Initially, Roughead hesitated to raise it with others at the club for fear of being seen as holier-than-thou. It was why he thought twice about this story. For him, it was partly an academic exercise, partly spiritual.
He thought he might pique the curiosity of four or five at Collingwood, but immediately 45 messaged him. Some were players, some laid-off staff members keen to maintain a connection with the club. The group dynamic mattered. “It wasn’t about making huge financial sacrifices or enormous efforts,” Roughead said, “it was about acknowledging people for the small things they were doing anyway.”
Later, Roughead unpacked the exercise with star ruckman Brodie Grundy, a psychology student. “What we came to is, you can do it because you want to get the recognition and the reward, or as a completely selfless thing,” Roughead said. “You do it because it makes someone happier.
“Most people are doing things that could be construed as going the extra mile, but they hadn’t identified it, and certainly didn’t want to be recognised for it. I found that really interesting.”
Roughead is nearing the end of an idle time as a footballer, but you sense his mind rarely sits still. Asked for a recent club profile which three people he would invite to dinner, he said Donald Trump because “I want to see what’s going on inside that brain”, Michelle Obama for the “great tension” and Greta Thunberg because “she’s ticking my boxes right now”.
His wife is a classical singer now working behind the scenes at the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, a rare example of an artist who still has a job. The pair compare notes on their fields, both built around performance, both dependent on crowds, now lacking for both. “But we’re not crying poor,” he said.
Roughead is an ambassador for Stand Up, whose mission is to eradicate homophobia from sport. Unable to work in schools or footy clubs right now, the times are pinching the group hard, but have not dampened Roughead’s devotion. “I’m looking forward to playing a part to create a sporting world where everyone feels accepted and comfortable as themselves,” he said.
He is studying sports management. In 2018, he listened as Gold Coast Commonwealth Games chairman Peter Beattie spoke at the end of the Games and was inspired.
“I thought that’d be cool, to be involved in organising a global event staged in Australia,” he said. By our calculations, if Queensland secures the 2032 Olympics Games, Roughead will be 42, prime executive age.
For now, he’s with every other footballer, all on the bench together, waiting to get on. He says his attitude has fluctuated. “Early on, I struggled to get going with training,” he said. “It felt like the light at the end of the tunnel was so far away. I struggled to find a reason to get up in the morning.”
Some vigorous training sessions acted as a spur. Former basketballer and Magpie rookie Jack Magden was a willing pair. “The only unfortunate part for me, like all key-position players, is that our game revolves around physical contact, and obviously we haven’t been able to train that aspect.”
Roughead tells of experiencing so-called reverse culture shock. “There’s a bit of anxiety about returning to life as it was,” he said. “There’s probably 5 per cent of me in that mind frame. The other 95 per cent is looking forward to getting back to the footy club, and and back on the field.”
This hiatus has made Roughead sure of two things. One is the future. “Much as it’s made me realise how much I love playing football, it’s also strengthened my non-athlete identity,” he said. “It’s made me realise I’m going to be OK once I can’t play football any more.
“I’m going to transition into a life where hopefully I can still be involved in the cut-and-thrust of competition, but I won’t miss footy every single day of my life.”
The other is the here and now. The Bulldog premiership defender turned Magpie is aching for a game. “Bridge and I live just around the corner from the MCG. Two or three mornings a week, we take the dogs out and walk a lap of the ‘G,” he said.
“One day, I was looking through the gates, and you could see the turf, and I was thinking, ‘I cannot wait to be out there’. Obviously, I’d love for a crowd to be there, but whether there is or isn’t, I can’t wait.
“I can’t wait to have that feeling of not knowing as you walk up the race which way it’s going to go. But you know you’re working with 21 of your close mates, with a cause. I can’t wait.”
It’s not long now. When it comes, for all his wide world view, you can’t imagine Roughead performing a random act of kindness towards, say, Jack Riewoldt. In footy, charity begins at home, does a quick lap and ends there.
Greg Baum is chief sports columnist and associate editor with The Age.