It wouldn’t be the regular build-up to a grand final without a race against time injury story to keep track of. It’s a week that Dr. Harry Unglik knows the stresses of all too well.
While there is an additional week this year to ensure all players are cherry ripe, the focus is still on Joel Smith Steven May and Charlie Spargo from Melbourne, and Laitham Vandermeer and Alex Keath from the Western Bulldogs.
In 1999, it was North Melbourne star Anthony Stevens who was racing the clock after tearing several ligaments and suffering a hairline fracture in his ankle in the early stages of the preliminary final against the Brisbane Lions.
Dr. Harry Unglik, the Kangaroos doctor at the time was faced with the task of determining whether or not the gritty midfielder would be any chance to take the field in the grand final the following week against Carlton.
He recounted to The Inner Sanctum about the week spent managing Stevens’ recovery, enabling him to get up for the big day.
The race to the line:
Once Stevens sustained the injury, Unglik knew it was serious and would take a big effort to get him up for the grand final the following week.
“It was a significant injury. He actually tore ligaments and also had a very, very fine hairline fracture in one of the bones,” he said, recounting the moment Stevens hurt himself in the preliminary final.
“We basically took him straight from the ground, to having x-rays and scans and etc. And we made our diagnosis.”
There and then, Unglik thought this injury would sideline most players in the game, not only for the biggest game in the year but for a lengthy period of time. But Unglik knew that Stevens, unlike any ordinary player, had a layer of ultra-thick skin and was a fighter.
There are players you rule out there and then and there are players that you take the risk on. And Unglik knew that in the art of sports medicine, Anthony Stevens was one of those players.
“You’ve got to know your player and that’s part of the art of sports medicine. It’s 70% of science and 30% art and the art is, knowing your player, knowing the ones you can take the risk with.
“Would Anthony Stevens, for example, if he’s getting beaten, put his hand up and say, you know, I’m injured, I’ve got to come off, I can’t handle this. No, he wouldn’t. You know, there are players who might use an injury as an excuse, but he would never do that.”
With the famous line from coach Denis Pagan ringing through to both Stevens and Unglik, saying that if he could train for 10 minutes he would be selected to play, the work to get him up began. Intense physiotherapy several times a day, morning beach sessions. Between treatments, Stevens used crutches to get around and he spent as much time as could on his couch with his foot immobilized.
“He started having intensive physiotherapy, right, from the start. Every day, we took him down to the beach, and he walked in the water, in the cold water just, just up to his knees to get his muscles active and because the sand gives away in all different directions, so it’s a good balance and, and also, it’s freezing cold,” Unglik said.
By Thursday, most of the swelling had gone down and with the help of a local anaesthetic and some tight strapping, Stevens trained for just enough time to get picked to face the Blues.
Game day drama:
At quarter-time, it was as if there wasn’t any midweek injury drama to speak of at all. North Melbourne was leading at the first break as they did all day and Anthony Stevens was running riot in the midfield.
“On the day, he went out and in the first quarter, he had 11 possessions. He was just amazing. You know, you wouldn’t have known that he had an ankle injury,” he said.
“The swelling had gone down significantly because of the way we treated it during the week. And he was just really amazing.”
But just as things were looking as if they were paying off, more drama would ensure. After attempting a tackle in the early stages of the second quarter, Stevens would be assisted from the field and see limited action as the day wore on.
“Five minutes into the second quarter, he came off the ground. And I got a phone call. ‘Put Harry on,’ Denis Pagan is screaming at the end of the phone.
“’We should never have played him, you guys have f***ing conned me. We should never have done this. I should never have gone with him,’ et cetera. He was really upset.
“I waited till he finished his tirade. And when he finished I said, ‘Denis, it’s not his ankle’, and there was this dead silence at the end of the phone. And he said, ‘What is it?’ and I said, ‘He’s actually torn the pec off is in his chest.’ He laid a tackle on one of the Carlton footballers, I can’t remember who it was. But it pulled his pec muscle off his bone.
“So we took him down and strapped him up and tried to immobilize as best we could, and he went back out, but he just couldn’t play.
“That was the end of his game, but we won the premiership anyhow. So it ended up being the right decision and history, as it is, he’s got a medal around his neck, and he is forever grateful.”
Unglik reflects on three memorable medical moments throughout his time in the AFL as his favourite moments throughout his time in the game. Working at North Melbourne during that magnificent era, there was no shortage of superstars that Unglik had the pleasure of working closely with and ensuring they were in tip-top shape to take the field.
“I have three great medical moments in AFL football in finals.
“Anthony Stevens with his ankle…There was Corey McKernan, who ruptured his posterior cruciate in the last five minutes of a preliminary final. And we had to get him up to the grand final and that was a great, great success.
“And the third one was Wayne Carey, who had a torn calf. And we were playing Collingwood and we had to win the game to stay in the finals. I had to make a decision whether to play him or not. And he played and he was just, he was really quiet and then in five minutes he turned the game and we won.”
A photo hangs on the wall of Unglik’s surgery in Melbourne’s CBD. Taken after the grand final, it features Stevens, wearing his premiership medal, giving Unglik a kiss on the cheek. It’s a prized possession of Unglik’s seminal moments throughout his time in the game and career in sports medicine.
Unglik, who still works in sports medicine today, says while technology and medicine has improved, the art of knowing your patient is still just as relevant when it comes to making calculated decisions and risk-taking today. Particularly in an industry like the AFL, where needing to make snap decisions on game-day is akin to “Practicing medicine in the trenches, war without weapons.”
“You have to make decisions that are in the best interests of the player’s welfare again, and in the best interests of the team. So it’s quite a different environment.”
“He’s [Stevens] still a very good friend of mine. And, you know, we talk often and he’s still a patient of mine. He recovered really well from it.”