By sports editor Russell Bennett
Phillip Island premiership coach Beau Vernon vividly remembers “kicking the dew off the ground” at Nar Nar Goon back when he was playing in the fourths.
And he also remembers the look of sheer anger on a 6’3”, nearly 100-kilo Brett Dore when he came up against him at Spencer Street and caught him twice, holding the ball. The two would later go on to play in the Gippsland Power’s first ever TAC Cup premiership side in 2005, alongside the likes of Scott Pendlebury, Dale Thomas, Lachy Hansen, Tyson Goldsack and Xavier Ellis under Paul Hudson. That side featured a number of other names particularly well-known to the local area, too – O’Bryan, Vansittart, Delphine, Macaffer, Youle, Ross and Lieshout just to name a few – but Vernon was the youngest.
Each of those players went their own way in their footy journeys, and on Sunday at Nar Nar Goon’s Spencer Street rooms – in front of a packed house for the club’s annual sponsors and life members day – Vernon spoke about the path he’s travelled, the life he’s lived so far, and everything he’s grateful for.
After a series of injuries following that 2005 season, Vernon’s biggest test in life came on 23 June, 2012.
“I wish I knew then how much footy meant to me, and I wish I knew more about resiliency and perspective back then because I know I would have been able to deal with those injuries a lot better and I know I would have been able to deal with not getting drafted a lot better,” he said of his thought process leading up to that fateful day.
“I kicked two goals playing in the midfield, and then in the third quarter I bent down to pick up the kind of ball I’d gone for a million times before and someone running the other way has hip and shouldered me on top of the head.
“I fell to the ground and straight away I knew something was very wrong.”
Vernon’s story is one that’s already been well told – a story of how his dislocated neck in an on-field collision led to him being diagnosed as a quadriplegic, and how he fought tooth and nail to become the person he is today.
But that story is much better told by the man, himself.
“At 23-years-of-age, never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d be going to play a sport I’d played every Saturday since I was about 10 thinking I could be there laying fully conscious but unable to move my body,” said Vernon, now 30.
“That half an hour laying on the ground there was the scariest time of my life.”
Vernon explained that, since that on-field accident just over seven years ago, he’s had no movement in his body from his chest down.
“I can’t move my fingers one little bit,” he clarified.
“That can be quite deceptive, but my fingers don’t move at all.
“I’ve got only about five per cent of my tricep muscle that works.
“In my chest, I’ve got a little muscle up the top that works, but the major muscle itself doesn’t. What I do have working is my biceps, my shoulder muscles, and my neck muscles and that’s about it.”
Vernon’s story, though, isn’t one of sadness and grief over what’s been taken from him. Sure, those and so many more emotions have flooded his thoughts often in the days, months, and years since, but his story is about two things in particular: attitude and gratitude.
“Everyone has ups and downs – we have a choice to move forward, or wonder why me,” he said.
“This isn’t a ‘poor me’ story.
“I don’t see myself as worse off than anyone else in this room. Sometimes I think my life’s a bit easier, because you can actually see my challenges whereas everyone else has their own challenges in life that may not be as clear as mine.”
Since emerging from a week-long induced coma following the collision, when his breathing was done through a tube, Vernon has learned to live – all over again.
At one stage he couldn’t turn the pages of a book, use his mobile phone, or even scratch his face.
“At 23, and feeling like I should have been in the prime of my life, I was sitting there unable to do anything for myself,” he said.
“I’ve never been so far from where I thought I should be, and all these negative thoughts crept into my mind – why me? What’s the point of living?
“Looking back, as hard as that moment was, I feel like it was a really good one for me.
“That was the moment where I acknowledged that, yes, life is pretty hard, but I was 23 and had the rest of my life to live and I wanted to make the most of it.”
And with that, Vernon has learned to appreciate everything – and everyone – in his life so much more.
He was once told that no one in Victoria with his level of injury had ever been able to leave rehab and head home to live independently.
That just made him more determined to be the first.
“We have 20,000 to 50,000 thoughts each day and on average 80 per cent of those are negative,” Vernon explained on Sunday.
“Our thoughts are like our muscles – the more times you do bicep curls, the stronger your biceps become.
“The more times you have negative thoughts, the stronger they become.
