Tom Bugg - AFL - AthletesVoice
Tom Bugg - AFL - AthletesVoice


I’m not who you think I am

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I’m not who you think I am


I’d never hit anyone in the face before. I’d never even been in a fight. I know it might not seem that way, but I’m not an aggressive person. I’m really composed with my emotions. I never get angry.


People will find that hard to believe, because from the outside, even before that Friday night in June, I was seen as an antagonist, a pest, a player who got under people’s skin. I know how much those perceptions have been amplified now.


I’ve been called selfish, a thug, a dog, every name under the sun. It hurts, but I know I have to wear it. And I know it’s up to me to change it.


How did this happen? How did I go from running out onto the MCG with my teammates – relaxed, calm and confident that the work I’d done would allow me to play my part in striving for another Melbourne win – to punching an opponent within minutes of the opening bounce, laying him out cold?


About 12 months ago I realised football had become a routine that I was just working my way through, day after day. I’d wake up at 8am, be at the club by 9am, come home at five, eat, go to bed, wake up and do the same thing again.


It dawned on me that I wanted more from football, and more from life.


I was taken by seeing LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers come from 3-1 down against Golden State Warriors to win the NBA title in 2016.


It had never been done before, and when they won LeBron just fell to the ground and started crying. I put myself in his shoes. It got me thinking that I’d never invested myself in something like that before. And I wanted that feeling.


So I developed rituals, put things in place to motivate me each day. I started getting up at 6am, doing body movement exercises, breathing techniques.


I started using a vision board, looking at it each morning, taking in its trigger words, its themes of hard work, family, giving back. It was designed to help my football, but also my relationships, my business dealings, my whole life.


Since I was drafted by GWS in 2011 I’d played in the opening round of every season. This year I didn’t get picked. It was a big thing, and I could have gone one of two ways.


I could have gone back to the VFL and let my ego get in the way, but I didn’t, I saw it as an opportunity to learn and grow. I played some good football and still didn’t get picked, but my intent, my motivation, my rituals didn’t change.


I got my chance in round four and settled into playing consistent football, unselfish and valuable to the team. I was helping set up our structures on game day, helping motivate others around their performance and commitment.


I worked hard, trained hard and invested so much time that I had a real confidence in what I was doing. I can see how that can be mistaken for arrogance, but I just had zero doubt.





That night against the Swans was no different to any other. I prepared myself at home, packed my bag, got changed, listened to music on the way to the ground.


I talked to myself out loud on the way to the game like I always do – just things I wanted to concentrate on, positive things, what I wanted out of myself. You can say things in your head, but if you’re putting them out there you’re more of a chance to accomplish them.


‘I want to run the hardest tonight.’ ‘If I get a shot at goal it’s going straight through.’ Things to rev myself up and build confidence.


The same was asked of me as every week – I was playing forward, so be on with your set-ups, pressure the opposition, run, run, run. The only different thing I’d done all year was boxing, twice a week for extra cardio. I’d become better at it, but I don’t think that had anything to do with what happened.


It was like so many situations you encounter every game – I was getting hit to the body from behind, but not even hard, just normal, an opponent trying to control where I was running. I’ve been hit like that thousands of times, since under eights.


Callum Mills hit me from behind again and I went to hit him back. I can honestly say I went to hit him to the chest … a couple of inches down and I hit him in the stomach, a couple of inches up and he’s knocked out and I get six weeks.


But either way, I know it’s wrong. You can’t be throwing punches – jumper punches, hitting in the arm, hitting in the stomach – because things like this can happen.


I’ve been called selfish, a thug, a dog, every name under the sun. It hurts, but I know I have to wear it. And I know it’s up to me to change it.


I wasn’t actually looking at him when I hit him. I heard the umpire’s whistle, he was running over, then I looked down and saw Callum on the ground.


Callum actually muttered something to me on his way down, I’m pretty sure it was, ‘F— you.’


From that point my whole body kind of dropped. It was such a strange experience, like I was watching it unfold from off the field.


All the Sydney players came at me and were ripping my jumper, throwing me around. I didn’t fight back at all, didn’t push back, I just let myself get thrown around. I’d usually push back if someone goes at me, but I didn’t. I just let it happen.


I was nowhere for the rest of the game. I kept replaying the incident over and over in my head all night. It’s the longest game I’ve ever played.




After the final siren I went to shake Dan Hannebery’s hand, he shook my hand and just said, ‘That’s not on.’ All I could do was apologise, and it was sincere.


From the bottom of my heart I didn’t want to do that, I didn’t want to hurt Callum. I went to shake Nick Smith’s hand, he just muttered something and walked away shaking his head.


I walked over and went to shake Callum’s hand, which he was good enough to do. I don’t know if I would have done it in his situation.


It shows the quality of person Callum is. It meant a lot to me.


I went back into the rooms and sat in the locker room with my head in my hands, running through everything that was about to happen, feeling sick about what I’d done.


I’m pretty close to Nathan Jones and he came and spoke to me, asked if I was okay, but mostly people just left me to my thoughts. It looked like they wanted to say something, but most just gave me my space.


Jonesy had his phone on him and I asked if I could see the footage. It was exactly how I’d replayed it in my mind out on the ground – like I was standing back watching myself.


It was like I’d seen it from that angle before. And it just looked so bad.



The media manager asked if I wanted to speak live on Channel Seven, which was the last thing I wanted to do, but at the same time I wanted to get on my front foot. It wasn’t about trying to get a more lenient sentence or anything like that, I just knew it was the right thing to do.


