Duffie's long road back to the NRL

Matt Duffie was ready to call it quits. It had all become too much.

Two knee reconstructions, three shoulder reconstructions, hamstring issues and no end in sight had left his NRL dream shattered.

It was a career that had begun with such promise, 30 tries in just 50 games, but the once emerging winger had now taken up permanent residency in the AAMI Park rehab room.

The constant rehabilitation, two and a half years worth, was beginning to take its toll.

"I never really deserved the privilege to play for Melbourne Storm," Duffie wrote on his personal website, as a way to express his feelings during his road to recovery.

His mental demons had consumed him to a point where he made the decision to seek professional help, a last resort to save a career that was falling apart before his very eyes.

"I probably wouldn't be sitting here unless I had gone out and sought that help, that was a big thing for me," Duffie said.

"Getting the head right is a massive, massive part of it. Go out there with the wrong mindset and it gets you into trouble.

"You really do need someone there by your side. I've never claimed I've done this whole thing by myself and I never will, there has been a whole heap of people who have helped me along the way. It would have been that step too far if I didn't have that support around me."

So one step at a time from that moment on is how Duffie has managed to keep moving forward and in Round 20 this season against the Dragons, the feel-good story of this NRL season had arrived. 

Matt Duffie returned to the field as an NRL player, no less than 847 days after his last first grade appearance.

Now a month on and with four games under his belt Duffie fronted the media to reflect on the journey.

He began by asking if it was OK if he read a few words he had prepared. He wanted to thank everyone who had played a part in in his life over the last two and a half torturous years.

On the eve of the 2013 season Duffie was a star on the rise, he was already a Kiwi international by the age of 21. Looking back he now admits that his younger self had a touch of arrogance about him, a kid who was taking for granted all that had come to him in such a short space of time.

However it was at that moment where life changed dramatically for the 21-year-old.

It all started with what he calls "a slight hammy twinge" in a trail match against Canberra, nothing major but bad enough to keep him from joining his teammates for the World Club Challenge game in England that following week.

Then a month later his shoulder popped, again a slight speed hump but nothing too disastrous.

Then eight weeks later his knee went, a ruptured ACL. Back-to-back surgeries followed leaving his arm in a sling and a leg in plaster. How quickly things had changed.

Luckily the wonders of youth saw him shrug it off as a setback. He worked his way back in time to play in the inaugural Auckland Nines competition before the 2014 season.

 

But that is where this story takes a cruel and devastating turn. One week after the tournament, the same knee gave way again.

"It was in the very last play of training and to be honest where I was on the field I probably shouldn't have been there," Duffie said.

"It was just me being excited about being back out on the field."

A career that seemed headed for the stratosphere now looked as though it would pass by barely a blip on the radar. 

A shattered Duffie went outside of the club to seek advice from three different surgeons. It was here that he crossed paths with Dr. David Young who proposed the rarely adopted practice of using the winger's quad tendon to strengthen the knee. What did he have to lose?

Another surgery meant more time sitting at home on the couch with just Netflix to keep him company (House of Cards his preferred viewing choice).

Then came his first attempt at running and it was there, outside the oval that sits opposite AAMI Park, that a sense of doubt began to creep in.

"That was one of those days when I thought no chance (of getting back), absolutely no chance," Duffie said. 

"It was like I'd never run before. It was the weirdest feeling because I'd just been off my legs for nine months or something. That was one of those days when I thought, 'this might not happen.'"

It was soon after that moment that Duffie found strength to ask for help, the type that would see him recover both physically and mentally.

After the 2014 season the Storm granted him a one-year contract extension, or a "lifeline" as he prefers to call it and one he remains sincerely thankful for.

That piece of mind steadied his ship and just after Christmas last year he had another crack at running. All went well this time around and things progressed to the point where he returned to the playing field in late March for Easts Tigers in the Queensland Cup.

After slowly rediscovering is form, Duffie was named as Storm's 18th man for several weeks before being named in the Round 20 side, fittingly allowing him to make his return in his home country in Napier, New Zealand.

A month on and Duffie, who just turned 25 on Sunday, has scored two tries in each of his last two games. 

While his remarkable return has Storm fans buzzing he knows it will be some time before people begin to see him as something more than just the NRL's comeback kid.

"Every time I limp out of a tackle or get a knock or get cramp I feel everyone's energy saying 'No, not again!' That is going to linger around for a while and that is fair enough," Duffie said.

"If you google my name the first bloody 10 entries are injury this, injury that, that is for me to change."

Given everything he has been through to this point, Duffie is more than capable of returning to his best, and will have the entire rugby league community there to cheer him on.

Video first featured at melbournestorm.com.au