“Those thoughts pop into your mind,” he said. “I try to dismiss them pretty quickly. I love footy. And I’m still young.”
The one thing he won’t countenance is to modify his style.
“I’m not going to change how I play,” he said. “I think that’s why I’m here. I’m not here to plod around. If I change how I play, I’m no good to the team. I’m dynamic. I’m a power athlete. That’s how I see myself.
“If I get rid of that, what sort of player am I?”
For four years, he was the baby-faced little guy with the big leap on Collingwood’s forward line, a star of the competition, and just in case you didn’t notice, a full suite of tattoos, too. Then back surgery put him out for all of 2016.
That was OK, he said. There was a beginning and an end, and besides, you don’t want to take chances with your back.
Early the next year, bending to pick up a ball one day at training, he hurt an ankle joint. Mid-year, in a game against Fremantle, it went again. He played the year out, getting jabbed every week and barely training, though still kicking 34 goals in 17 games. Post-season, he had an operation. “They took a fair bit out, put a wire in there, a couple of screws, stitched it up just to hold it together,” he said. He makes it sound like a burst and sewn-up beanbag.
Elliott eased into last season with a VFL game, but the next week at training, he pinged his hamstring. Then he did it again, and again. It puzzled him and everyone else. It was his right, kicking leg, not his left, jumping leg.
“When you think about a hamstring, sometimes it’s not just a hamstring,” he said. “It could come from anywhere. That’s the hard thing. Last year, we didn’t know where it was coming from.”
They still don’t. If his ankle was a beanbag, his hamstring had become like a vintage car, with the bonnet always up.
His frustration grew apace. After each setback, he did a customised mini pre-season, rebuilding strength and hope. “Getting that hope, coming back, playing a full game, or three quarters, or a quarter, or five minutes in one case, was really hard to deal with,” he said. “I’d do all this work, and then it was just thrown out in five minutes.” He did not get as far as the AFL.
Meantime, the Magpies romped through to the grand final and almost won it, bittersweet for Elliott. “You’re thinking: ‘how are you going to fit into that forward line?’,” he said. ” ‘The team’s going so well. Do they even need me?’ Those things creep into your mind.”
Emotionally, it took a toll. “When I look back, it’s a bit hazy,” he said. “That’s probably a good thing. I don’t want to reflect too much on it, because it was a pretty dark time.”
A small consolation was that Darcy Moore was going through similar hamstring hell, so each could share and halve their problems. At season’s end, that included a joint trip to a specialist in Germany.
Companionship helped him to maintain an even humour, then and now. “There’s worse things in life than doing a couple of hamstrings,” he said. “It’s footy. These things happen. If I sook about it all the time, it’ll get worse. Could I have done less? Could I have done more? It try to keep a positive mind, look forward instead of worrying about what’s happened.”
Back in the team at the start of this season, Elliott was hesitant in mind, but not in body.
“I’m a really competitive guy, and when I’m playing, I can’t really put a handbrake on,” he said. “I’d have like to ease myself in, but I don’t think that’s the way I am. If there’s a ball there, I’m just going to go for it, regardless.”
So he did, adding a dimension and excitement to Collingwood’s forward line, until two weeks ago.
“The past two months, I’ve felt really good,” he said. “I’m not really scared of it, but I think it’s always in the back of your mind. If you’re a bit tired, say, it’s definitely going to creep into your mind.”
Elliott says all he can do is what he is doing: prepare and recover thoroughly, work literally to lengthen his hamstring and strengthen the other muscles in his leg, listen to his body.
“If I feel my mechanics are out a little bit, make sure I clean that up,” he said. “If I need a rest, have a rest. If I have to miss two weeks, miss two week, instead of potentially missing four to six weeks.”
He says is not not unduly concerned about his latest twinge. It’s lower in the muscle than last year’s grouping. It stemmed from a seemingly innocent knock to the glute while playing Brisbane.
“I’m really sensitive to my body and how I’m moving, so I felt like that threw me out,” he said. He’s been told it’s more like a runner’s one-off injury than part of a chronic pattern. “I think it’s just a mechanical thing,” he said.
“I’m not really too worried about it.” Notwithstanding, it will probably sideline him until after the bye.
Elliott is a free agent at season’s end, but says will block that from his mind until then.
“I really don’t want to talk about my contract status,” he said. “I just want to play and enjoy my footy, and have no stress.”
That applies equally to his legs as his mind.
Greg Baum is chief sports columnist and associate editor with The Age.