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Out of the darkness: Daniel Stewart has overcome his crippling depression. Photo: Jesse Marlow Daniel Stewart in action during 2011. Photo: DAVID MARIUZ

Daniel Stewart in 2010. Photo: DAVID MARIUZ

Three months after being discarded by Port Adelaide, Daniel Stewart was suicidal.

His shoulder and hip wrecked by the rigours of five years in the AFL system, he returned from a post-season trip to the USA with nothing to distract himself from his sense of loss. Recovering from surgeries, he was stuck at home, as depression ate away at his core.

“I felt like I had nothing. I lost my footy career … I couldn’t get a job, I broke up with my girlfriend,” Stewart recalls.

“That’s when everything went really downhill.”

The Power’s newly-appointed welfare boss Marcus Drum had called Stewart – a regulation check-in with a recently departed player. But Stewart was in no mood to open up. “I didn’t want anything to do with them anymore. I was bitter about it.

“I didn’t even know Marcus Drum. He’d only just got to the footy club. I was like ‘why would I tell you my personal details?'”

Stewart’s mindset deteriorated. There appeared to be no way out. He was just 25, and an imposing two metres tall, but Stewart was desperate. “I rang my mum and I started bawling my eyes out. I was like, ‘I can’t do this anymore’.”

How had it all gone so wrong for the key forward from Box Hill senior secondary college? In his last years of high school, Stewart was consumed by the game. “I was just pure football.”

He went through the Eastern Ranges’ program under John Lamont, who had also coached him at school, but went undrafted as an 18-year-old forward/ruckman. An opportunity arose in Queensland where local club Labrador came calling. Stewart moved north, and thrived. He started work as a builder’s labourer, and got fitter. His beep test results improved by two levels. He had found enjoyment both on and off the field. “The sun, partying everything, I’d just turned 18 so I started drinking, and I was playing good footy.

“There was no pressure, I was purely relaxed.”

Several clubs in South Australia took notice. After one year at Labrador he joined North Adelaide, coached by Andrew Jarman, with whom Stewart clicked. Again he shone, and came into the radar of a Port Adelaide, who plucked him as a rookie.

Stewart’s maiden season on an AFL list brought mixed results. Even then his mind would frequently hold him captive. “I had days there where I just didn’t want to play footy. I woke up and I just felt drained, and nervous and scared.

“You don’t think that, but AFL players, some days they wake up and they’re just like, ‘I can’t be f—ed playing today.’ But you have to be on your game all the time.”

His form dwindled during the year, and he was dropped to the SANFL reserves. Senior coach Mark Williams called Stewart into his office. “He pretty much just sprayed me, and said, ‘do you want to play AFL?’

“‘Because you’re going to get delisted if you keep going the way you’re going’.”

The rev-up had the desired effect. Stewart turned around his football, and Williams chose to elevate him to the senior list at year’s end, before picking him for a debut away to Geelong early in 2010. “He was my favourite coach. He got the best out of me, and really pushed me.

“I shat myself every time I spoke to him.”

Stewart played 11 games in 2010, the year in which Williams departed the club, replaced by Matthew Primus.

Twelve senior appearances followed in Port’s disastrous 2011 campaign, but Stewart was unhappy with his lack of progress. He resolved to work harder.

“I trained all the way through the off-season. I did not have a break.”

Early in the year things were paying off reasonably well. He wasn’t dominating, but Stewart felt in better touch than he had been previously. He kicked three goals against Sydney in round three, his biggest AFL haul in more than a year, and was serviceable the following week against Collingwood.

But he didn’t see the freight train awaiting him. Stewart says he can still picture the day he was dropped unexpectedly for the Showdown against Adelaide. The Power were having their final training session of the week, and Stewart was surprised to see David Rodan arrive, given the diminutive midfielder wasn’t in the team. “I said ‘what are you doing here?’

“He said ‘I don’t know, Matty just called me in’.

“Something just clicked in my head. I thought, ‘na they wouldn’t drop me’.”

He was wrong. Having showered after the session, Stewart was encountered by Primus.

“As soon as he said my name, I knew it.

“My heart just dropped.”

