It was winter 2013 – late in the evening – when my mobile began buzzing from the kitchen table. Alastair Clarkson’s name was flashing brightly on the screen, and immediate panic set in.

When a head coach calls after dark, it’s like a police officer knocking on the front door: it can only be bad news.

A call like that generally means you’ve been dropped, suspended or are being investigated following an after-hours fracas or drunken mishap.

But on this occasion, the hardest man in football wasn’t calling to discuss any of the above.

The conversation began with a cursory query as to what I’d served myself up for dinner, before ‘Clarko’ cut to the chase and requested I meet him at the St. Kilda Beach Pier an hour later.

For those who aren’t familiar with the nominated pier, the location is often used for punishment purposes by Victorian AFL clubs. It is cold, deep, dark and uninviting.

To say I was uncertain as to why I was being summoned to the pier was an understatement. I hadn’t played all season due to injury – in fact, I’d only played a handful of games total in the years prior.

But Clarko wasn’t interested in talking footy. Unbeknownst to me, my mentor had noticed a change in my behaviour, and was worried about what he referred to as my “happiness”.

In today’s terms, this meeting would correctly be interpreted as a coach expressing (and demonstrating) real concern for a player’s mental welfare.

The walk lasted an hour or so, and once we left the beach, the topic was never mentioned again.

But Clarko’s actions that night show (in my eyes at least) why he will finish his career as one of the greatest coaches in the history of the game. It was obvious I’d been playing on his mind, and it speaks to Clarko’s character that he felt he had to confront the issue, irrespective of the time of evening.

For me, I left the conversation with the first inkling that the medicine I needed was to move to a new state, find a new club, and be around new people. And I knew that no matter what, I’d have Clarko’s support.

– Xavier Ellis

Read more: Xavier Ellis: Mental Health Serious Issue in AFL

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