Club News

Jack Saunders on his neck injury, recovery and return to League footy

Norwood forward Jack Saunders playing his first SANFL game in 399 days, following neck and ankle injuries. Photo: Alex Pedlar NFC

Jack Saunders played his first SANFL match in almost 400 days during last Sunday’s Round 8 match against Woodville-West Torrens at Coopers Stadium. 

The 22-year-old forward returned to his junior club of Norwood ahead of the 2023 SANFL season, following two years on Hawthorn’s AFL list. But his return campaign was cut short just four weeks into the season when he sustained a serious neck injury in last year’s Round 4 SANFL match against Glenelg at the Bay.

Saunders suffered a fracture in his C1 vertebrae which left him in a halo brace for four months to ensure no movement of the vertebrae, or interaction with the spinal cord.

If that wasn’t a difficult enough recovery, when Saunders finally returned to full training in February of 2024, he injured his ankle which again delayed his return to play.

In Round 7 he played Reserves, and celebrated his first Senior win of his career in Norwood colours, before being selected in Norwood’s Round 8 team to take on the Eagles at The Parade… 399 days on from his neck incident.

“For me personally, it was great to get out there with the boys again and put on the Norwood jumper, which I’ve been looking forward to do for over a year now,” he said.

“It was just good to get the cobwebs out and run alongside the boys and contribute anyway I can.

“To be honest, it was probably the hardest year of my life. The halo was one thing, but I couldn’t lie flat for four months. It couldn’t come off, so it was very sweaty. I had to sleep upright. My hair grew a fair bit. It was quite uncomfortable. But, I think it’s certainly made me a better person and footballer now that I’ve come out at the end of it.

“This club and the medical team and this team and especially Twig (coach Jade Rawlings) have been instrumental in helping me get back.”

Despite each and every setback, the former Hawk, still maintains the outlook that he was “lucky”.

“I injured myself in Round 4 last year against Glenelg, in the second quarter,” he said.

“The main emotion for me straight after incident was how grateful I was. I was very lucky. A lot of people aren’t as fortunate with those sort of injuries to come out the way I did.

“Obviously it was disappointing not to play the rest of the year, but to be able to come out at the end of it, have a full recovery, that’s something I’m extremely grateful for. Spending a fair bit of time in the spinal ward at the hospital, you understand pretty quickly how lucky you are.

He described the halo brace as “having a cage on your head”.

“It was a long time, living in a halo brace for four months, a literal cage on your head. You do a lot of personal reflection, and I am so grateful to come out the other end of it with a full recovery.

“(After the injury occurred) I was in a fair amount of pain, but I thought I might have strained my neck and didn’t realise the severity of what I did.

“Fracturing a vertebrae that high up is extremely dangerous. Lucky for me there was no movement. It was purely a front-on sort of fracture, so in that sense I was safe, but very lucky that it didn’t go the other way.”

Saunders was never deterred from a return to the football field.

“For me, as soon as the injury happened and I was told of the injury, my goal was always to get back to playing,” he said.

“Obviously there were boxes I needed to tick off, like returning to full health. But, I love this game so much and this footy club, and I’ve never missed something so much. If anything, my love for the game has grown even more. There’s not much that can steer me away from playing.”

Saunders thanked the club, the players and coach “Twig” Rawlings for supporting him through his recovery.

“The medical team here have been extremely helpful, not just on a physical level, but a personal level as well,” he said.

“This team and this group of lads we’ve got playing at the moment is quite unique. I don’t think I’ve ever been involved in a club or a team like this.

“Twig was the first person to come visit me in the hospital, stayed in regular communication with me. He’s someone I look to, I respect a lot as a coach and as a person.

“My goal from then on was just to get back and play for this group – I want to play for this team and play for Twig.”

Saunders said he is fitter and stronger than ever, and has no hesitation to hit the ground running on game day and do all he can for the 7-1 top of the table Redlegs.

“There’s no hesitation on my part,” he said.

“I’m fully strong, there’s lots of fresh new bone around the neck. I’m feeling stronger than I’ve ever been.”

Norwood coach Rawlings said he was proud of Saunders and his commitment to the club and in his own recovery.

“From what transpired 12 months ago to think that he’s back playing again, it’s incredible,” Rawlings said.

“He had a really strong summer. He had to graduate through a lot of different stages with the rehab from his neck, and once he got to the point of full contact, he fully immersed himself in the program.

“He showed minimal hesitation and was going really well until he had a bad ankle injury in internal trials. So that set him back another 8-10 weeks.

“His desire and want to be a good player is really high. He’s done a lot more work than just what’s offered in the program, so as people would’ve seen, he’s energetic, he looks fit, he’s strong.

“Jack’s been served up with a couple of curveballs and through his own individual desire, and the environment to support him and help him through it, he is back in a position where his best footy is now at senior level.”

Norwood takes on Sturt this King’s Birthday Monday at Unley Oval.