’I kept replaying it’: Candid Mitchell’s injury nightmares
Tom Mitchell will never forget the pain, even if he struggles to find the words to quantify it.
"I can't compare it to anything else. It was pretty bad," he says.
The Hawks have just started their first drill on their first day back from the Christmas break in preparation for the 2019 season.
It is the morning of a hot Friday, January 11 at Waverley Park and the mercury is already closing in on a top of 30C.
In the space of a split-second during a routine handball game, Mitchell is about to go from Brownlow medallist and league MVP to badly-injured dependent in one freakish incident.
"I was tackling someone and as my leg was coming around I collided with a teammate running the other way," Mitchell says.
"I think it might have been Tim O'Brien. I looked down and my leg was not in great shape.
"I remember looking up and all the boys were dispersing. They couldn't look at it, so I knew it was pretty serious."
Mitchell's left leg - the same one that dominated the game the season prior with a league-high 848 disposals - is a mess.
He's snapped the tibia and fibula - the most-dreaded injury quinella in sport.
As Hawks staff rush to erect a tarp to shield their star midfielder from the sun, so begins Mitchell's agonising wait for an ambulance to arrive.
"It felt like a year, but I think it was 20 minutes before it got here. I was on the green whistles on the ground … I think I had three of them, but they didn't help me much," he says.
"Once the paramedics got there they pumped some morphine into me … then it was a long drive on the freeway to the hospital to get into surgery that Friday night."
Coach Alastair Clarkson, on a plane overseas at the time of the incident, lands to discover the texts and missed calls informing him his best player is done for the year.
At the Epworth Hospital, Mitchell's visitors came thick and fast, but after getting home, so do the nightmares.
"For the first month or so I was waking up with a few nightmares," he says.
"I was sleeping really poorly. I just kept replaying the incident in my head over and over and at night I'd wake up grabbing my leg as if it had just happened."
The Herald Sun is sitting down with Mitchell on a very different Friday 10 months on.
As the rain pelts against a cafe window at Waverley Park, the midfielder talks candidly about his long journey back to the top.
The physical scars are obvious - two on his lower leg and a third up near his knee - but he admits the mental scars are there, too.
"When I'm out in full-training again and trying not to think about the incident and getting into games and hitting bodies and colliding with people - that's a hurdle I'll have to overcome," Mitchell says.
"I'll have to confront it eventually. I'll have to speak to people about that when the time comes, but we're not at that point yet."
He and Hawthorn hope that point comes shortly after Christmas. For now, it's softly-softly for the diesel engine in Hawthorn's midfield.
Mitchell has just walked off the track having completed several running exercises at jogging pace. There's no change of direction, but there's no sign of a limp, either.
There was a light kicking drill, where he effortlessly hit a stationary target from 20m on either foot.
It's encouraging, but Mitchell acknowledges it's first base stuff.
"I wouldn't say I look a million bucks, but it's good to be out there moving around and I'm feeling good," he says.
"I had a few little hiccups throughout the year. I had another operation around mid-year to have all the metal taken out and I had a few soreness issues after that, which is expected.
"It probably took a couple of months to feel normal again, but I have jumped that soreness hurdle and now it's about getting my leg strength back and improving my running speeds and change of direction and things like that.
"When you don't use your leg for so long you lose a lot of muscle and it takes a while to build it back up.
"I'm still a fair way off playing games, but I'm on the right track."
When the inevitable question comes - no doubt the same one every Hawthorn person has asked him for months - Mitchell doesn't sugar coat his answer.
Will you be ready for Round 1?
"There's no guarantees," he says.
"I'd love to play Round 1 and that's what I'm hopeful of doing. But I know better than anyone … anything can happen.
"The next step will be to incorporate more agility into my program, touching the footy more, kicking more and getting into training drills more.
"When you're out for so long it's quite difficult at times. But I feel quite motivated now after such an extended break and hopefully that can help me attack this pre-season."
One of Mitchell's guiding lights in the darkness has been Mitch Wallis. The Western Bulldogs onballer broke his tibia and fibula in gruesome scenes in Round 18, 2016 and missed the club's drought-breaking premiership.
"Mitch Wallis has been one I've caught up with a couple of times and we keep in contact regularly over the phone," Mitchell says.
"He just talks me through his rehab, the things he went through and the hiccups and things to expect. He's been great to bounce things off.
"In terms of doing the tib-fib - the double break - in the AFL there hasn't been a heap of examples. Michael Voss did a big one, Mitch Wallis and I've also looked at Paul George in the NBA, who seems to have recovered well.
"I sort of knew Mitch through some other people, but our relationship has probably grown since then and he's been a great support to me."
So too, has partner Hannah, who Mitchell admits "adjusted her whole life" to get him through the darkest of times.
"That first month was pretty bad and she was there to help me with everything, basically," he says.
"She's been my biggest support and she helped me get through that entire period."
It's a period Mitchell believes has also changed him as a person.
"Practising gratitude was something that I did. Being grateful for the things that you do have," he says.
"Not being able to walk for a long period of time, not being able to shoot the basketball or go for a casual kick of the footy.
"Obviously there's a lot of people out there who are in tougher situations, people in wheelchairs and other serious struggles.
"That's been a good outcome from the situation; to gain a greater appreciation of what you do have."
Clarkson and Hawthorn already had that appreciation. It may grow next year.