Fitzy opens up on gambling, hitting rock bottom
IT CAN be easy to forget Ryan "Fitzy" Fitzgerald was once an AFL player.
That's not meant to be a slight on his time in footy, just a reflection on the hugely successful career he's carved out for himself since he hung up the boots.
But behind the infectious laughter of one of Australia's most popular media personalities - who co-hosts Nova FM's breakfast radio show Fitzy and Wippa and is a regular on panel TV shows - lies the sombre reality that he was never able to truly fulfil his AFL ambition.
And when that dream was shattered, he hit his lowest point.
Fitzy played 18 games for Sydney and Adelaide in four years but injuries prevented him from adding to that tally. After being drafted to the Swans he kicked five goals on his senior debut but two shoulder reconstructions, groin operations as a result of osteitis pubis and serious knee injuries - the second coming while he was with the Crows - brought a premature end to a promising career.
Speaking on an episode of Fox Footy's Bob - with Western Bulldogs legend Bob Murphy - Fitzy revealed he had no idea what the plan was for life after footy. All he wanted to do was kick a Sherrin and "play 200 games and play for the next 10 years".
When that was taken away from him, he had no career prospects and no money - mainly because he'd gambled a lot of his earnings away while trying to fit in with the culture that was around in the early 2000s.
"Those four years that I had in the AFL, I punted a lot of my money up the wall," Fitzgerald told Murphy.
"My old man was devastated by that, because he hates gambling.
"It was the environment. Back in those days, there was a lot of down time between training sessions and in the Swans, (the) majority of blokes would go down the pub and just have a punt.
"For me, it was you get to hang out with some of these senior blokes going, 'This is amazing.'"
He had mortgage to pay but no way to pay it and that's when he hit rock bottom, bringing his mum to tears with the revelation of just how desperate he was getting.
"I left AFL with a mortgage, I had a house, I even got to the point where I pulled mum aside one day - it was full on - I said to mum, 'I'm struggling to pay the mortgage,'" Fitzgerald said.
"(I told mum) I'm going to get some of my mates just to start friggin' growing weed for me, just to get by.
"Mum broke down and I remember I grabbed her hand and I was just shattered and I said, 'I'm so sorry.'"
Fitzgerald did his knee again playing club footy in South Australia and has a friend to thank for starting him on the journey that turned his life around.
"I felt like I needed to get justification for her (mum), I was desperate," he said.
"I did my knee again when I went back to South Adelaide and I was halfway through my rehab again coming back from my third knee reco and my mate said to me, 'Why don't you try out for Big Brother, that reality show?'"
He did, and his popularity on screen as a knockabout larrikin kickstarted his rise to fame that has since made him a household name.
While Fitzgerald only ever wanted to play AFL, his ride to the top flight was bumpy even without the injuries. As part of an hour-long discussion about his career on the JunkTime AFL Podcast last month, he recounted the bad taste left in his mouth by Sydney coach Rodney Eade's attack after his very first game in the reserves.
Fitzgerald lined up for his first game in Swans colours in a Twos match at the SCG in 1999 and his father came all the way from Adelaide to watch. Coming from a country footy background, his old man jumped the fence to join the team for its chat ahead of the final quarter then after the Swans won a tight contest, he came down and sung the team song with the players.
But the thrill of sharing such a raw, emotional moment with his father - who Fitzgerald says wanted nothing more than to see him succeed at football - was ruined when Eade approached him in the changerooms before training the following week.
"He just started having a crack at me: 'Your old man going to rock up this week and make a fool of himself?'" Fitzgerald recalled.
"I turned around and said, 'What?' and I could hear a bit of sniggering from the boys. He said, 'You know, trying to get on the oval and now he's getting involved with the song, is he going to rock up and make a fool of himself?'
"I said, 'He's just watching his son play.' I was a bit cut up by that, it shattered me a bit. It was a bit personal. And I thought for a club that prides themselves on family and looking after the families as much as the players, I think he just f***ed up a little bit there. It may have been his style of humour but that really cut me."