Kuys playing for the Southern Saints in the VFLW. Source: St. Kilda

In the final part of our four-part series with Melissa Kuys, she talks about her new club Port Melbourne and never giving up her dream of AFLW.

Read Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3 of our series with Melissa Kuys.

Living her dream as a Pie and a Hawk, Kuys was flying high come the end of the 2018 AFLW season.

As she’ll tell you though, no dream lasts forever. A serious achilles injury at the back end of the VFLW season threw her career, and her life, into a sharp downward spiral.

Making it only harder was that this was the first time Kuys ever had to rehab a serious injury.

“I’d only done my shoulder prior to then, and I guess so many hard tackles as a kid meant I needed to get a clean up. That was the only injury I had prior to that, so it was tough,” she said.

“I didn’t know what being injured was like, I didn’t know what rehab was, I didn’t know how to say no.

“I was pretty determined to try and do as many shortcuts as I could to get back. Did everything that I needed to do rehab wise and more, but mentally it was a hurdle.”

Being unable to be on her feet for long periods of time, Kuys faced one of the toughest periods of her life as her injury affected her work as a chef. Recalling those months still makes her emotional.

“I didn’t work for four months. I got affected financially. The Hawks helped out at the time, they looked after me a little bit, but there’s only so much you can look after when you’re not working for four months,” she said.

Kuys would do everything she could to get back to playing AFLW footy. While she played two more games for Collingwood in 2019, she was delisted at the season’s end.

“I got pretty much verbally told I’d have a contract to play at Collingwood at the end of 2019, but there was nothing in writing,” she said.

“It was weird, I trained so hard to get back cause I had that feeling in the back of my mind. I was so determined to get back in 2018 and play, that I probably pushed myself too hard.

“My body wasn’t right to come back, but I did it anyway, and that blew my chances moving forward of getting a contract at the Pies. Looking back, I should have just taken that time and taken the contract, but what are you to know?

“It was tough hearing that I was going to get delisted. Knowing it, when I was cleaning my locker out, there was a feeling of ‘I might not be back.’

“I had close teammates that lent a shoulder and chatted to me at the time at Collingwood. Kristy Stratton, who’s still there now, Mikala Cann.

“There were players that reached out here and there, whether that was Hawthorn players or Collingwood players, but no one that was close who was also leaving.”

A chance given, a chance taken away

Under delisted free agency rules, Kuys was eligible to be picked up by any club post-draft for the 2020 season. After failing to be redrafted despite nominating, St. Kilda extended a lifeline.

“When I got the phone call from (St. Kilda list manager) Scott Whyte, hearing that I would be getting that one-year contract, it was relief,” she said.

“I thought there was a possibility that I may never play AFLW again, finishing a career with a snapped achilles and pushing myself to get back and then being underdone, it’s not the way you want to finish your career.

“It was a relief at the time, to get that contract and opportunity at St. Kilda, but obviously it didn’t pan out.”

Frustratingly, Kuys would fail to play a single game for the Saints in 2020, despite appearances for the Southern Saints in the VFLW in 2019.

“There was no real answer, unfortunately,” she said.

“They just kept saying that they wanted to play younger players, keep training hard, keep improving on your skills, keep putting yourself under pressure. You don’t know when your opportunity is going to come.

“That was pretty much the spiel I got most weeks, there was no real underlining answer, which was so frustrating. To play at the Pies and get so much opportunity, to then not get one.

“It felt like they gave me a box of chocolates and then took it away from me.”

St. Kilda would delist Kuys after just one season, though this has made her desire to return to the AFLW even stronger than it was before. After nominating for the 2020 AFLW draft and failing to get selected, her future remained uncertain.

Port Melbourne and beyond

It speaks to Kuys’ determination and resilience that despite her setbacks and delistings, she’s still pushing forward with one goal in mind: to play AFLW again.

Signing on with Port Melbourne is the next step in her already storied career.

“I was talking to Port for a while, and I was talking to Melbourne, trying to suss out my opportunities going forward,” she said.

“I didn’t want to go somewhere when there could have been a better opportunity elsewhere to get back and play AFLW, that’s my prolonged goal, to try and get back.

“I can always go back and play VFL footy and try and be successful there, but for now, trying to get back into the AFL is my primary goal. Port putting their hand up to say they’d put me on the Tigers train-on list was another lifeline.

“It’s an opportunity that I’m taking with both hands, and hopefully that might open up to something else whether it’s this year or next year.”

Thankfully for Kuys, it seems as though she’s landed in the right place.

“I can definitely feel the community, with what (senior coach) Lachie Harris is trying to implement and build, you can see it from the get go,” she said.

“There’s a lot of personality there, but there’s really good people and really good vibes. We’re trying to get united as quick as we can, popping into the season a little bit later than we’d like to and things are going really quick.”

Port Melbourne Football Club 2021 SIGNING: Former AFLW Utility Melissa Kuys  Joins the Borough - Port Melbourne Football Club
Kuys in her new colours. Source: Port Melbourne

Reflecting on her whirlwind career so far, Kuys’ internal goals for 2021 are more simple than one might expect.

“[My goal is] to enjoy footy again, and not put pressure on myself as hard,” she said.

“Putting pressure on yourself, it can only go one way or the other, there’s no in between. I just want to enjoy football, it’s a big reason why I started playing it, because I love it. AFL’s put a lot of pressure on me over the last few years, and I’ve had success, but I’ve had some disappointment as well.

“I want to get back to what I know and enjoy. There’s friendships around me, I’ve got a few Hawthorn girls that have moved to Port, there’s some familiarity there now. Yul Mustapha, he’s one of the assistant coaches there, he’s come from Hawthorn as well.

“It just gives me that feeling back like I’m playing at the Hawks, that’s where I most enjoyed my footy, under Paddy Hill. Familiarity, it’s good.

“I’ve only been at Port for three training sessions, but it’s a really good family club. They’ve been around for a long time, and they build really strong friendships and relationships and then succeed from there.

“That’s their DNA, and that’s what we’re trying to implement in the VFL program as well.”

Ultimately, it is that resilience that she’s forged throughout her career that Kuys would like to be remembered for when she inevitably retires.

“I’m proud of never giving up, even when people say, why do you play footy?,” she said.

“I’ve said no to multiple job opportunities at really good restaurants and wineries to be a really successful chef, and I’ve knocked them back to play footy because I love it that much.

“Sticking at it, and not listening to the outside noise when they say I’m wasting my time.

“Sticking to my guns and believing that I can play, and that the AFL was going to come around and I could hop on that boat. Even if I don’t get the opportunity again, I’m glad that I got what I got.

“I look at playing footy now, every single game, and I cherish it. You don’t know when your times done.”

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