LIAM Stocker felt like he was starting again.
It was the first day of pre-season when Stocker was reunited with his teammates, after departing the hub in the 2020 season due to personal reasons.
“Back from the wilderness” in his own words, Stocker didn’t know what to expect. After five consecutive games in his debut season, it was nearing 18 months since he had last played in the Navy Blue jumper, and the pre-season was going to be a test of motivation for the now 21-year-old.
The result? A season which yielded 17 consecutive games, and a campaign which sees Stocker feel as though playing in the Navy Blue jumper is “his true calling”.
“I think I was out for 18 months and didn’t play a proper game for 600 days or something. For me, it was whether the motivation was still there to be a footballer and whether I still had it in me,” Stocker told Carlton Media in a wide-ranging, open chat.
“I think I managed to unlock that this year and show people that I’m not just a flash in the pan.
“There was a bit of uncertainty [when I returned]. The way I left [the hub], I didn’t tell many people what was going on and I left it up to assumption, which can sometimes be difficult to understand.
“Leaving the way I did wasn’t ideal, but it was for my betterment and my teammates’ betterment. I feel really honoured that they do respect me as a teammate and trust me.”
Stocker wasn’t to know how things would pan out, but he was leaving nothing to chance — putting in the necessary work over the pre-season which he know sees as the blueprint going forward.
For Stocker, who trained with the midfielders over the summer before reverting to a half-back role which he grew win by the week, the opportunity to play AFL football once again - a concept which seemed so far away at one point - was a clear endgame.
When that opportunity came in Round 6, and his first senior win followed a week later, he admitted that the situation and the background got the better of him.
“I find so much joy and so much pride in pulling on that CFC logo: I never really expected to when I got drafted and I probably didn’t appreciate it in my first year,” he said.
“The people that are involved at the football club and their ability to have a positive impact on my life is what I’ll forever be grateful for. If some modicum of repaying that is playing games of footy that make people happy and make people smile, then I’m happy to do that.
“To earn my spot back, I was really emotional about that. I didn’t outpour the emotion straight away because it didn’t really set in.
"There was a lot of emotion and contentment with my decision to come back and put my stamp on the Club and make sure I felt involved.
By the time Stocker returned to the senior fold against Brisbane in Round 6, it had been 692 days between drinks.
It was a 39-disposal performance in Round 1 of the VFL season a week prior which earned Stocker his spot, and it was one which he wasn’t going to give up.
Crediting the influence of Liam Jones (“you know he cares”) and Jacob Weitering, Stocker admitted that while it was a similar role to his first season, it was a complete change in mindset to who he was and what he wanted to achieve that allowed him to muster the output he ultimately produced.
When it came down to it, it was the simple matter that he wanted to get back to where he wanted to be, to a place which he had been deprived for nearly two years.
“Whether it’s at half back, full forward, in the midfield, wherever it is — I just want to help this club get back to where it belongs,” he said.
“I love being part of that back seven. I’d run through a brick wall happily for any of those guys.
“In my first year, I wasn’t really a defender: I was just a half back enjoying getting some footy. The mentality change has allowed me to become a more complete player.
“It’s been less my performances that have made me feel confident, but the reactions of my teammates and my coaches who have openly said that they trust me. That means more to me than 25 disposals.”
The power of positivity is something which is clearly crucial for the third-year Blue, both on and off the field.
It’s a mindset which he believes is pivotal to the make-up of Liam Stocker the person.
Rarely a couple of days goes by without him sharing something on his Instagram account, whether it’s posting a positive story or reaching out if anyone is in need of a chat.
“The big development for me is I do a lot more for other people than I ever did. It makes me feel more on top of the stuff that I go through, which can be three quarters to 90 per cent of the battle,” he said.
“I’d love to be able to provide that [assistance] for people but even if I can’t, just shedding a light on how common it is and trying to destigmatize what is mental health, because we all have issues with it.
“It’s incredibly important to the make-up of Liam Stocker, which has been the whole journey: figuring out who I am entirely and who I can grow into.”
And he feels as though that love and support is a two-way street when it comes to Carlton supporters.
“Sometimes they don’t know that you’ve read their messages, but it’s the greatest feeling in the world having people on your side no matter what,” he said.
“That’s the best part about it: it’s non-negotiable and it’s love for love’s sake. It’s not all about footy, but caring for the person over the number on their back.”