To watch the composure with which defender Kirby Hicks plays, it’s hard to believe that she sustained nine fractures in her back and neck in a freak accident less than two years ago.

In June 2016, the 31-year-old went up in a marking contest while playing for her former VFL Women’s side Diamond Creek against the VU Western Spurs and a sickening double whammy temporarily robbed her of the ability to walk.

“I was hit in the back and I instantly felt like it was going to hurt,” Hicks recalled.

“Then, when I got to the ground I was coming back up and someone landed on top of my head.

“I remember clear as day that as soon as I got hit that second time, something wasn’t right.”

That feeling become horrifyingly clear when Hicks tried to crawl over the boundary line and realised she couldn’t move. After being stretchered into the rooms, she whispered to her nearby former coach Darren Logan that she couldn’t feel her legs.

X-rays confirmed that Hicks had three fractures in her lower back and had fractured the C1 to the C7 vertebrae in her neck. For five days, she lay in her hospital bed unable to move, because any elevation would have caused further damage.

Hicks is no stranger to recovery, having racked up a staggering 13 broken arms before her back injury. Even so, rehabilitation for an injury as debilitating as a fractured back was the hardest process she had ever faced.

“I had to wear the neck brace 24 hours a day for about five weeks to keep my neck stabilising and let everything heal. I wasn’t allowed to do a thing. Couldn’t work, couldn’t drive, couldn’t leave home, wasn’t allowed to go walking, couldn’t do exercise.”

For a few days, Hicks was buried in texts from friends, family, teammates and even women’s football legend Debbie Lee all wishing her the best. It was hard to shake the feeling that the messages were disguised obituaries for her career.

“There was probably a small window where I thought the call would be not to play footy anymore,” Hicks said.

“That comes from sitting at home when you’re left on your own, pondering while everyone else is moving on with life. There’s definitely a time when you think, ‘Maybe this is it.’”

Dark days, indeed. However, the flame did not die in Kirby Hicks.

“As time goes on and your rehab continues on, you get bigger and better and you feel stronger every day. There’s a sense of urgency to say, ‘You know what? I’m going to get back and play. Watch me.’”

And get back she did, running out with her Diamond Creek teammates for round one. Hicks had her most consistent and prolific season in 2017, missing just one game and playing a key part in Diamond Creek’s journey to the Grand Final.

Her chances of being drafted to AFLW had never been higher, but she was overlooked as clubs planned for young selections last October.

“I really felt pretty confident and pretty happy with where my game was at. From what I’d been through and the year that I’d had, I thought that would be my year for being drafted. But unfortunately, I missed the boat on that one, which was hard.”

Following her selection in the inaugural Essendon leadership group, Hicks has been one of her side’s most reliable players as a key defender, bringing experience and efficiency to a fledgling backline while often taking the number one forward.

“I’m really big on leading by example. Because I’ve come from such a tough background in terms of injury, I do spend a lot of time on the importance of strength and conditioning, so I lead the girls in a way where you need to look after your body.

“I’m not a loud or outspoken person but I tend to speak when necessary…I think what I take out of being a leader is trying to listen to what everyone has to say and how everyone’s feeling and then try to mirror that where I can to get that message across to a broader range of girls.”

Hicks admits to having several frank discussions with those close to her about gambling her safety by returning to a game that had cut her body no favours.

The answer is simple.

“Love. All I wanted to do was play footy.”