The day Jarryd Roughead’s life became more important than footy

Jarryd Roughead is a four-time premiership player, Coleman Medalist, two-time All Australian and 283-game AFL player. But none of that was going to save his life the day he found out he had cancer.

On Monday 16 May, 2016, these things happened.

In Mexico, 24 beached whales died, despite the efforts of many to move them back into the water.

In France, tens of thousands farewelled the world’s largest cruise ship, Harmony of the Seas – 16 decks high and more than 360 metres long – as it set sail on its maiden voyage.

In Kentucky, Hillary Clinton teed off on the ‘frightening’ policies of her likely opponent in the US presidential race, Donald Trump.

And in Melbourne, I left footy training early, missing the review of the previous weekend’s game (bonus), drove to Lansdowne Street in East Melbourne, parked my ute in the late autumn sun and walked into the old Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre.

Less than a year earlier a spot on my bottom lip had been diagnosed as melanoma. Most skin cancers spread as they grow, but this one grew down, like a carrot. Cutting it out meant losing a quarter of my bottom lip. But other than adding to my rugged good looks it didn’t greatly impact my world – I only missed two games of footy, and at the end of the 2015 season I played in Hawthorn’s thirteenth premiership, my fourth and our third in a row.

In January 2016 I’d married Sarah Dunn, the beautiful girl of my dreams. Surrounded by the people we love, our wedding was the best party ever. Three months later we were just starting a big renovation on our house in Hawthorn, building the place where we planned to raise our family. Life couldn’t have been better.

Jarryd Roughead and wife Sarah at the Brownlow in 2018. Picture: Mark Stewart
Jarryd Roughead and wife Sarah at the Brownlow in 2018.

Like anyone who’s had cancer, every three months I would have a PET scan. That involved fasting after dinner, barely allowed to even drink water, then heading to Peter Mac the next day, where a glucose solution was injected through a cannula in my arm.

I’d lie there for an hour, completely still, not even allowed to read a book in case the movement of my eyes or fingers upset the dye running through my system. Then my body would move through the machine, slowly, as if I’d been divided into sections and they needed five minutes to look at each chunk. If there was any hint of cancer, the dye would be drawn to it.

A week later I’d go back to get the results. Our club doctor, Michael Makdissi, would always be there when I arrived, just in case I needed him.

I was feeling good. We were seven rounds into the season and I still hadn’t played a game, but the posterior cruciate ligament injury that had flared up in my right knee in January – and needed reconstructive surgery five days after our wedding – was just about good to go. My best mate Jordan Lewis was due to play his 250th game in a couple of weeks; it would be touch and go, but I was determined to run out with him.

Roughead was determined to make it back from injury for best mate Jordan Lewis’s 250th game when he got his cancer diagnosis.
Roughead was determined to make it back from injury for best mate Jordan Lewis’s 250th game when he got his cancer diagnosis.

Grant McArthur, my oncologist, greeted me by asking how my knee was. I said it was fine. And then he said, ‘We’re in a bit of trouble.’

My first thought was they must have picked up a spot on my arm or my back. Then Grant said, ‘You’ve got four spots on your lungs.’

What do you do when your world collapses? For some reason I stood up and emptied my pockets, putting my phone, wallet and keys on Grant’s table, and started pacing around the room.

I asked questions: ‘How bad?’ ‘How big?’ ‘What do we do?’ I asked if it meant no footy for the rest of the year. Grant said probably no footy next year either.

Shit. Two years out of footy. I’d be 30 by then, probably done.

I never asked the big question. I just didn’t think it. It shows how conditioned you become to seeing everything in terms of football, that in that moment I still thought of it like a footy injury. That’s all I’d known.

We walked out and Doc Makdissi asked, ‘What do you want to do?’ It was about 4.30 pm and I knew Sarah would have finished work, but I couldn’t go home and tell her straight away. I didn’t know what to say. So I did what I’d been doing my whole adult life – I drove to the footy club.

Roughead didn’t know what to do or where to go after he got the news, so he headed for the footy club. Picture: Colleen Petch
Roughead didn’t know what to do or where to go after he got the news, so he headed for the footy club.

I drove along Brunton Avenue, right past the MCG – ‘the office’, the place where I’d experienced some of the best days of my life. I didn’t know what to think, I was numb. I knew the boys would have finished the review by then, so I rang Jordy.

He was on the freeway, heading home, and I said, ‘Can you turn back?’

He asked me why and I just broke down crying. ‘I’ve got spots on my lungs. I don’t know if I’m gunna be alright.’

There was a bit of traffic on the drive out to Waverley Park, not as bad as a normal Monday in peak hour, just people in their cars going about their lives. And me. I got to the footy club, parked in the underground car park and composed myself. Doc had worded up the key people – coach Alastair Clarkson, footy boss Chris Fagan – telling them that I was on my way, that it wasn’t great news. There’s always a coaches’ meeting after the review’s finished, but the players all leave right away, so at least I knew the boys weren’t there. That helped.

I went upstairs and Jason Burt, who was the footy administration manager at the time, was in his office. I asked if he could go grab Clarko and the others. I was sitting in Jason’s office with my back to the door when Jord walked in. I just lost it again, and then he started to cry.

Roughy says he’ll never forget the look on Sarah’s face when he told her he had cancer.
Roughy says he’ll never forget the look on Sarah’s face when he told her he had cancer.

Clarko and Fages came in, our fitness man Andrew ‘Jack’ Russell, the Doc, and we just sat there talking for 10 or 15 minutes. In a strange way it felt good because I was around people I was with every day, but then there was the unknown. And there was Sarah. She’d been texting me for an hour or so: ‘Where are you?’ ‘Why are you late?’ ‘What are you doing?’ I just kept replying, ‘I’ll be home soon.’

I rang my brother Cam and sister Emily and asked them to come around, said I had something to tell them. Sarah’s sister Maddie is with my teammate Sam Grimley, so we got hold of them and said to come over too. Everyone I spoke to, I told them not to arrive until after a certain time.

When I walked in Sars was sitting on a couch in front of the TV. I asked her to turn it off and said, ‘I need to tell you something.’ Then I started crying.

‘I’ve got cancer again. There’s four spots on my lungs.’

I’ll never forget the look on her face, the quiver of her lip, the tears. And I’ll never forget what she asked me: ‘Are you going to die?’

Roughy: The Autobiography written with Peter Hanlon.

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