In his 200th, and last, AFL game there is something Justin Koschitzke hopes to do just one more time. His eyes twinkle and his voice changes when he describes it. This is a wish about footy at its purest.
"It's never worried me who kicked the goals; that's not the great moment,” Koschitzke says.
“The really great moment for me is just lying on the ground with the ball in your hands and people spread everywhere. That is the best feeling I've had on a footy ground.”
If only the past 13 years had been so simple for this richly talented but regularly star-crossed Saint. Even now, Koschitzke becomes uneasy contemplating what might have been if he'd only been so lucky.
Sitting in the backyard of his new bayside home this week, Koschitzke makes it clear he doesn't want his career hitches – in brief, regular injury and sporadic calamity – to overshadow the highs for which he says he'll be eternally grateful. But appreciation of his football story, a tale of true resilience, requires the telling of both. And even he can't help but go there.
Koschitzke's mid-match clash with Western Bulldog Daniel Giansiracusa, in May 2006, was not merely a defining episode in the journey of a young footballer. It took a toll, still largely untold, on his life.
Entirely unprepared for the human force that hit him that day in a moment of fair but unfortunate play, Koschitzke, then 23, was left with a fractured skull. The AFL's best young player in 2001 subsequently battled impaired hearing and warped balance. Koschitzke was unable to drive for a period and also fainted, infamously, in a live television interview during his rehabilitation.
Before a last hurrah that he wants to be an unbridled celebration – “a St Kilda day” is how the giant who arrived at Moorabbin aged 18 terms it – Koschitzke, now a 30-year-old husband and father, sets boundaries about reflecting on that time. But his response to the question, “How long did it take you to get over it?” says plenty.
“I probably don't think I am yet,” he says, with lowered voice and eyes.
“I don't know how to explain it. I've definitely improved, but I don't think I have gotten fully over it.
“Footy definitely changed for me then. It was a mistake I made on a footy ground and it cost me dearly. I just didn't see him coming … and there's been some horrendous low times from that.”
In retrospect, returning in a helmet for the last five matches of the 2006 season was the worst thing Koschitzke believes he could have done - “the two hours of being on the ground were the worst two hours of my week”. At the end of 2006, he threw the helmet he so resented into Albert Park Lake, but didn't entirely dispense with his demons. Koschitzke presents as laidback and carefree, but describes his football psyche as “intense and highly strung”. The second pick of the 2000 draft behind Nick Riewoldt, expectation was heaped on him from his first outstanding season.
“You always get asked at footy clinics, who is your toughest opponent? No doubt my toughest opponent has been myself,” he says, now chuckling at himself.
“I remember sitting in school, looking at the clock at 3 on a Friday afternoon thinking I wish it was 3.30 so I could go home and polish my boots before footy the next day. But I struggled with the transition of it being something you did with your mates – a hobby and something you enjoyed – to being every single day and your whole life revolving around the preparation.
“I learnt not to listen to other people, but I was internally expecting more than I delivered. All the time.”
Koschitzke's rare endurance is underlined by a reflection that, at the end of 2006 after Grant Thomas was sacked, he viewed himself as a “shot footballer … wrecked”.
Koschitzke credits Ross Lyon who, in sweet symmetry, will be involved in his farewell albeit in the rival camp, with “reinventing me”. Between 2008 and 2010 St Kilda played in three preliminary finals and three grand finals.
Koschitzke played 66 games in the period, including each of the Saints' 10 finals.
“It was through conversations, it was through taking the time, and showing me the belief,” he says of Lyon's special effort with him.
“I don't think I've ever really felt like I belonged on a footy ground. Not 100 per cent. But Ross believed in me, he showed me unbending faith, even when I was playing with injuries and my form was down. Publicly he backed me up, and behind closed doors he backed me up even better.”
Behind the scenes, Koschitzke's last AFL coach, Scott Watters, has helped orchestrate a fitting send-off for a much-loved St Kilda player throughout this year.
Now liberated to divulge secrets he'd been guarding, Koschitzke says the pair actually resolved he'd play his last senior match mid-season – either against Carlton in round 16, or Port Adelaide the next week – but then he pinged a calf at his next training session.
Watters, however, made it clear Koschitzke should rehabilitate properly and attempt a second resurrection. Eight weeks later, Koschitzke says he is fit enough to play a game but is under no illusions about how it will leave him – “I expect to be gassed at the end of it!” he laughs.
With fellow round-23 retirees, Jason Blake and Stephen Milne, he addressed his teammates on Wednesday. Though mindful not to adopt his “intense and highly strung” alter ego, Koschitzke encouraged his younger teammates to look for perspective in their lives and enjoy what they've got. He says he held it together at the time but then broke down while driving home.
Does he retire happy with his career? Koschitzke's answer is multifaceted.
“If I was a kid growing up and someone said you'd play 200 games of AFL footy and play in a good side and meet all these people, I'd say absolutely,” he says.
“But there's something that feels very empty about it. I think a lot of that is about losing the grand finals, and a few of the things you wish you could have done better and looked at differently.
“But I am happy. There is no doubt in my mind that footy, and doing this for so long, has made me a better and more resilient person.”
Asked what he'll miss, Koschitzke reflects fondly on a match-day routine he has maintained for five years with teammate Adam Schneider, who also plays his 200th game on Saturday.
“Schneids will pick me up at 8 o'clock and we'll go and have bacon and eggs,” Koschitzke says.
“Then we'll go to Sandringham and dive in the water, we make each other do three duck dives in the water because it just wakes us up.
“I said to him the other day – 'it's the last game, I'm not doing it'. He said 'bullshit, you are. You're coming'. I said 'fair enough'.”
Once officially checked out as an AFL footballer, Koschitzke wants to stay involved at St Kilda in some fashion. Perhaps through club functions, or even player mentoring. He is also weighing up a sales role with a commercial vehicle company, and intends playing some bush footy “to enjoy footy at its purest”.
“I want to smell the Deep Heat, smell the country grass and not do a stinking ice bath or a stretch,” he says.
“I'd just like to sit there in my footy jumper, have a beer, have a shower and then go home and forget about it.”
Koschitzke looks forward to visiting his country home, Brocklesby, NSW, with wife Alicia and their two kids Jack and Ava. A piece of machinery that's been locked away in the shed is also due for a dusting down.
“I've got a dirt bike that I just can't wait to flog the shit out of,” Koschitzke says.
“I want to feel the adrenalin of just going really hard and not caring if I fall off it or not.”
Sooner rather than later, Koschitzke hopes he can watch an AFL match in a way that he hasn't for years.
“I hope I can just go back and barrack. For the Saints,” he says.
“I want to sit up there in the stands and love it. Love the game that I grew up loving.”