I spoke to Matthew Richardson and somehow managed to apologise without saying “I’m sorry”, which I didn’t mean to, I just had a million things going through my mind.


I felt better just talking about it, but then I got hit with people saying I hadn’t said sorry.


I walked out of the changerooms and Mum, Dad and two of my three sisters were there. I don’t remember what Dad said, but I know he was really shocked.


He’s been at every game I’ve played since I was a boy and never seen me act like that, ever. I think he asked me what on earth I was thinking.


I spoke to Goody (Melbourne coach Simon Goodwin) and he was really disappointed with my actions. He invests so much time in the club, puts in so much hard work and sacrifices so much, and by extension his family do too.


To have someone come along and do something that impacts on that, takes away from it in some way, I can see why he and chief executive Peter Jackson, president Glen Bartlett, every Melbourne person would be so disappointed and feel let down by what I did.




The club gave me a week and a half off – Goody said to just go away and reflect on how much what I’d done had impacted the club, because we can’t have selfish people at the footy club.


That was never my intent, but I can see it was a really selfish act. A week and a half in the middle of the season is a long time away from the club, especially when you’ve been doing it every day for seven years.


The next five days were a blur. At the start I didn’t look at social media; I can take what people say about me, I’m a strong person, but I just didn’t want to go there. I wanted time alone to reflect.


I couldn’t sleep the night it happened, didn’t go to bed until about 4am. I woke up at 11am, and for the next few days I was exhausted and slept much later than usual.


My routine went out the window, I just wanted to take myself away from everything. I actually felt like a retired player, which isn’t a great feeling, but in some ways it was refreshing too.


I felt normal for once – went to the gym with my best mate, worked on business stuff, then worked out again in the evening.


I know Luke Parker pretty well through under 18s, so I contacted him and got Callum’s number. Luke was really good, saying that mistakes happen, you’ll learn from it. Even something like that was comforting.


I called Callum on the Sunday with no other intention than to see if he was okay, which he was. I just said, ‘Hey mate, it’s Tom.’ He could have hung up, but he didn’t.


I walked over and went to shake Callum’s hand, which he was good enough to do. I don’t know if I would have done it in his situation.


I’ve spent a lot of time with my teammate Angus Brayshaw and his Mum, they’ve been through so much with Angus’s repeated concussions. It doesn’t just affect the player, it affects your whole family.


I found out Callum had been concussed earlier this year. I wanted to hear that his family was all right, his Mum and Dad.


It shows the quality of person Callum is – he took the phone call, accepted my apology, said he’d moved on and didn’t hold a grudge.





When I did take a look at Instagram there were hundreds of messages. I didn’t read many initially, but with so much time on my hands I found myself going back to them.


There was some disturbing stuff, people saying they hoped I got hit by a car, hoped I got cancer. It was pretty full-on.


One was a guy writing about someone in his family having been the victim of a one-punch incident. I hadn’t really thought about it until that moment, the damage I could have done.


I could never see myself in a fight on the street, at a pub or club, anything like that, but I’m definitely far more conscious that one punch can kill.


I tracked down a number for the boxer Danny Green, who’s become an ambassador for the ‘one punch’ awareness campaign. I reached out and he was really supportive.


He’d seen the incident and said it was something we never want to see. I appreciated his thoughts, and am really glad I reached out to him. Next time they run a campaign I’m going to be involved.


Someone sent me an article former Swans premiership player Tadhg Kennelly had written, basically saying Tom Bugg’s played his last game of AFL.


I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think about it. Knowing that despite all the time and effort I’d invested in my football, I’d let my teammates down, my club down, that I needed to earn back that trust, that was as hard as anything.




My first day back at the club I arrived just after 7am. I didn’t want to walk in on the full team already in the locker room, I wanted to be in there by myself.


I walked around a corner and the first person I bumped into was Goody. It was the perfect start – we just had a really normal, authentic conversation.


I wanted to take full responsibility, no excuses. And I wanted to ask Goody if he saw me playing again. If I could do the hard work and earn back the trust, were the coaches confident I’d play again this year?


He said it will reach a point where the incident will be put aside, and you’ll be picked on your merits. That’s all I could ask.


I’m not worried that I’ve got a streak in me, I know I haven’t. I see the situation as a win or learn – there’s no win or lose. I know it was a reaction, and I feel so much more composed now.


I could never see myself in a fight on the street, at a pub or club, anything like that, but I’m definitely far more conscious that one punch can kill.


My first game back, with Casey in the VFL, there was no aggression or intent. I got hit a few times during the game, but I never thought of hitting back.


Usually if you get pushed in a game, you push back. Get jumper-punched, you jumper-punch back. That’s how it used to be. I’m usually a lot more physical with my opponents, but I didn’t do that at all.


I didn’t initiate contact with anyone other than what you normally have to do around a stoppage. I just concentrated more on winning my own ball, and it was better than it had been all year.


I know the incident has changed me. I think everyone cares how people see them, even from the outside. I want to be perceived as a person who’s hard-working, gives back, has personality, is himself.


I want to be all those things, but if someone on the outside thinks I’m a thug, I’m not going to lose sleep over it. As long as the people that matter have a strong perception of me.


I think I’m 95 percent of the way there. That five percent is reliability – showing I can be counted on. It’s just time. I don’t think people are wondering, ‘Is it going to happen again in three weeks?’


But you’ve got to show it’s sustainable.


If my career finished now I know I’d be remembered for that.


But that’s something I’ve got the power to change.


And I can do it, I know I can.





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