IT WAS January 2011 and a disheartened Luke Breust left his family holiday in Kiama in tears as he set off to return to Melbourne for Hawthorn's pre-season training.
The Temora product was in the middle of his third pre-season at the Hawks and a combination of a tough year just gone and a serious bout of osteitis pubis had him doubting his ability to crack the AFL.
"There was a tipping point at the end of my second year," Breust told The Daily Advertiser this week.
"I played some really strong footy at the start of my second year and still didn't get a look in. I played in a state game for Victoria against WA over there in the middle of the year and then my form started to drop off in the back half of the year so I wasn't really even getting mentioned for selection or anything.
"Then the old groins, or OP, reared its head so I genuinely had to sit down and have a think if it was for me and if I wanted to continue to pursue it.
"I'd saved $10,000 in my first year and then in my second year, I spent that $10,000 and I was borrowing another $10,000 off Mum and Dad and I was just like, I'm working my absolute butt off and I'm genuinely going backwards and Mum and Dad would do anything for me to keep me in a position to stay down here but I was like, it is worth it? That's what was so hard for me.
"You'd go home, have a few weeks break and for me it was this slow grind of rehab and trying to get my groins and hips right to then even just to be able to start to train, so it was hard yards.
"My family goes on a family holiday every year to Kiama and I always go down for a couple of days but I always have to go back to training early January and I remember crying leaving Kiama because probably, one, the uncertainty of where I was at in my career and, two, I was probably a little bit homesick by then and I just didn't have that genuine belief that I could make it."
Some 11 and a half years later and Breust will run out for his 250th AFL game on Sunday when Hawthorn take on Collingwood at the MCG.
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Breust will go down as one of the most accomplished small forwards in AFL history.
A two-time All Australian and three-time Hawthorn premiership player, Breust has 460 goals to his name from his 249 appearances.
But those close to Breust know, his journey to AFL level was not easy.
With his short career at the crossroads in early 2011, Breust admits it could have gone either way.
"I think you get back into the club environment, in terms of the support around you, just an elite environment where everyone's pushing to be the best that they can and something obviously clicked," he recalls.
"I attacked my rehab. I was pretty much doing three or four 1'kers every Monday for that whole pre-season.
"I couldn't change direction, I couldn't run, I couldn't join in skills. I couldn't do anything like that. It was all straight line running to give my groins a chance to recover and get the strength back in them to the point I could kick a footy again. So that was a huge turning point for me.
"I think I went, this is the start of my third year, I'm back in the Box Hill twos, so I'm in twos' twos, so I'm just like, I'm gone, you're a third year player and you're back in the twos' twos, what's going on here. This is not good.
"So I played one game in the twos' twos, played really well, the following week I played VFL, I played a strong game again, I kicked a couple and thought I'm a chance now to start to really build some form and maybe give this a shot to crack into the side to keep my AFL dream alive.
"The following week was a bye and I went to the Wagga Gold Cup with (Matt Suckling), we had a few beers at the Wagga Gold Cup and then the next Thursday, Clarko calls me and tells me I'm making my AFL debut.
"So within a month of footy, I went from twos twos to VFL, to AFL debut. Just crazy thinking back now.
"Fortunately for me, I took my chance. I was the sub obviously for a few games and solidified my spot in the side after that and played a really important role for the next 10 or 11 years.
"I'm so lucky. I could have very easily played 250 games for Temora to be honest, that's the way it could have been. That's how quickly it could have gone."
Breust and teammate Liam Shiels will join Hawthorn's 250 club on Sunday. Only 15 players have managed to do that before them in the club's history and they join the likes of Michael Tuck, Leigh Matthews, Jason Dunstall and Don Scott to have done so.
The significance of the occasion hit home for Breust this week when he appeared on Fox Footy program AFL 360.
"The scariest thing for me was we went on AFL 360 (Tuesday night) and Gerard (Whateley) read out the names of the Hawthorn guys who had played 250," he said.
"I think there is 15 before Liam and I this weekend so we'll be number 16 and 17. I think that's out of roughly 980-odd players so you're talking one and a half per cent really that players that make it there.
