HAWTHORN coach Sam Mitchell says there were times the club feared captain Ben McEvoy wouldn't play another game after he broke his neck in a freak training injury at the end of March.
With the two-time premiership player turning 33 on Monday and out of contract at the end of October, time was running out for McEvoy to return in 2022.
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But after the veteran ruckman made a successful return in the Hawks' 32-point win over Adelaide at Marvel Stadium on Sunday, Mitchell said he will refer back to McEvoy's recovery to inspire other players returning from long-term injuries in future.
"The first time you get told that incident he had at training he has a broken neck, you're like 'what'? Certainly there were some times in his rehab where it wasn't progressing quickly or it wasn't on track and didn't look like he would get back. There were times where we thought that (he wouldn't play again). We were really honest with him and we were always chatting daily. He was always so persistent, so it never came to that, thankfully," Mitchell told reporters on Sunday night.
"We watched a tape during the week where he is doing all these exercises that seem ludicrous, just trying to get any neck strength back – he'd lost 75 or 80 per cent of his tricep strength just due to the stuff that was happening in his neck. He couldn't lift two kilos above his head right at the start.
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"To come from there to where he is playing in an AFL game, it is quite impressive. Our players saw him soldier away from a one kilo weight to what he is now doing, his normal bench pressing.
"I think it's an inspirational story and something I'll lean on for many, many years with players who have to come back from injury, they are always going to feel sorry for themselves for a moment but when you look at a leader of your football club who is able to produce that, it puts it into perspective."
After winning the first two games of the season under the new regime, the Hawks had lost five consecutive games and won only one game since upsetting premiership favourite Geelong at the MCG on Easter Monday, before banking win number five for 2022.
Mitchell said the performance against an opposition who are at a similar stage of a rebuild was reward for not wavering on the process, despite a barren run of results.
"I think everyone understands the path (we are on); we are committed to it and haven't swayed away from that at any stage; there hasn't been any of that feeling of 'are we on the right track'? I think everyone knows and understands, but by the same token you need reward for effort. I was really pleased for the players that they got that today," he said.
"We haven’t had a victory for a while. The one we got today I think they really had earned and deserved. To have a Melbourne game where we had our fans see a victory and play in a way that was pretty pleasing to the eye I imagine, we ticked a lot of boxes today. I was really pleased that the players got some reward for effort."
Budding key forward Mitch Lewis continued his stunning emergence with five goals – all in the first half – to leap back into the top-10 in the Coleman Medal race on 36 majors, seven days after being held goalless in the wet last Sunday for the first time since round 17, 2020.
"Last week he was in 25 aerial contests that he either won or halved; I was actually quite pleased with his game last week. We take a lot of pressure statistics and things like that and he was our second highest pressure player last week. When you have a guy who is willing to put the work in, regardless of scoreboard impact, you know you're on the right track," Mitchell said.
"Even today, halfway through the last quarter he could have done a U-turn and had a shot at goal, but he gave the handball. It just showed that he's not in it for himself; he is in it for what we're trying to achieve. He continued to play the right way all the way until the end of the game.
"Sometimes you'll kick five in a half and sometimes you won't kick a goal in a game. That's OK as long as you're playing in the right manner. He certainly does that. It has been his great growth this year."
Adelaide coach Matthew Nicks said the Crows were punished for a slow start that saw them chasing their tails for the final three quarters, after conceding six goals to one in the opening term.
"The most disappointing part was the way we started," Nicks said in his post-match press conference.
"We coughed the footy up, we didn't stick tackles, everything we pride ourselves on week in, week out, we left somewhere. It took us a time-out – quarter time – to put that back at the level it needed to be at. That put us back in the contest.
"It doesn’t matter who you’re playing against, if you don’t bring the contest at the level, you’re going to be found out. They punished us in that first quarter."