Missing the grind
Hearing a player speak fondly of pre-season training can be as rare as a plot in a Police Academy movie.
True, players accept the necessity of the off-season's gut-busting fitness work, but understandably few seem to relish the associated mental and physical pain.
Recent retirees, including former Essendon vice-captain Mark McVeigh and ex-Brisbane Lions half-back Josh Drummond no longer have to put themselves through that pain.
After enduring 14 and nine AFL pre-seasons respectively, you'd think they'd enjoy being able to go to the beach knowing no sand dune running awaits them.
But McVeigh and Drummond are suffering withdrawal symptoms as they sit out their first pre-seasons since retiring at the end of last season.
Perhaps predictably, both miss the team camaraderie that grew from toiling side by side over long, hot summers.
More surprisingly, both miss the toil itself – McVeigh especially so.
McVeigh, who played 232 games for the Bombers from 1999-2012, said he had been missing pre-season training so much he had continued a personal fitness regime of running, weights and healthy eating.
"My wife keeps saying to me, 'What are you doing, you're retired,' but I'm still in that mode and really love that feeling of being fit and miss being in a professional environment," McVeigh said.
"I think after doing it for so long, it's just in-built.
"If I log onto the Essendon footy club website and see the boys training, I think, 'gee, could I have gone around again?'"
McVeigh is now working for AFL NSW as the coaching and talent manager for northern NSW. In this role, he is occasionally office-bound and can find it challenging to fit his training in around full-time work.
We spoke on Thursday when it was 39 degrees in Melbourne and I suggested at least now he could spend such days in an air-conditioned office rather than out on the training track.
But McVeigh said he had even enjoyed training on those days.
"On those days you knew you were working hard and were maybe getting an edge on other players or clubs who weren't training," McVeigh said.
Similarly, Drummond, who played 94 games for the Lions from 2005-12 before joining North Melbourne as a development coach in November, said he missed the sense of achievement that came with surviving gruelling pre-season running sessions.
"As a group, to be able to knuckle down and get the work done without any complaints gave you a sense of pride," Drummond said.
"Walking off buggered, you sensed those sessions were when you built trust and respect within the group."
Drummond went through some hard pre-season sessions at the Lions. He said the toughest included the boot camps during Leigh Matthews' coaching reign where the players had to train on little sleep, and the Lions' trek along the Kokoda Track in 2005, when Drummond was lucky to escape the severe foot blisters and rashes many of his teammates suffered.
But Drummond said his injury-plagued body did not miss the toll pre-seasons used to take on it.
"I don't miss putting my body through hell, particularly given the difficulties I had with it late in my career," Drummond said.
"It was pretty difficult getting myself up for training in the end and the pre-seasons when you couldn't do the amount of work you wanted to were tough."
Watching North's 2013 pre-season from inside the fence, Drummond said it had been evident in the past few seasons just how much teams were now focusing on running at game-like intensity over shorter repeat efforts, rather than the 30-40 minute runs that were the rage in his first three pre-seasons, 2004-06.
McVeigh said that trend had also seen an increasing emphasis on structuring skills-based drills that doubled as running sessions.
"Now we're seeing drills that incorporate the footys, but you're still getting a lot of fitness benefits out of them," McVeigh said.
"That might be small handball games, or carrying the ball for quite some distance and delivering it, and being able to put in second, third and fourth efforts."
As for this year's players, McVeigh and Drummond agreed they would be excited knowing the heaviest pre-season fitness work was almost over, with the NAB Cup less than a month away.
But, again, McVeigh emphasised the pre-season was nothing to dread.
"I don't think anyone could argue with working towards a common goal with good friends, being paid well, staying extremely fit, and doing something you love," he said.
Nick Bowen is a reporter with AFL.com.au. Follow him on Twitter: @AFL_Nick