TOM WILLIAMSON felt like himself again.
It might have been an otherwise meaningless scratch match against Collingwood in mid-February, but for the first time in well over two years the promising young Carlton defender felt free.
Free of pain, free of restricted movement and free to just play like he was a little kid again.
After a nightmarish two seasons on the sidelines, spent recovering from persistent and debilitating back injuries, Williamson was producing the type of glimpses the Blues had been so impressed by throughout a debut 2017 season that surpassed everyone's expectations.
The 190cm half-back provided bounding drive out of defence, worked nicely in tandem with fellow returning defender Sam Docherty, while a booming left-footed goal from well beyond 50m was genuinely exciting.
If the Carlton officials who identified Williamson's importance to the regeneration of its developing side three seasons ago were thrilled by what he delivered in his return earlier this summer, the talented 21-year-old was personally over the moon.
Only the excitement was, frustratingly for Williamson, once again short lived. The suspension of competition due to the global COVID-19 outbreak has added another annoying chapter to a journey that has featured just two games in nearly 1000 days.
But rather than lament in the disappointment of another stint without footy, Williamson is putting his talents to the test in other areas.
Concreting with a family friend's business by day, studying a neuroscience degree online at Harvard University by night, and fulfilling his training requirements for Carlton at any time that he can find in between.
"I'm not actually the sharpest tool in the shed, so I'm finding the neuroscience course pretty difficult at the moment," Williamson told AFL.com.au.
"It's basically just a mix of biology, chemistry and specialist maths … which I'm hopeless at.
Williamson's troublesome and complicated history with back injuries was a source of great intrigue and irritation among the club and its fanbase, leading Carlton as far as meetings with Cricket Australia as it searched for a means of rectifying the issue.
Having sustained three broken transverse processes – the projections on either side of the vertebrae in the back – following a collision during a game against Gold Coast in his maiden season with the club, the muscle mechanics in Williamson's back were altered.
With his back now functioning in a different manner as a result of that initial injury, the youngster then suffered a series of repeat stress fractures in the exact same spot on his back – each one bringing a fresh 12-week layoff.
The problem was rare. As far as the Blues could tell, Australian fast bowler Pat Cummins was the only other athlete to suffer from anything similar – having missed six years of Test cricket after sustaining reoccurring stress fractures to the same part of his back.
Physios and medics from the respective sporting organisations, led by Carlton high-performance boss Andrew Russell, then held a series of meetings as they mapped out a plan for Williamson's eventual recovery.
"It almost felt like the harder I tried, the more things would go backwards," Williamson said.
"Being the young bloke who prides himself on working hard, you try so hard that the bone eventually gives in and you've basically got another stress fracture and you're out for another 12 weeks.
"There was so much that was unknown. It was just going to be a matter of time before my body matured and healed and the bones got that density that they required.
"Once I got all of those things in check and I just let it happen, it took a lot of the anxiety and stress around the injury away. It then all just seemed to fall into place."
Having finally overcome more than two years of injury setbacks, this year was supposed to be the one in which Williamson delivered upon the potential he showed during his promising first 15 games in his maiden season with the club.
Instead, he has spent the first part of it back home on the family farm in Ararat living with his sister and her husband, once again with a return to the footy field completely out of his hands and once again waiting for an opportunity to show what he can offer.
"It was challenging at the start of isolation," Williamson said.
"But the realisation was that I was happy I could be exercising and training again.
"It's the same for everyone, so it's not like I'm missing out like I was in previous years. That probably sits a bit more comfortably with me.
"We're definitely going to get a season underway at some stage, so it's just about being prepared and ready for that now."
Despite the lengthy period on the sidelines, Williamson's importance within Carlton's future planning has not been forgotten internally.
His name is consistently mentioned alongside more established young stars like Charlie Curnow, Harry McKay and Sam Walsh by Blues officials spruiking the potential of their young team, all off the basis of his first few games in the senior system.
Rewarded with a two-year contract extension by June of his maiden season with the club, the former 61st selection in the NAB AFL Draft is now hoping to finally get the chance to build on the foundations he laid all the way back in 2017.
"That's always in the back of my mind," Williamson said.
"Now, with where my body's at, I think I can go even further than that first year.
"That's exciting for me. I've just got to keep working at it and put everything in place and hopefully it'll all work out."