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Sacrifices, privilege and life in the spotlight: What is it like to be the partner of an AFL player?

Each year, thousands of photos are taken to immortalise a team’s premiership win . The celebrations, the families, after parties and maddest of Mondays.

But behind all of that, says Emma Hawkins, are many hands that helped make it all happen – and not pictured are the sacrifices that go beyond those made on the field.

“If you could have seen the back end of the beautiful photos and videos that were shared, there were a lot of tired mums with lollipops and bags and feeding on the side and tag-teaming kids,” said Hawkins, wife of three-time premiership player Tom, who won one of those flags in 2022.

Mardi and Patrick Dangerfield with their children after the 2022 premiership.

Mardi and Patrick Dangerfield with their children after the 2022 premiership.Credit: Brianstorm/Mushroom - supplied by Mardi Dangerfield

After Geelong won the premiership last year, Hawkins said Cats CEO Steve Hocking made a speech to the inner circle, including families, that resonated with her. It was about how there were many fingertips on the cup.

“You really felt that because everyone, not just the players, but everyone did so much behind the scenes,” said Hawkins.

“After we won, it was obviously so enjoyable and it was almost a relief because it was everyone had worked so hard. Not just the players, but the sacrifices that the partners and the kids had made.”

Emma and Tom Hawkins.

Emma and Tom Hawkins.Credit: Getty Images

‘Things can change so quickly’

The nature of the draft – and sometimes trading – means the lives of player partners, including where they live, can be heavily influenced and at times dictated by playing careers.

Hawkins, who grew up on a farm in Deniliquin in NSW and is the owner of a small business called Homegrown Kids, said she thought hard about what type of career would suit her – keeping in mind she’d need something “interchangeable and that had a flexibility” given the nature of Tom’s career. She and Tom have been together since high school and now have three kids, all under the age of six.


“With football, you can be relocated or things can change so quickly, so it was always a conscious decision [her career path]… When kids come into the picture, you do really feel the inflexibility at times,” said Hawkins.

“I’ve always been prepared that unexpected relocations can happen and unforeseen events, like injuries. So, I’ve always never really been too set on where we are, it just has turned out that Tom has been here [in Geelong] for 17 years. So, we’ve been incredibly lucky.”

Olivia Burke, fiancée of Richmond star and former Sun Tom Lynch, had to manage the uncertainty of Lynch’s contract with her own burgeoning career in marketing when they were living together on the Gold Coast.

“I just had to have a bit of faith in the universe that everything will work out. So, I wasn’t like super stressed … But definitely [had] a little bit of like, oh, ‘what does this mean for me?’” said Burke of the uncertainty before Lynch’s move to Punt Road.

And it’s not just the potential for a sudden relocation. Mardi Dangerfield, wife of Geelong captain and premiership player Patrick, described a constant and unwavering consideration for their partner’s careers, even in the off-season.

“You’re so regimented by something that’s not actually anything to do with you. You’re like, you don’t necessarily have the freedoms of choice,” said Dangerfield. The couple also has three kids together.

Hawkins said it wouldn’t be that different from what other families deal with, such as those with fly-in, fly-out jobs. But “the uniqueness of the career is that it is public and things can change so quickly”.

But there are privileges that come with football, which Dangerfield was quick to acknowledge.

“We’re under no illusions of head start in life that it has given us, the opportunities, the people we’ve got to meet, the places we’ve been able to go,” said Dangerfield.

“It definitely gives a lot. And it has to give you more, right? Like it has to tip the scales in the positive because otherwise you wouldn’t do it because you’re not guaranteed that grand final.”

‘[Football] shouldn’t have been a factor’

There are also times when players’ partners can be thrust into very public scrutiny at what is a private time.

Both Dangerfield and Hawkins’ children were born during their husbands’ playing careers and have had to manage the births with the immovability of football games and trainings.

For Dangerfield, that included having a baby due around the grand final last year.

Dangerfield said there was never any doubt that Patrick would have played and, given it was her third child, she “was never concerned”. But she has some regrets about how football affected the decisions she made for the birth of her first child.

The Dangerfields with their three children.

The Dangerfields with their three children.Credit: Casey Bell - supplied by Mardi Dangerfield

“We had 5-6 different plans for every scenario. But with George, our first, I let football have a significant impact on my decision-making and that still doesn’t sit well with me. Nothing dramatic and it was uneventful but it shouldn’t have been a factor.

“It’s a strange situation to have so many people wanting to know such personal plans when it’s a really intimate time. I understand the interest, but it does create unnecessary pressure on a family unit ... Only the clubs need to know if they can pick them that week or not.”

It’s a situation Mikayla Crisp finds herself in during this finals series. She is 34 weeks pregnant and her husband Jack is a member of the Collingwood side that has secured a spot in a preliminary final in two weeks’ time.

“I’ve already said to him, we’re not even talking about it. I’d want him to play. So, especially given it you know, this time of the year with footy finals and this is what they strive towards the whole year,” said Crisp.

She said the timing of the pregnancy meant Jack would be home for the first few months of the newborn period – something he didn’t get to experience with their first two children.

She’s grateful her kids get to grew up around Collingwood and create memories there.

“The boys being able to take them in to sing the song and running out on the ground ... I know that one day they’ll look back and just think ‘how awesome is, you know, how awesome is that? That we got to do that?’” said Crisp.


Relief and joy, the emotional roller-coaster

Players’ families know all about the highs and lows of football. “You just live that as a partner or family member, you absolutely are on that roller-coaster,” Dangerfield said. “When the roller-coaster is down, it can be kind of exhausting emotionally.

“Even the off-season last year, just felt different. The disappointment, I think, after losing finals and there were plenty of finals like they lost. Obviously, it’s well-documented [the] loss of elimination finals of the qualifying preliminary finals, that disappointment really lingers and there’s nothing you can do about it … you’re just in the aura of that disappointment.

“You do go through a lot... [And when] the highs are high, you don’t necessarily get the best part of the high either.”

Dangerfield said Patrick winning the premiership last year was a mixture of “immense relief and joy”.

“That relief is just like ‘thank God’ because it had to be worth it.

“So then you sort of turned to like the other partners or other people who are having the same experience as you, too. I think that’s part of why lots of partners do become really good friends, you sort of have these shared experiences.”

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