POW! Just a year later he left the Giants in extraordinary circumstances and landed at the Bulldogs who, at the time, were in crisis. Having played just nine games in his debut season, he signed a long-term, multi-million-dollar deal.
BANG! The football world watched his every move on and off the field and the critique was harsh. WHACK!
Tom showed some signs, but it was patchy — often the way with 19-year-olds. The Bulldogs were winning, though. An unlikely finals appearance in 2015 was followed with a barnstorming run home the following year.
As the Bulldogs made a run at the premiership in that 2016 season, Tom put together a solid finals series before erupting on grand final day.
SMASH! Tom played the game of his life at the most critical moment in the club’s history; in the eyes of some, he was the best man on the ground that day.
BAM! And then the black dog got a hold of him. But had it been there the whole time? They say we all wear masks in life, and that’s certainly true in terms of a life in football. I’ve seen it with so many teammates and I’ve even worn a few myself.
When Tom arrived at the Kennel, I often wondered what was really going on behind the facade. Tom was clearly intelligent and he knew the right answers for the questions that had been coming his way since he was a young teenager playing for the Eastern Ranges, but there was also something rehearsed about his language. He was proud, maybe even a touch defensive, but I liked him right away.
I think life at the Bulldogs in those first couple of years was a big adjustment for Tom. His serious expression and reserved manner were at odds with a coach and playing group that were embracing a much more vulnerable state of mind. But over time, Tom thawed. He was embraced by the club and the locker room, but there were still a few bumps along the trail.
It’s hard to say whether his hefty contract was the cause of some tension at different times, but it would be naive to dismiss it completely. As captain at the time, I thought the group handled the circumstances as well as could have been hoped for.
We all knew that outside the four walls of the club, the commentary around Tom was constant – and a lot of the time, unfair. It was our job to defend him and protect him. I hope he feels like we did.
Over time, things started to change. Tom’s mask was different somehow. All league footballers carry a certain tension on their shoulders, but we all knew that Tom carried a different kind of weight on his. You don’t have to hear or read criticism directed at you to feel it. I’m sure Tom felt it.
If you’ve ever been humiliated publicly, you can spend a lot of time waiting for the next punch. The waiting might be worse than the hit itself. For a while Tom gave up with his mask as something much more sinister seemed to take hold. The only way I can describe it is to say that on some days, he had sad eyes.
It hardly came as a huge shock when he told the group that he was battling issues with mental illness. We rallied around him, as is the way with good football clubs. I know he felt supported. When I see Tom now, I’m impressed. He’s evolved from that young kid I met four years ago.
He doesn’t read from a script. He’s not a boy any more. He has been through a hell of a lot, more than we may ever know, but I feel like his best days are ahead of him. His story is spectacular in that Batman kind of way, but his bravery is more subtle and understated in person. Yet it’s undeniable.
Coming to the end of a footy career, I think most players reflect on certain things. When I thought of Tom this week I felt my mood turn from sad to something far more optimistic. He’s given the game everything he had and his peak was about as high as the game allows. He’s a Bulldog hero forever.
Tom Boyd can walk away from the game at 23 years of age with his head held high. A young man exhales. And in a way, maybe we do too.
Former Western Bulldogs captain and Age columnist