Turning tragedy into opportunity

Turning tragedy into opportunity

Turning tragedy into opportunity

After travelling to America with the NAB AFL Academy in January, Luke Partington touched back down in Adelaide and then headed home to Tumby Bay, a small coastal town in South Australia where he grew up and where his family lives.

He had toyed with the idea of staying after the tour in Adelaide, where he is now based and works full-time after finishing school last year, but is glad he made the decision to stay with his family.

Less than three weeks later, Partington's father Brian was tragically killed in a mining accident at BHP Billiton's Olympic Dam site in Roxby Downs.

“I didn't get the chance to say goodbye, but I did get a goodbye of sorts after going back home after the tour,” Partington said.

“It's always in our minds.”

Partington, a midfielder set to land at an AFL club this year through the draft, had returned to Adelaide when he was told the news. He happened to be with his mum, Amanda, who was visiting for Partington's merit certificate ceremony at school.

They raced back to Tumby Bay as quickly as they could.

“It was the worst day of my life,” he said.

“Hopefully the best day will come at the end of the year.”

Brian was 47 and had been commuting to the Roxby Downs mining region from Tumby Bay since 2008. He would work four or five days at a time in 12-hour shifts and then come home for a four-day break before starting the cycle again.

Partington thinks some of his football traits come from his father: Brian played 109 games, won four flags and was a life member of the Olympic Dam Football Club.

Much of that community was on hand in Tumby Bay in February for Brian's funeral, with the family planning for 1000 attendees and being shocked that many more stood outside and couldn't get in.

“I never really realised how many people he knew and got along well with,” Partington said. “It was massive.”

For about a month after the tragedy, the 18-year-old stayed in Tumby Bay with his mum, younger siblings Mitchell and Shae, and their extended families. Gradually, his mind turned back to football, if not for anything more than to take it off other things. But that too was a challenge.

“I started training with the local club, but mentally I couldn't run. I reckon if we had done a beep test I wouldn't have made level six, just because of the mental strain. I wasn't able to push myself at all,” Partington said.

“But I never thought about throwing footy away because it was so important to me, and mum and dad gave me so many opportunities to play footy. I enjoy it so much and I need to reward what they have done for me.”

More days passed, and Partington eventually felt it was the right time to shift back to Adelaide, where he had taken on a full-time job with his SANFL club Norwood.

He went back to work, started training with the state under-18s team again, and picked up some normality in his day-to-day life, even if his concept of normal has been forever changed.

“We try to get on with it and do the best we can at having a crack at everyday life,” he said.

Partington has done a good job of that. He was South Australia's most influential midfielder at the recent NAB AFL Under-18 Championships, and was rewarded by selection in the All Australian team. Hard and tough at the contest, the 182cm onballer averaged 24 disposals a game and showed a burst of speed.

Last round he made his senior debut for Norwood, gathering 16 disposals and five clearances in the Redlegs' one-point win.

“His championships were outstanding. He's only small, but he's got a lot of power and he was able to get from contest to contest as well as anyone. He really surprised me. I think he's got a really successful career ahead of him,” said AFL Academy head coach Brenton Sanderson.

Sanderson only got to know Partington in April, when the squad was in Melbourne for a 10-day camp. They sat down at that point to chat about what had happened.

“It was still very raw then. We had a pretty open conversation about how he felt emotionally. The physical stuff is easy to measure, but just from a coaching point of view we tried to judge where he was at emotionally,” Sanderson said.

“He was pretty open about how he was feeling and where he was at, everything from the amount of sleep he was getting to other distractions. He must be an incredibly driven young man to be able to perform the way that he has this year with what he's been through personally. It's a real credit to him.”

Partington's 34 Academy teammates have also been supportive, with most of them sending him a text as soon as they were aware of Brian's passing. Some have shared their condolences in person, and Partington could tell others have wanted to without knowing what to say.

“I can understand that they were like that. I'd feel the exact same way to someone else. Do I say something? Do I not say something? Do I do this or that?” he said.

“I'm on this side of it and I can understand how I'd feel on the other side of it, too. I can completely understand if they act a little bit funny at times, because I'd be in the same boat if it was a different situation.”

Partington, who looks a possible top-30 pick, has been pleased with his season, and hopes he has done enough for his best day to come later in the year when a club calls out his name. He knows it would mean as much for his family as himself to win an opportunity.

“It's been my lifelong goal, and it's something that mum and dad worked hard for. They made many sacrifices for me to play football in Adelaide so it'd be massive,” he said.

“I wasn't on a scholarship at school, so they paid the full bill, which is a massive effort, and they made many sacrifices for me to do that, including flying me over to Adelaide and getting me home here and there. I'm doing my best to reach that goal at the end of the year.”

DATE: Friday 17 July 2015
ORIGINAL ARTICLE: By Callum Twomey, AFL.com.au
IMAGE: Luke Partington, courtesy of AFL Media