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Our Comeback Hero: Rama

BTV: Comeback Hero; Adam Ramanauskas Our Comeback Hero for Round 18 is Adam Ramanauskas.

At each home game this season, Essendon will celebrate a Comeback Hero – a former champion who overcame adversity to deliver many happy moments for the Essendon faithful. For the 'Clash for Cancer' against North Melbourne, Our Comeback Hero is Adam Ramanauskas.

Adam Ramanauskas concedes he didn’t really know what he was in for when he arrived at Windy Hill in late 1998. A few months earlier North Melbourne knocked the Bombers out of the finals. Coach Kevin Sheedy had marshmallows thrown at him as he left the ground. The fuse was lit for one of the Bombers most dominant periods.

Essendon had shipped three players (Ricky Olarenshaw, Che Cockatoo-Collins and Andrew Bomford) off to new clubs and the 1998 National Draft represented the first chance to add some talent to the list. The Dons had two early picks and selected Mark McVeigh with their first selection (number nine overall) before three picks later landing Ramanauskas from the Dandenong Stingrays.

“It was very daunting at the time,” Ramanauskas said. “I came from a basketball background so I didn’t know a lot about football clubs at the time and I probably rubbed a few people up the wrong way early doors with a little bit of my confidence. But I was knocked into line really quickly by a few of the older guys and I realised quickly what it took to make it in this football team.”

Ramanauskas played two senior games in 1999 as the Bombers made it all the way to the Preliminary Final. But while his more experienced teammates licked their wounds on Grand Final day, Ramanauskas represented the Club in the Reserves Grand Final alongside McVeigh and soon to be premiership player Jason Johnson.

Ramanauskas (front, second from right) celebrates the Reserves premiership win in 1999.

“I was coming in right at the start of a really dominant era,” Ramanauskas said. “Obviously ’99 was disappointing for the senior side but for me playing in the reserves we won the premiership that year and I was fortunate enough to win the best and fairest in my first year as a reserves player. So I knew there was an opportunity and I knew if I worked hard ‘Sheeds’ would always give the younger guys an opportunity to play.”

Motivated by the lure of higher honours Ramanauskas became a mainstay in the senior side in 2000 as the Bombers produced one of the most dominant seasons in AFL history.   He played every game, mainly in defence, and finished runner-up in the AFL’s Rising Star award. Ramanauskas said it was the ‘inner drive’ of the group and a tight bond that made the team great.

“I took my opportunity and I’m fortunate enough to say I am a premiership player at this wonderful Club,” he said. “We had a great coaching staff with ‘Sheeds’ obviously, Mark Harvey, Robert Shaw, Terry Daniher … but I think it was really player driven. It didn’t take the coaches to give the players a spray, it came from within … whether it was an older player or a younger player we all set extremely high standards for ourselves.

“The other part of it was we were extremely close. We did a lot of things together away from the football club. On the back of ’99 there was a real drive to want to rectify that situation because it was a really disappointing day and I think we went about it the right way in 2000, only losing one game for the year.”

Ramanauskas finished runner-up in the best and fairest in 2001 and represented Australia in the International Rules series. At 20 years of age, he seemed to have the football world before him. He was agile, good in the air, had a long left foot kick and was spending more time in the midfield. In round three of the 2003 season, Ramanauskas picked up 25 possessions, had 11 inside 50s and kicked 1.5 against Carlton.

That was his last game for eight weeks as cancer set in for the first time.

“I did play really good football in 2000, 2001 and 2002 … but the start of 2003 I thought I really started to hit my straps and that’s when I unfortunately got sick,” Ramanauskas said. “There were a couple of games there where I started to play in the midfield permanently … and I was playing some really good football.”

Ramanauskas made it back by round 12 and played out the season before a recurrence later that year. Still he managed to play every game in 2004 before a knee reconstruction derailed his 2005 campaign. On the eve of the 2006 season, a third bout of cancer emerged and Ramanauskas underwent months of chemotherapy.

Through it all the Bombers support for their mate never wavered. In round 12 against Melbourne teammates stated their wish to wear a yellow armband to show their support for Ramanauskas and raise awareness and fundraising for the Cancer Council of Victoria. The AFL didn’t like the idea and threatened to impose a $20,000 fine if they went ahead with it.

