AFL legend James Hird will return to football once more after an epic mental health battle over the fallout from the Essendon drug scandal.
The controversy put Hird on a downward spiral leading to the footy great overdosing on sleeping pills in his Toorak mansion and spending five weeks in a psychiatric ward in 2017.
But now the 49-year-old is set to make his return to the sport this year with a part-time mentoring role for the Greater Western Sydney Giants.
The two-time premiership winner hung up his boots in 2007 after an illustrious 16-year playing career with the Bombers, and became the club’s senior coach in 2011.
But his coaching career ended in tatters two years later when allegations surfaced of prohibited drug and supplement use by 34 Essendon players.
AFL legend James Hird will start a part-time mentoring role for the Greater Western Sydney Giants, following mental health battles
Now he’s set to start a new chapter thanks mostly to GWS coach of eight years Leon Cameron, former Essendon teammate Mark McVeigh and GWS veteran Matt de Boer.
‘For a long period of time, I’ve thought we can’t lose this bloke to football or whatever may be,’ McVeigh told the Herald Sun.
‘Through those dark periods he wasn’t the person I’d always known, and I feel like I’ve got a mate back.’
McVeigh said it was heartwarming to see the smile return to his former teammate’s face.
Hird’s new chapter with the Giants began when he had a chance discussion with de Boer when the team was isolating in Melbourne.
He was then invited by McVeigh to the team’s leadership group camp on the NSW central coast where Hird delved deep into his life on the footy pitch and his battle with mental illness – which staff said meant a lot to the players.
Hird had earlier opened up about the torment he went through after retiring from playing AFL in 2007.
‘I remember sitting on my kitchen floor and everyone’s gone to bed, my wife’s upstairs, the kids are in bed, and I am sitting there, just crying on the ground,’ Hird told former Hawthorn captain Shane Crawford in a video for AIA Vitality in 2020.
‘You’re just grieving for this life you had. As much as I was glad to retire because I’m sick of being sore… there was this grieving process.’
James Hird has opened up on his devastating mental health battles after his AFL career
Then on his 40th birthday Hird found out of the doping allegations, which sent him into a downward spiral.
‘I woke up in the morning, went for a run and literally had the thought “I’ve just had a great life”,’ he said.
‘I played for the club I wanted to play at, been successful, got a job I wanted, married the most perfect woman in the world and had four kids. Life doesn’t get much better.
‘That was maybe seven o’clock in the morning. By two o’clock in the afternoon … the president (David Evans) came into my office and basically said: “The AFL thinks we’re guilty of giving the players performance enhancing drugs, what do you think?”
Hird pictured with his sons Tom and Alex in October 2012. He said without the support of his family he wouldn’t still be here today
‘I’m like, “What do you mean, ‘What do I think?’ We definitely haven’t been doing it. I don’t know what you’re talking about?”
‘Then it just snowballed from there… we set off a train that basically ended up with the players being found not guilty initially, suspended for a year in 2016.
I was sitting in the car and had some shocking thoughts about what was next
‘Literally, it was far and away the worst time in my life, but by far and away the worst time – more importantly – in 34 players’ lives and a lot of good people in football.’
Hird admitted he was disappointed he hadn’t stopped the supplements scandal sooner, with he and his wife Tania and four children thrust into the public eye in the fallout over the story.
Hird said the support from his wife Tania (pictured together) helped him through the Essendon supplements scandal
‘I really felt for my wife because she was trying to hold our family together,’ he said. ‘She’s a very proud person and also very defensive of me because she obviously saw me going through a lot.
‘Every day you wake up and go, ‘All right, I’ve got to deal with this. I’ve got to work through it and one day this will finish’ … and fortunately it did.’
Hird believes he ‘wouldn’t still be here’ without the love and support from his family through the rough period.
His Essendon coaching career finished in 2015, leaving Hird in a dark place with no direction outside of footy.
Hird in tears after announcing his resignation as head coach of the Bombers in August 2015
‘I was sitting in the car and had some shocking thoughts about what was next,’ Hird said.
He recalled a conversation with a representative from Beyond Blue who sent a special mental health response unit from the Alfred Hospital to meet him at his home.
‘I said, “Mate, this is how I feel. I feel like I can’t go on. I’ve brought shame to my family, shame on my football club, my profession. I’ve lost my identity”,’ Hird said.
The former Brownlow medallist fell into severe depression through 2015 and 2016, which he described as being ‘at the bottom of a 30-foot well’.
‘It’s dark and every time I try to climb out of that well, another brick just hits you on the head and people are just throwing bricks at your head or you’re throwing them at your own head,’ he said.
Hird opened up on his mental health demons with former Hawthorn captain Shane Crawford
‘To be helpless like that, lying in bed and hearing your kids playing outside but still not being able to move.’
His depression culminated in being hospitalised following a prescription drug overdose in his mansion in Toorak in January 2017.
The incident was described as ‘intentional’ by paramedics.
Hird has a better grip on his mental health these days and is appreciative of the journey he has taken to calm his demons.
‘The sense of happiness and joy you get from understanding how you feel now (compared) to how you felt so poorly, is a really nice feeling,’ he said.
‘Yeah, there’s up and downs … but I have a much greater appreciation for how good you can feel after knowing how bad you can feel.
‘No matter how bad things get, there is a way through it. It doesn’t happen quickly or easily, but life can be great if you can get through it.’
Hird speaks to Bombers players on the filed in July 2015. Hird is appreciative of the journey he has taken after football to calm his mental demons