And yet there are about Deledio’s story elements of tragedy in the Shakespearean sense. At Richmond, he was the model footballer. Taken at No.1 in the draft in 2004, he scarcely missed a beat, playing minimally 18 matches a year for 11 years, winning two best and fairests and two All-Australian guernseys. Here was a player with whom the Tigers might leave behind their decades of under-achievement.
His dedication was exemplary. At his retirement media conference, he half-apologised to his wife, Kate, for asking her to cook the same pre-match meal every week. He also said he rang his father, Wayne, before every match for all those years. Dull as it might sound, preparation and routine is the answer to everything in footy. This week, Fremantle’s Nat Fyfe said it is what has won him two Brownlows.
But good as Deledio was, he was only one player, helpless to subvert Richmond’s forever fate. He did not play in a winning final with the Tigers, and when they slipped down the ladder again to 13th in 2016, and injury began to creep up, limiting him to just 11 games, he decided that he could not wait for them. He was rising 30. He looked elsewhere and largely through the agency of Wayne Campbell, his first captain at Richmond, now footy manager at GWS, he fetched up in the land of the Giants.
He had Richmond’s reserved blessing. Coach Damian Hardwick was not best pleased, but as he himself had moved clubs late in his playing career in search of a further premiership, he had no moral grounds to object. They shook on it over a beer. Deledio took to social media to thank Richmond fans effusively.
New colours could not disguise age-old reality. An accretion of injuries meant that Deledio did not get on the park until late in his first season and in all has played 32 of a possible 78 games since the end of his Richmond days. Karma? Physiology more like. Deledio’s chronic problem has been calf strains, the old athlete’s injury, recurring nearly 30 times.
It meant that he did not confront the Tigers for the first time until the 2017 preliminary final. Moreover, it was his 250th game. A milestone game, a big final, a look at a premiership; he had always imagined he would reach these thresholds with Richmond. It was always going to be a disorienting day. Try as he might, Deledio could not put it entirely to the back of his mind.
The Giants’ defeat proved haunting. “I remember as soon as the siren went, it hit me, just the enormity of everything,” Deledio said. “I was a bit of a mess.” On the bench during the last quarter, he choked back tears.
Richmond’s premiership a week later was harder still to assimilate. All his career, he had watched grand finals, for extra motivation, but this one would have killed him, and so he went to see the tigers at the zoo instead.
“I’d almost convinced myself it was too unfair for it to happen, for them to win it without me, given everything I’d gone and done,” he said. “For it to be the year [after leaving Richmond], I was like, ‘That can’t possibly happen’. I remember it just broke my heart.
Remembering the aftermath on Fox Sports’ AFL Tonight last year, he said: “It took me a couple of days for it to all sink in and obviously being up here in Sydney you don’t get bombarded with everything that’s going on, but I sent a text out to a lot of the boys to let them know how rapt I was for them.
“It was pretty warmly received by the boys and they understood the tricky situation I was in. But if I had my time again I probably would have been on the front foot a lot earlier to congratulate them, being a mate first rather worrying about everything else that was going on.”
That was one hard-to-swallow ending. Two years later, here’s another, barely more palatable. Then, the Giants didn’t quite get to the grand final. Now, they’re there, but he’s not. In August, he had announced his imminent retirement, and another calf strain in the Giants’ elimination final win over the Bulldogs seemed only to bring forward the date. His teammates carried him off that night.
As the Giants held off Collingwood in last Saturday’s preliminary final, he was with the non-participating players in the stands, next to Toby Greene, who he said was “carrying on like Peter Garrett”. “My heart’s never beat so hard,” he told RSN. When it was done, though, Deledio cut a lonely figure walking down the MCG players’ race, alone and in a suit, while his teammates rejoiced out on the ground.
Ahead of the Giants’ training on Wednesday, a flicker of hope remained in Deledio’s patched-up footy heart. “I’ll be burning around trying to enjoy my last ever training session, to be honest,” he said. “Whatever will be will be. I think I’d have to do something pretty special and kick six in a bit of matchplay, lay a few forward-50 tackles and pull up really well.” But in truth, he knew it was over. With all those calves, he was a likelier dairy farmer than grand final footballer.
The common factor in the Deledio saga is, of course, Richmond. For so long, it was his club. He is a life member there. From the last Richmond team he played in, 12 at least will be out there on Saturday. The Tigers nurtured his dream, then thwarted it. Now, win or lose, it will feel like they’re rubbing it in. Really, it’s just the fall of events, but who ever could convince themselves of that?
Greg Baum is chief sports columnist and associate editor with The Age.