Sensing Stewart’s disappointment, Primus told his fellow big man to head home for the day. Assistant coach Shaun Rehn tried to stop Stewart on his way out, but close to tears, Stewart walked straight past him. He received supportive text messages from teammates, but his axing was a body blow.

“That turned my 2012 season pretty much upside down.”

The Power were beaten by the Crows, and Stewart regained his spot the following week. But the damage had been done. “My mindset changed. I just felt like [Primus] didn’t want me in anymore.

“I didn’t want to play for him anymore.”

Stewart blames himself though.

“I was young, stupid, I let things get to me … I shouldn’t have.”

Unable to find consistency in his football, Stewart again floated between the AFL and SANFL for the remainder of 2012. “During that year, that’s when I started to get that depression.”

“I remember playing a SANFL game, and I was literally like a zombie. I felt nothing. I think I had one or two touches.”

It was after that match that Port’s doctor recommended anti-depressants, but Stewart didn’t want to venture down that track for fear of losing his edge.

Primus was sacked soon after. At year’s end, Stewart’s manager Michael Doughty encouraged him to talk to life coach Brenton Yates, who showed Stewart mind exercises, and relaxation techniques, as well as encouraging the beanpole to “fake it till you make it”. It worked to an extent, and Stewart identifies Yates’ help as a big part of his road back to wellbeing.

But there were still obstacles to come. “It didn’t really help me much on the footy field. It was a long process for me to getting better and changing my mindset.”

Ken Hinkley arrived at Port, telling Stewart that he needed to show something in 2013 to keep his spot on the list.

But Stewart played just one senior game, struggling in round seven against Richmond. The following week he hurt his hip in the SANFL. Stewart kept playing, but the injury was so bad he ultimately had the hip replaced this year. He battled on in 2013, but knew it would be his final campaign. “My shoulder was cooked [and] I couldn’t bend down to pick up a footy because of my hip.”

Heading into the final game of 2013, Hinkley went up to Stewart while he was having a massage.

Asked by the coach what he was thinking, Stewart said “to be honest I’m looking for another job.”

Hinkley was relieved that Stewart knew where he stood.

But while seemingly at peace with his situation at season’s end, things took a dramatic turn for the worse after the trip to the US. The nadir was that phone call to mum, who said she’d come over straight away, as did Stewart’s brother.

They booked him into a doctor, who prescribed anti-depressants, which Stewart took for five months. “My life turned around from there.”

Within a few months he felt back back on track, and was pursuing a career in building design, a path he ultimately eschewed. He has plenty to occupy himself though.

Stewart and former Port and Richmond player Matt Thomas – a close friend – will later this month open a gym in Prahran called “Gymmy Squatz,” after an approach by ex-Power fitness boss Cam Falloon. Another facility is also planned in South Yarra.

Stewart’s mobility has improved too. He will soon resume running for the first time in a year, and having progressed physically he will take some classes. He’s excited by the new challenge.

Stewart lives nearby the Prahran gym, having moved in with girlfriend Laura, an interior designer who he met through a friend in 2014. “She helped me with that mindset … she made me happy.”

Stewart remains in contact with a handful of his former Power teammates including Hamish Hartlett, Alipate Carlile and Jay Schulz. But he no longer watches much football, preferring UFC instead. His hero is superstar Connor McGregor. “His mindset’s just unbelievable.”

But Stewart still has an involvement in the game. He was approached midway through last year by friend and AFL player agent Ryan Kogelman, who thought Stewart could mentor prospective draftees. “I’ve been through that struggle so you know what to say to them.”

He thinks welfare is heading in the right trajectory in football, and bears little resentment towards Port, but he is highly cynical about the AFL’s intentions. He is still fighting with the AFL players’ association for injury compensation – nearly three years after leaving the Power.

But most importantly for Stewart, his head is again right. Once he fretted over what players, coaches and fans thought, but now he is unburdened.

“It was my fault, because I felt it. It wasn’t them. That’s what I realise now. It’s all in your head.

“If I didn’t have that in my head I think I would have been a better player.”

His mantra may be inelegant, but it seems to be working. “I always gave a f— about what people thought. And it’s changed now. I don’t give a f— what anybody thinks of me.”

For help or information visit beyondblue.org419论坛, call Suicide Helpline Victoria on 1300 651 251, or Lifeline on 131 114.

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