“I think in this day and age there’s all this talk about nutrition for our health, and talk about exercise for our health. The biggest problem in this day and age is mental health, and there’s not enough talk that goes into how we train our brains.
“The beauty of our thoughts is that we can challenge them.
“For me, my event or situation was a spinal cord injury, and my mind automatically went to those negative thoughts – thinking why me, blaming other people, and asking myself what was the point of living.
“That’s normal. I don’t hate myself for thinking like that – I see that as a normal process. But then it’s on me to take responsibility and try and flip my thoughts around and look at what I do have, and what I can control.”
He knows how fortunate he is, in so many ways. He’s got a loving wife and two beautiful kids, and an iron-strong network of friends and family also by his side.
“Probably for that first year (after the accident), on average I would have cried myself to sleep once or twice a week,” he said.
“But I felt by getting that emotion off my chest I was able to move forward a lot easier the next day. I was happier more often than I wasn’t, and I was motivated and determined to make the most of my life, which led to a more positive outcome.
“If I’m going to live one life, I know which way I want to go.
“When you’re handed things on a silver platter you don’t appreciate them as much, but when you have to work for things it makes them so much sweeter.
“But be aware of your thoughts. In this day and age, one in six people suffer from depression in their lives, one in four will suffer from an anxiety condition, and eight Australians every day take their own lives.
“Those numbers are way too high.
“Some of the best advice I’ve received is to accept all emotions – don’t hate feeling flat or stressed at times, don’t hate feeling anxious at times.
“Those emotions we associate with being negative – don’t hate them, because everyone feels them at different stages. Accept them, get back to your thoughts, and try and change those.”
Clearly, that process doesn’t happen in a simple click of the fingers.
“When you face adversity, when you face challenges, when life’s just tough – it makes you a better person,” Vernon said.
“It makes you a stronger person, and it gives you tools to use in the future so that when you’re in those moments you shouldn’t hate it – just accept it, and realise it’ll make you a better person in the long run.”
That’s around attitude.
And for Vernon, gratitude is just as crucial.
“It frustrates me so much that I waited, and a lot of other people wait for something to go wrong in their own lives or the lives of someone around them before they appreciate the things they’ve got.
“Before I hurt myself I wasn’t rude or anything like that, but I never sat back and realised how lucky I was to have so much in my life.
“When things are taken from you, you really learn to appreciate them.
“Why do we wait to appreciate the things we’ve got?
“A big thing for me – and I think it’s pretty common, and I probably only do it four times a week – is coming up with three things each night that I’m grateful for that day. I just say those things to myself, and I try and pick the smallest things – rather than the big picture things – and that makes me realise how fortunate I am for what I’ve got in my life.”
Since leaving rehab, Vernon has lived his life to the fullest.
He spends as much time as he can with his wife, Lucy, and their two children – Layla and Joey – and adores everything they bring to his life.
He went on to take the Leongatha senior coaching role after 2014 and took the side – featuring his brother, Zak – to two grand finals before experiencing the sweetest footy feeling of them all, premiership glory by just a point in 2017.
Then, last year, he took his hometown Phillip Island on a barnstorming run through the finals as the Bulldogs claimed their first senior premiership of the West Gippsland Football Netball Competition era.
Away from the footy field, he kayaks, surfs, fishes, boxes, plays wheelchair rugby, and won a hand-cycling national championship in his category a few years ago.
“When I got out of rehab, I was lost in my life,” he said.
“I was a tradie beforehand, and I was scared.
“I lacked self-belief and confidence, and self-worth – and I just thought back to this bloke who came and spoke to us at school when I was 17. He drew a circle – the size of my fist – and said that’s our comfort zone. He then drew up a circle around it, the size of my arms, and said that’s outside our comfort zone, and the more times we spend outside our comfort zone, the better off we’ll be.
“If someone had told me back then that a person would have bicep, shoulder, and neck muscles working and that’s about it, and I shut my eyes and try and visualise that person, there’s no way in hell I’d think that person could be happy.
“There’s no way I think they could have a loving family and coach a footy side, and have a hit of golf and get out on a surfboard.
“It’s not that I’m extraordinary or anything like that, it’s just that when you’re thrown into this situation you learn that you’re far more capable than you give yourself credit for.
“Everyone deserves to be happy – don’t put a limitation on that either.
“Don’t put a limitation on what you want in your life, and what you can do in your life.”