'Don't be weak': No one dealt better with adversity than Nick Riewoldt

Nick Riewoldt is shattered after 2009 grand final loss to Geelong. Photo: Vince Caligiuri
Nick Riewoldt is shattered after 2009 grand final loss to Geelong. Photo: Vince Caligiuri

Some champions let their football do the talking. Others can't help but open up ever-intriguing parts of their private selves as they journey seemingly without fear nor filter across their chosen sporting landscape.

That's how it has always been for Nick Riewoldt. And how it will be, for at least another month, as the St Kilda superstar fights for one final football spring.

If Riewoldt had not been so impossibly upbeat as he announced his retirement on Monday the thought of losing him after 17 years could have been unbearably sad.

After all his quest for success, just like the Saints, has punctuated the best part of two decades with not only brilliant brave football but also with page-turning melodrama, tragedy and joy.

As the player himself said: "It's a game that exposes so much of what we really are. It tells the story every week." And few told it better.

The No. 1 draft pick first became captain as a 22-year-old, backing into the unknown with his eyes only on the ball as he captured that mark on the SCG, leading St Kilda that year into a preliminary final.

Riewoldt kicked four goals in another preliminary final five years later taking the Saints into their first Grand Final in 12 years.

When three successive Grand Finals and two achingly close misses in two years could not win them a premiership, Riewoldt only verbally snapped in the aftermath when a member of the public intruded upon a small group of players in football mourning.

Having rejected the Gold Coast's godfather offer Riewoldt later turned down an entreaty from Collingwood president Eddie McGuire who tempted him with the prospect of a flag.

But if being a one-club player did not bring him the ultimate success nor will it diminish his legendary status in the game and it will help better shape his future.

Nick Riewoldt [St Kilda] running back with the flight of the ball, takes one of footy's great marks in 2004 at the SCG Photo: Nine Network

Nick Riewoldt [St Kilda] running back with the flight of the ball, takes one of footy's great marks in 2004 at the SCG Photo: Nine Network

Then Fairfax media columnist Tim Watson dubbed him 'the boy who blinked' in 2005 after Chris Scott and Mal Michael worked over Riewoldt and his dislocated shoulder at the Gabba.

And yet in his later years as captain he blinked on behalf of the revolving door of shattered retiring team-mates, pleading with the AFL commission to better understand the struggle of life after football.

More recently he has taken a strong stand on behalf of rescuing football in his beloved Tasmania. His loyalty saw him stick with his early manager Ricky Nixon years after other players had deserted Nixon, splitting with him only when that loyalty was tested beyond redemption at a low point for Riewoldt and his club.

And Riewoldt put friendship first again in late 2014 when he appeared in court alongside Lenny Hayes in an unfashionably strong show of support for team mate Stephen Milne.

Only months later his family lost Riewoldt's beloved sister Maddie. With cousin Jack - against whose Tigers Riewoldt's Saints will play in round 23 in what could prove Nick's last game - the family established 'Maddie Riewoldt's Vision' raising money to find new treatments for bone marrow failure.

In the annual game last month dedicated to his sister Riewoldt was best on ground and at that stage seemed determined to play on. The roar that accompanied his first goal that night was deafening but as the cheers subsided and time evolved it became clear the coach Alan Richardson and the club, which had not offered him a new deal, were heading towards a tough situation.

All agreed yesterday that Riewoldt's change of heart came in a scheduled meeting late last week.

"Don't be weak, don't be weak," he says he told himself when the outside noise suggesting his time might have come started to resonate."You've got yourself out of so many positions of adversity."

Riewoldt added that he simply wasn't wired to walk away from elite sport because of his "desire to fit and scrap and get every last inch out of myself."

Instead he chose to retire with a "litre or two of petrol left in the tank" rather than broken down on the side of the road. And on Monday, refusing to let tears wash the smile from his face, he said the future held so much promise for him and that too many players hung on due t othe fear of that future without football.

'How lucky have I been!' Riewoldt seemed to keep saying, 'to have played at this level and had the fun I've had and called it a career.'

He managed to draw a line between his love of the culture of Australian Rules football and his competitive obsession which had been his greatest strength and, on occasion, his greatest weakness.

"We gave it an absolute crack," said Riewoldt, "and fell short." On the face of it there are few sadder statements in sport as in life.

Barring a sporting miracle that too is the way it will end for the Saints longest-serving captain, six-time club champion and five-time All-Australian who has taken more marks than any other in the game's history.

Another ageing champion Nathan Buckley once explained towards the end of his time as a player that he had come to terms with his place in the game having learnt to celebrate his journey even without a premiership medal.

When season 2018 rolls around Nick Riewoldt will probably be commentating but supporters and impartial spectators will feel like they've lost a friend.

Having spent half his life with St Kilda - one of the most fascinating football clubs in the AFL - and experienced, as he said, the entire range of emotions during those 17 years; few have travelled better than Nick Riewoldt.

And if his baggage weighed him down at times, few carried the personal struggle more graciously. For him surely the means justified the end.