Tom Boyd can still picture the moment vividly. He was sitting in his car waiting to go into a lecture at Victoria University in Melbourne’s inner west when he finally made up his mind. After years of sleepless nights, mental anguish and ferocious scrutiny, he was finally going to close the chapter on his AFL career and walk away from millions of dollars at just 23.
It was a decision that was years in the making, dating all the way back to his first season in the big time at Greater Western Sydney, even before he accepted that godfather offer from the Western Bulldogs as a fresh-faced 18-year-old.
Now he finally had the courage and the conviction to move on from something hundreds of thousands of young boys grow up dreaming of doing. He felt an overwhelming sense of relief sweep through his body as he grabbed his laptop and books out of the boot and headed into class, thinking about what life after football actually looked and felt like.
When you consider he was taken with the first pick in the draft, the fact he signed a seven-year deal worth $7 million and the integral role he played in ending a 62-year premiership drought at the Whitten Oval, it wasn’t like Boyd was going to transition back into anonymity and become like anyone else sitting in one of the half-full business classes he was walking into.
But now two years on from the moment he shocked the AFL world by retiring after just 61 games across five seasons at the highest level, Boyd has made a smooth transition into the corporate world and is at peace with a decision that drew the curtains on a career that was forensically examined on an almost daily basis.
The now 25-year-old – it is hard to believe he is only 25 given the column inches and hours of commentary he has generated in the past handful of years – is working in the wellbeing and mental health space and building a reputation as a must-get speaker for organisations who are trying to improve lives of their employees, particularly during a volatile time in Melbourne.
“It’s been a really interesting couple of years. It’s been a wonderful journey transitioning out of the game and moving into the corporate sector and working life as a whole. I do a lot of speaking in the wellbeing and mental health space, which I find enormously rewarding because it’s incredibly important. I’ve got a couple of podcasts that I do on the side and I’ve got a book coming out next year so I’m trying to keep as busy as I can be,” Boyd told Man of Style this week.
“I’m at peace with [the decision] in the sense that it’s important to remember why I made the decision that I did. In no small part you look back with rose tinted glasses and you remember the premiership and being selected with pick No. 1 and particularly in the process of writing this book and going through some of the really good times, you think it would be nice to be back there again, but obviously that’s not the full summary that I had. The challenges that I faced are very public, I also remember them just as distinctly. To be able to experience life as a civilian – as you put it – is a good experience for me and certainly where I want to be.”
When Boyd severed ties with the Western Bulldogs in May 2019, the key forward left $2 million on the table. He had already banked more than most players earn across their careers, but it was an enormous sum to sacrifice for a happier life. Make no mistake, that’s what he was doing.
The Western Bulldogs haven’t won a final since Boyd kicked three goals and hauled in eight towering marks against the Sydney Swans on that famous day five years ago. But right now, Luke Beveridge’s side is sitting on top of the ladder and are one of the favourites to go all the way this September. While others in his position might be watching on from afar with a tinge of envy and a sense of what if, Boyd doesn’t wish he was still the man deep inside 50.
“Whenever I do miss it just briefly, I get quickly reminded with the reality of how difficult the game is, whether that be just through the personal challenges of friends who are still playing the game. Watching football for some people from the stands seems easier but it’s never seemed easy for me since I finished. I just remember how difficult those games were,” he said.
“I miss some components; I miss being paid to run around and be fit with your mates all day, but I don’t miss the other challenges. I always felt for some reason that football was only part of who I was, so to be able to get out and explore exactly what the rest of that part of me is has been exactly the right decision for me.”
Standing just over two metres tall and blessed with Hollywood looks and a capacity to earn a truckload of money, Boyd’s struggles emphasise how mental health problems don’t discriminate. The Victorian’s battle first started before he’d played his first game for the Giants, in the months after he was salivated over by every club when he was taken with the first pick in the AFL Draft.
“My first issues with mental health generally were in the first three or four months after I moved to the Giants. I didn’t exactly understand what was going up at this stage, but I was really struggling with sleep, I had a lot of issues with anxiety and I was just starting to feel really uncomfortable,” he recalled.
“I did what a lot of young kids do in that situation and spend more time by themselves and withdraw. The overall experience was difficult. I was convinced that homesickness was the issue. I thought, if I’m homesick, let’s go back to Victoria.
“The difference early in my career was not so much, ‘Hey, I’m going to retire’, it was more, ‘I’m not sure this is for me’. I just couldn’t reconcile with the difference between everyone treating you differently based on your football as opposed to who you were as a person. I’m not saying that’s any different for anyone else but it was really difficult mentally for me to overcome.”
The major difference between his time at the AFL’s youngest franchise and the Western Bulldogs was the money. There is no escaping from that truth. From the moment the ink started drying on the whopping seven-year deal Boyd signed in October 2014, the pressure started mounting and the constant reminders of what he was being paid lurked around every corner in football-obsessed Melbourne.
“I’m very open with it. I speak about it publicly all the time because, even now, it is a crazy offer to receive. I was 18 years old and I’d played four or five games when I got it. it’s incomprehensible. The one thing that was really difficult to carry around wasn’t the number, it was just the sinister flavour that it carried with it,” he said.
“I really struggled through my AFL career with the issue that because if I played poor football on the weekend or I was getting paid this amount of money and I wasn’t living up to the expectation that it felt like people thought I was a really bad person.
“Through extensive therapy with my wonderful psych Lisa I’ve dealt with this conversation a thousand times. That was the biggest challenge: Tom’s not a person, Tom’s the footballer getting paid way too much money and he shouldn’t be. That vitriol surrounding that conversation was the hardest for me to deal with, keeping in mind that I was 18 years old when I basically had to start dealing with it.”
When you stop and put yourself in Boyd’s 18-year-old shoes, you quickly picture the degree of pressure he was under from the moment he walked into the Western Bulldogs.
To see the weight lifted off his shoulders and to understand the impact he is now having on plenty of people lives, particularly during a time when Melbournians have spent more than six months locked inside, is to fully understand why Boyd made the gutsy decision to walk away from football. This is his purpose now, and he is making a real difference.
Tom’s ASICS Sound Mind Sound Body Stories podcast episode is now available on all major podcasting platforms.