The players did it anyway.

Dean Solomon shows his support for his mate during that match against Melbourne in 2006.

“I have absolutely no doubt that was one of the major factors why I recovered the way I did,” Ramanauskas said of the support of the Club. “They continued to involve me in the day to day running of the Club. ‘Sheeds’ allowed me to come onto the coaching staff in a way, the boys still involved me in every single thing … so every time I came to the Football Club I felt normal again.

“I felt like I wasn’t going through treatment for cancer, I felt like I was just one of the boys. I was part of the football club and that was significant because it switched my mind off. Most other times when I was at home or obviously when I was having treatment your mind is just ticking over about what could potentially happen or what was happening at the time.

“Being here whilst I was having treatment and then after I finished my treatment was probably the most important part of my whole recovery.”

Ramanauskas returned to the field on Friday July 6, 2007 in a match against Geelong. The Bombers lost the game but the sight of Ramanauskas back on the field and kicking a goal was more than enough for fans to walk away from the game happy. He played another 22 games for the Club and retired at the end of 2008.

“It’s funny because I didn’t really have a ‘prime’ and I retired when I was 27,” Ramanauskas said. “I finished my career really early because I sort of had to in the end.

“It’s something I do reflect on a little bit, wondering at times how good I could have been. But at the same time that blow is less because I know I played in a premiership and ultimately that’s what you play football for – that team success, that bond and that mateship.

“We had a premiership players dinner last Saturday night and it’s just fantastic to catch up with the guys that you played with. Whether you see them once a week or once or twice a year – that bond is always there.

“That probably softens the blow a little bit of not having that prime of my career.”

The latest instalment in the ‘Clash for Cancer’ will take place on Saturday when the Bombers take on the Kangaroos.  A splash of yellow is now fixed to the jumper for these clashes, with no threat of an AFL fine.  Ramanauskas has been the face of the match for more than a decade. Though he may have walked into Windy Hill with an air of confidence, being a role model for other cancer sufferers didn’t always sit comfortably with him.

“That’s something I found really difficult to start with,” he said. “I was only in my 20s so I was trying to deal with it myself and understand it myself. When you have a lot of people coming up to myself telling me their story and what they’re going through – initially I found it really hard to deal with because it was quite emotional listening to people.

“At times I didn’t know if I was saying the right thing to them.

“But once I started to accept what I was going through, that’s when I started to feel I could help others a lot more. That was something that probably drove me as well – that what I was going through, millions of other people were going through exactly the same thing, and a lot worse than me.

“So I drew inspiration from those stories … so what was difficult at the start turned out to be a real positive for my own recovery and for me to understand what the wider community was going through as well.”

Ramanauskas still gets regular check-ups and will continue to do so for the rest of his life. But his health is ‘really good’ and he remains involved in the AFL through his role as a player agent and radio commentator on the ABC and RSN.

“Dad always said 'work out what you’re good at in life' and sport is what I’m good at so be able to combine sport with business suits me perfectly and hopefully I can continue to do that for a long time,” he said.

In the end Ramanauskas played 134 games for the Bombers. Those that saw him play close up in the early part of his career say he could have gone on to win a Brownlow. But in the same sentence, they say they’re just happy he’s alive.

For the man himself, the Essendon Football Club will always be like ‘family’.

“You can only look back on the Football Club fondly,” Ramanauskas said. “I look at the people I met through my journey playing here, not just the players … Essendon is fortunate enough to have really good people around the Club, from Board members, to staff, to coterie group members, to supporters – you find at this footy club if you’re willing to really give to the footy club, the Football Club will give you so much more back.

“Even now, I’ve been ten years removed from the Football Club and I still feel part of this Club every single day. I was talking to one of the guys that I manage and I said ‘when you return from a Football Club it’s like moving out of home when you’re a young adult. You move out of home, but it’s always going to be your family.’

"That’s the way I see this Football Club, it’s always going to hold a really special place in my heart, not only because of what I was able to achieve here but what it was able to do for me and what it’s able to continue to do for myself and my family.”

At 19, Ramanauskas was the youngest member of the 2000 premiership side.