"The thing that scared me the most was just the calibre of players who were on the list. Right at this point in time, I shiver, I don't feel as though I should sit alongside those kind of names, obviously looking back in a few years time I'll absolutely cherish it but at the moment, you're still in that very much pinch yourself kind of moment."
Breust has earned himself the reputation as one of the most decorated small forwards in the AFL. So much so, that Greater Western Sydney (GWS) came hard for the 31-year-old at the end of last season.
It was Breust's loyalty and desire to be a one-club player that saw him knock back the lucrative offer.
"I'm obviously a pretty loyal man so it's hard. With last year it got real, to be honest, it got fairly close," Breust revealed.
"The Giants offered me four years and what not, and I'm not even sure I want to be playing in four years when I'm 35 so that was tough.
"I knew this year was going to be around that 250 (game) mark so it does weigh on you, big life decisions you have to make within 24 to 48 hours, it's hard.
"I'm contracted for next year, regardless of what happens at the end of the year, to be able to hopefully play out my career as a one-club player and finish my career at Hawthorn, they've obviously given me so much so to be able to give back to them has been pretty special.
"I've made my contribution to the footy club and hopefully the accolades and that stack up post career."
Breust plans to play on in 2023 and see out his current contract at least.
"The body's holding up fairly well at the moment. There is a few niggles here and there and a bit of pre-hab so you've just got to manage and stay on top of as you get older," he said.
"I probably credit being able to play 250 to having been diligent with recovery, massage physio, doing all those little things that I know get my body into a position where I can play at a high level each weekend.
"I probably don't want to go to the wire. I'll still see out the contract for sure, I'll be 33 at the end of next year, if I could get to the end of next year and still hold my position in the side, be still playing regular AFL footy then I'd be getting close to calling it.
"It will probably just depend at that time around how I'm going, if the club is starting to challenge for finals again then do you try to continue to stick around if you are playing your role for the side. There will be things that come into play at the time but at this stage, definitely play out the contract."
A large contingent of family and friends will make the trip from Temora to the MCG on Sunday for the big occasion.
It means the world to Breust for those people to be present given the role his family has played in making him the footballer, and person, he is.
"It means the absolute world. Anthea, my wife, who has been with me the whole journey. First and foremost, I probably wouldn't have had the career I've had without her," he said.
"Then you go to Mum and Dad and the extended family. Hopefully I'll have my five little nieces in the guard of honour for the weekend as well so that will be a special moment to run out and give them a hug and go through the banner after that.
"The hours Mum and Dad put in, even when I was playing for Box Hill, they would leave Sunday morning at 6am and get to Box Hill at midday, watch me play at 2pm, we'd go for a quick feed and then they'd hit the road at 7 o'clock and get home at 1 or 2 in the morning. That's genuine commitment to what your son's doing.
"There's times where, especially in those first few years, where you are homesick so if they don't come down, who knows, It's huge. Even my brother and sister, Mark and Bec, obviously COVID's changed it a little bit, but before that they were getting to multiple games every year.
"Just that, I could see them before the season would start, they would come down two, three, four times for the year, so you're seeing them every four or five weeks really, and then I go home during the off-season and then I'm back there at Christmas so the time between visits is not that long so being able to keep that connection and just help with everything and the support around you is just phenomenal.
"You enjoy the highs, obviously with flags, we've had some amazing memories with the family at Crown, we still joke to this day about going out to all hours, nightclubs and all this sort of stuff so such good memories to fall back on when we get older. I can't thank them enough."
Breust would love nothing more than to celebrate the occasion with a win, but either way, he is forever grateful for all of his AFL experiences.
"To be honest, from 2009 I had three one-year contracts so I was absolutely stoked to play one AFL game, or play a handful," he said.
"People tell you all of the time, embrace it, enjoy it because it will be over before you know it and you're like, no it won't, I've got 10 years of this and it's so true. I'm year 14 this year, 250 games, it's been one hell of a journey and I've been so fortunate and grateful to go to a good club like Hawthorn."
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