through a lot. I've learnt a lot about who I am as a person and as a player. It has been difficult, but I feel like I've put in the hard work and I'm in a really good place at the minute. We've got a really good, strong coaching and playing group that are willing to work hard and, doing those hard times, it'll make the good times better. I wouldn't change a thing."