On the field Archie Smith plays with aggression. It’s something he prides himself on and at two metres tall, the Brisbane Lions ruckman makes for an imposing presence.
But off the field he was struggling as mental ill health and family tragedy weighed him down. He’s speaking for the first time about his journey in an effort to help others.
“My main message is hope.” He said.
“There is evidence that you can come out of what you’re feeling and lead happy full lives.”
Sitting in the grandstands of the Gabba, an emotional Smith talks about the moment his life changed forever.
It came last year at a night he should remember as a high point – announcing his engagement to long term partner Sophie. Instead it will always be the last time he saw his younger brother Sebastian.
Two days after the party Sebastian took his own life.
“You know the last words I said to him was that I loved him and I got to hug him and tell him that I was really proud of him,” Smith recalled.
Smith is one of six children – his older sister Gemma, younger brothers Isaac and Abib and younger sister Violet – but he and Sebastian were inseparable.
The 20-year-old had been dealing with depression for a while – struggling with the transition into adulthood.
“My little brother’s biggest problem was that he felt like he was a liability or a burden to the rest of us when we didn’t see it that way,” Smith said.
“He’d convinced himself that because he was struggling so much that he was everyone else’s problem.”
In retrospect Smith admits he returned to training too quickly after his brother’s funeral. Even good times became painful.
“It’s pretty easy to feel guilty sometimes that you’re having fun,” he said. “I’d be running around with the boys laughing, cheering and having fun and then I’d go ‘wait a minute, I’ve just lost my brother’.”
Caught up in the macho culture of professional sport Smith thought he could conquer grief through sheer force of will but his own mental health took a battering in the process.
“What I was doing was bottling it up,” he said.
“I wasn’t really performing to the level I expected of myself or the club expected of me because I wasn’t sleeping, recovering poorly, barely eating and eventually I crashed.”
A basketball convert, Smith’s AFL career has been stop-start – having managed just 15 games since his 2016 debut. Injury plagued he was also stuck behind Stefan Martin and now Oscar McInerney in the ruck pecking order at the Lions.
When he broke down physically again in the pre-season it was clear something had to be done. The Lions granted Smith leave so he could rest and recover from Achilles and shoulder injuries at the beach.
“In pre-season it’s super competitive and I’m trying to do the best I can and train the best I can and put my name forward and so is everyone else,” he said.
“It’s such a heated environment and if your mind is not in it you can fall off really quick so that trip to the coast really let me reset.”
Two weeks on the Gold Coast gave him a rare chance to sit down and remember his brother. He turned his own grief into words.
With the help of Headspace those words have now been turned into a video released on the Lions website. It was an emotional, cathartic experience for Smith.
“It took a few takes, I will say that,” Smith said. “It’s very different from writing something down into saying it out loud.”
Archie has now returned to the Lions and is back training and playing in the VFL and last month he took part in the push up challenge to raise awareness of mental health.
It involved 3,318 push ups in 25 days. The amount each day linked to statistics about mental health and suicide.
“Every single rep I thought of him, I really did and it made it so much easier,” he said.
“Trying to play games of footy and training in between doing a thousand a week was pretty tough though.”
Others joined in including teammates at the Lions as well as students at St Laurence’s College in Brisbane where Archie and Sebastian went to school. Hundreds of kids turning out on the first day of the challenge.
“I was looking around at little kids and I just saw him (Sebastian) and it was so special,” he said. “I was crying happy tears for the first time in months.”
Archie admits there were times when he questioned whether he wanted to keep playing football but his brother’s memory has kept him going.
“Because I know what he’d be thinking up there and he’d be incredibly disappointed if I gave this all up,” he said.
Smith now writes Sebastian’s name on his wrist before every game.
If you or anyone you know needs immediate support, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or via lifeline.org.au. In an emergency, call 000.
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