Round six, 2002.
An early season match that played host to an infamous incident proved to be one of the toughest physical challenges Bombers legend James Hird ever faced.
On a sunny autumn day in Perth, Essendon and Fremantle were in a seesawing battle at Subiaco Oval.
Halfway through the third quarter, a regulation marking contest between several players resulted in then-Dockers captain Peter Bell sharking a loose ball to snap a terrific goal while tucked up on the boundary line.
In the ensuing celebrations among the Fremantle players and crowd, a lifeless Hird, who was just involved in the preceding contest, lay on the turf motionless.
As trainers rushed to his aid, it became obvious the Dons champion was under severe duress.
With blood streaming from his face, a stoic Hird walked off the ground assisted to widespread applause for his courage.
It was clear Hird had suffered major damage when bodies collided in the forward 50.
But the true extent of what had occurred was frightening.
“As I’m watching the ball come over my shoulder, I tripped and fell forward as the ball is coming over and Mark (McVeigh) is coming to spoil, and his knee hits me straight in the head,” Hird told The Bombers: Stories of a Great Club.
“Next thing I knew, I was on the ground looking for my teeth and trying to feel my face.”
The momentary mis-footing had unfortunately culminated in significant head trauma.
Essendon’s then-doctor Bruce Reid remembered the moment vividly, saying he knew Hird’s face had suffered serious impact as soon as he saw the aftermath of the contest.
“His whole face was distorted,” Reid said.
“You could see one eye was back and things were rotated.
“It was obviously major fractures in his face and probably behind his eye. His pain level was extreme.”
Hird was immediately rushed to hospital to receive treatment.
Footage shown in The Bombers: Stories of a Great Club shows Hird courageously laying on a stretcher as he’s wheeled into the back of an ambulance while sucking on a ‘green whistle’ - a common pain-relief prescription for people who experience physical trauma.
What most don’t know is the pain Hird was experiencing was so intense, the whistle was largely ineffective in dulling his distress.
While Hird was pleading for more pain relief, an increase in comfort wasn’t administered instantly due to Reid’s concerns about the star Bomber potentially losing half of his eyesight.
“I had him (Bruce Reid) by the throat going, ‘Reidy, give me something for the pain’,” Hird said.
“All he gave me was the green stick with something in it and it did nothing.
“He wouldn’t [give me pain relief] because he was worried I was going to lose my left eye and he needed my reaction to be OK.
“I think it took four hours until they gave me [heavier] painkillers back in the hospital in Perth.”
Hird underwent facial reconstructive surgery, which required inserting seven plates into the 1996 Brownlow medallist’s face.
However, he would remarkably need just 10 weeks to fully recover from the operation to be available for selection.
In his return game in round 14 against the Western Bulldogs, Hird donned protective headwear to add another layer of security to the region which required so much fixing several months prior.
Bombers fans admire the courage Hird showed over his 257-game career, which featured two premierships, a North Smith Medal, five All-Australians and five Crichton medals.
But this courage was never seen more on display when Hird dug deep and showed tremendous resolve to overcome the fear of another significant head injury via a heart-in-mouth moment early in his return game against the Dogs.
“Most people when they’ve had major fractures in their face will get their head out of the way of things, because it’s human nature,” Reid said.
“About a minute into the game, if you watch the replay, the ball is out on the wing and he runs sideways and slides on to the ground as someone is coming the opposite direction, and their knee hits James’ head.
“He didn’t even blink.”
Hird’s mighty career features in episode eight of The Bombers: Stories of a Great Club, which will air at 8pm AEDT on Tuesday exclusively on Fox Footy and Kayo. Episode seven will begin at 7:30pm. This next instalment will wrap up the docuseries.