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The huge significance of Tom Boyd’s unfulfilled career

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Boyd was signed by the Bulldogs for close to $7 million over seven years, during a tumultuous post-season at Whitten Oval in which captain Ryan Griffen walked, triggering both the sacking of the coach, Brendan McCartney and the audacious recruitment of Boyd in a trade for Griffen and an early draft pick, as the beseiged Bulldogs bit back.

Unbeknownst to the competition, the Dogs had already done some legwork on getting Boyd during 2014 but had nothing to trade to the Giants. Griffen’s exit opened the door for Boyd to join, an acquisition the Dogs hoped would finally solve their perennial quest for a key forward colossus.

He was only 19, as Redgum sang, and the external expectations that were heaped on Boyd were unrealistic. A 200cm forward needs years to develop, but the spotlight on Boyd meant that he would not enjoy the luxury of a gradual apprenticeship.

The game also changed just as he arrived at the Bulldogs. Speed, agility and front-half pressure were becoming paramount and Boyd was really built to play as a ruckman, rather than as a conventional key forward.

It is telling that his hours of triumph in 2016 were largely in the ruck, Boyd having taken over from an incapacitated Jordan Roughead in the preliminary final and rucked courageously; in the grand final, he mixed forward and ruck, but his most telling impact – that long goal in the last term was for the ages – came as a follower moving forward.

It is to Boyd’s great credit that he has walked away from about $2 million and that he did not haggle or attempt to gouge anything from the club – a stance that will benefit the Bulldogs considerably in the coming years, freeing their salary cap for the pursuit of others. It is hard to remember a footballer forfeiting that kind of money – even in seasonally adjusted terms – since television dollars flooded the coffers.

Tom Boyd during his brief time with the Giants.

Tom Boyd during his brief time with the Giants.Credit:Katherine Griffiths

Boyd was at the centre of both the mental health/social media nexus that bedevils AFL footballers, and the massive long-term contracts that accompany free agency. Lance Franklin’s nine-year Sydney deal arguably was the midwife for the Boyd deal, given they had the same manager. The difference, as we know, was that Buddy was a proven champion, and Boyd a potential gun.

Boyd’s decision to quit arose from his back injury and the mental health struggles that he had bravely made public in 2017. Boyd’s airing of his mental health travails arguably opened the door for others to follow suit and, by the end of that year, the state of a footballer’s mind was widely seen as the AFL’s most pressing problem.

The scrutiny on Boyd – from both the fourth estate and its bastard child, social media – was clearly a factor in his struggles with the proverbial black dog.

The Bulldogs were surprised by his decision to quit, although it is understood he did let some teammates know before he and his manager Liam Pickering met with club officials on Thursday morning. It is staggering to think he is still only 23, an age when most big men are still some distance from maturation, and we will never know what Boyd might have accomplished in the AFL, albeit he did not start out as a skinny kid in the manner of Tim English – he was a man-child from the outset.

Boyd’s exit coincides with the arresting arrival of high-leaping Aaron Naughton, who shapes as the forward messiah that Boyd was slated to become. Naughton was blessed to be pick No.9, not No.1, and to be on an unknown, modest contract by comparison.

By leaving early, Tom Boyd unburdened himself, and did the same for his club.

Jake Niall is a Walkley award-winning sports journalist and chief AFL writer for The Age. He writes news, commentary and analysis on a variety of other sports.

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