When football gives Alex Johnson lemons … it just keeps giving him even more lemons.
Johnson’s return from five separate knee injuries over six years to play for the Sydney Swans was the feel-good story of the AFL season.
It lasted less than five quarters.
There was the dramatic two-point victory over Collingwood where Johnson’s unlikely presence seemed inspirational and the first quarter against Melbourne on Sunday during which his knee buckled as he chased Demons’ forward Jesse Hogan.
That was all football gave Alex Johnson for those long lonely hours in the gym, for all those setbacks, all that frustration, all those tears — five lousy quarters.
Not enough time for Johnson to get the answer to the question that must have teased, tantalised and inevitably driven him to make comeback after comeback, until only he really thought it was possible he would play another senior game.
Could Johnson again play with the freedom and dash last seen during the 2012 grand final when he was an integral part of the Swans’ premiership-winning defence?
What was left of that spirited 20-year-old who seemed to have the football world before him?
Instead Johnson was cruelly teased.
His AFL return provided only a tantalising taste of the game that has been taken from him before his body again betrayed him.
Before his much-heralded return Johnson had lived in the football shadows.
He was a name on an injury list, almost a rumour.
The source of occasional updates and, as his knee injuries went from unfortunate to the pages of surgical text books, some heart-warming stories of persistence against the odds.
But the latest instalment of Johnson’s story played out in full public view.
The injury from a typically innocuous-looking incident, the Lachman Test performed on the sidelines by the club doctor to determine if his anterior cruciate ligament was ruptured, the cameras trained on his tear-streaked face.
ABC Grandstand tweet: .@timmyhodges “I reckon it’s an ACL guys. He’s just crying. This is sad. The physio’s just given him a hug” on Alex Johnson’s injury. #AFLDeesSwans
And then after the quarter-time siren, an act that explained why Johnson had been given five chances to return to the fold, and — who knows — might even be given a sixth.
At that moment Johnson was fully entitled to keep his place on the bench and try to somehow reconcile his emotions.
Instead he got up and started encouraging the other players on the bench who had been trying to console him.
He limped to the huddle and continued to urge his teammates on.
After Johnson’s injury the Swans had looked flattened; shocked that a player who had been their spiritual 23rd man over the past six seasons was wounded again.
But surely Johnson’s self-sacrificing attitude lifted them.
Professional sport now treasures process and often consciously avoids emotion.
The coaches and sports scientists fear moments that fans view as inspirational might cause over-arousal or distraction to their finely tuned athletes.
But Johnson’s sad plight clearly played a part in the Swans’ desperate nine point victory, one made even more remarkable by the first-half hamstring injury suffered by fellow defender Nick Smith.
“His teammates are the ones who see him sweat and work hard for such a long time,” said Sydney coach John Longmire.
“We showed a form of that resilience tonight after quarter-time. A bit of that might have rubbed off and it needs to continue to rub off for the rest of the year.”
Before his terrible run of injury, Johnson played a key role in the Sydney Swans’ premiership in 2012. (AAP: Paul Miller)
Who knows, Johnson’s misfortune might provide the inspiration for a club that looked likely to miss the finals for the first time since 2009 just a week ago, to perform a September miracle.
Before the Collingwood game Lance Franklin looked lame, the injured Dan Hannaberry was reportedly on the trading block and the combined fatigue of countless epic battles seemed to have taken its toll on the Swans.
But the victories over Collingwood and Melbourne were straight out of the Bloods playbook.
A combination of the brilliance of Franklin’s goals and Isaac Heeney’s sky-scraping mark and the courage and determination symbolised by the bandage around Hannaberry’s bloodied head.
Swans midfielder Josh Kennedy said Longmire had addressed Johnson’s injury immediately after the game.
“We’ve got a choice now, we can walk out of here and feel sorry for ourselves, but AJ wouldn’t want that,” Longmire told his team.
“Or we can dig in and make the most of the rest of the season because there’s a lot to play for and I know Alex, and that’s what he’d want.”
Only Johnson will know if it was better to have worked for so long just to play those five quarters, only to have his “good” right knee collapse.
Right now there will be a hollow space that is difficult to fill.
But hopefully, in time, Johnson’s return will come to represent a monumental achievement in itself; the brief but wonderful culmination of years of faith, determination and trust.
What we do know is Johnson will still be there urging the Swans on as his teammates try to turn his lemons into lemonade.