Graham Polak allows himself a wry smile when he thinks of the decade that has passed since he came close to death after being hit by a tram in suburban Melbourne.
“Time has flown,” Polak told The Weekend West. “I took a short-cut to try and get somewhere quicker and ultimately it came back and bit me on the arse. I look back and wonder how I could have been so silly to get hit by something stuck on the tracks.”
Polak was in an induced coma for two days, his life in the balance. Just hours before his accident, he had been playing for Richmond against Carlton at the MCG.
A scar on his left temple is the only physical legacy of the collision, which he does not remember, and he still has some short-term memory loss.
“It’s weird the way your brain works and thankfully mine is still working,” he said. “I’m kind of glad I don’t remember much of it, to be honest.”
Doctors told Polak’s family to prepare for the fact he may die. That made it even more remarkable when, 420 days later, he was back playing for Richmond, against Hawthorn.
“I had a lot of critics out there saying I wouldn’t make it back,” he said. “In a sense, I pretty much just said, ‘Up yours, I’m going to make it’, and thankfully I did. I’m not one to shy away and I like to prove people wrong. Ultimately, the accident broke me, but it also made me stronger.”
He played again the next week against West Coast alongside Ben Cousins, who was confronting the Eagles at home in Perth for the first time since they sacked him in 2007. “It was like a marching band when we came back into Perth,” he joked.
Polak, a No.4 draft pick for the Fremantle Dockers before he was traded to Richmond, admitted to crying when he had to retire in 2011 after several bouts of concussion while playing in the WAFL with East Perth.
Polak’s then girlfriend, Alyce — now his wife, and mother of their two daughters and with another baby due this year — recalled the harrowing time wondering if he was ever going to wake up.
“Obviously they have to prepare you for the worst,” Mrs Polak said. “Everyone around me was so happy that he was still alive, but for me it was just like, ‘This is my future husband. I need him to be able to walk. I need him to be able to talk’. Just the fear of the unknown was the worst thing.
“It’s just amazing how far he’s come and so much has happened in the past 10 years. We’ve got married and had kids and moved back to Perth. It’s hard to believe it was 10 years ago.”
Victoria’s Transport Accident Commission ran physical and psychological tests on Polak, now a fly-in, fly-out worker in the State’s north, a year after his accidents to document his recovery.
The 34-year-old said he felt indebted to his doctors, family, friends and the Richmond Football Club for their work and support.
But it was his wife who had been his rock as he struggled to get his life back on track.
“I don’t reckon I would be here and this stable if it wasn’t for her and deep down I truly mean that,” he said. “She didn’t leave my side and was there every day.
“It motivated me to get back to living.”
The couple were in the MCG stands when several of his former Richmond teammates became premiership players last year.
“I’ve grown so much since back in those days when I was probably a little bit sillier than I am now,” he laughed.
“Now I’ve got two kids who are my world and and another baby on the way, it’s all made me grow up a lot quicker. I’m happy to be here sharing it with everyone else.
“I don’t really live too much in the past, I’m all about the future now. We’ve had our rides, up and downs, and I’m just thankful I’m still here. I can look back now and say we’ve made it and there are a few more years that I want to live.
“I don’t take life for granted because it can end like that (clicking his fingers). Thankfully that night, it wasn’t my turn to go. You’ve only got one life, don’t ruin it.”