AT THE end of the 2021 NAB AFLW season, Jodie Hicks simply couldn't take it anymore.
A former first-round draft pick, Hicks wasn't only done with the season that was, where she'd played just four of Greater Western Sydney's nine matches as the Giants missed the finals for the fourth time in five years.
She felt like she was done with footy completely.
The thoughts that had swirled in the back of her mind at the start of the season were suddenly thrust to the forefront. After a lifelong love affair, her relationship with the sport itself was at a crossroads.
"I wouldn't say I hated the game," Hicks told womens.afl. "I just hated the way I played the game.
"I don't want to say hate, that's a very strong word. I just hated the way I was playing, and the way I wasn't enjoying it.
"I just felt like I was always annoyed with training or how I played, but I didn't want to talk about it.
"It all built up and I thought, 'I don't know if I'm enjoyable to hang out with anymore. All I do is whinge about the club and stuff'. And I thought, 'Why am I playing something I don't enjoy?'.
"I wasn't playing the footy I wanted to play, I wasn't getting any better, I couldn't see the club changing in the next year or so and I thought if I kept playing, I would be done with footy before I wanted to be.
"I just had to let footy go."
Having made headlines in her early 20s for juggling semi-professional careers in both footy and cricket, Hicks's decision to walk away from the AFLW – for at least two years, in her mind, if not longer – suddenly left her with neither.
After four underwhelming seasons with the Sydney Sixers in the Women's Big Bash League, where 32 games yielded a grand total of just five runs from six innings and led to her carrying the unflattering tag of a specialist fielder, she'd been let go by the club in late 2020.
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Her axing from the Big Bash had been expected but falling out of love with footy, which had always been her chosen sport, after just 20 games at the highest level shook her to the core.
"I was at a point where I was just a bit lost," she said.
"Am I good at footy? I dunno. Am I good at cricket? Obviously not, I've just been delisted. Am I doing what I want to do?
"I was a bit like, 'F***, if I don't take a step back now, I'll be finished next year, and I won't have anything'.
"In cricket, I knew I wasn't good enough to be in the team at that time and place. But with footy ... I wasn't playing some games, but the coach was telling me I was probably one of the most skilful players on the list. It didn't really make sense.
"When I get over-coached or I think about it too much, it's not the style of footy I want to play. (I was trying) to be really structured, and in the end I didn't really get anywhere.
"I listened to the coaches too much, it got in my head, and I wasn't playing the style of footy that suits my game.
"I had to take a step back for me to go forward."
Having boldly walked away and retreated from the game entirely, the first major test of her resolve came just months later when her former teammates threw themselves into another pre-season. Hicks had always been regarded as a committed and assiduous trainer but, as the Giants started the long road towards a new campaign, she found comfort rather than regret.
"I did not feel like I missed it one bit," she remembered. "And I was really happy with that decision then and there."
As the new AFLW season came and went without her, Hicks returned to both cricket and footy, but on her own terms.
She enjoyed her best season of cricket in years, finishing the summer as one of the leading runscorers in Sydney's club competition and leading the way for both runs and wickets at a regional T20 tournament.
In footy, she threw herself into a dual role of player-coach at Macquarie University, which fed her passion for high performance and allowed her to take the first tentative steps back into the game that had left her so disillusioned – so frustrated – just months earlier.
Unshackled from the professional system, she played with a freedom she hadn't felt in years, and her love for the game that had once burnt so fiercely slowly started to return.
She more than held her own against the AFLW-listed players in the second-tier competition and when her former Academy coach Cam Bernasconi was handed the senior role at the Giants for season seven of AFLW, she sent him a text to congratulate him – and to cheekily inquire if there was a spot on the list for her.
Having been so keen to remove herself from the AFLW system completely, Hicks returned to the Giants in June of this year, a little more than 12 months after she'd left.
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"I was just trying to forget about that part of my life for a little bit and work on myself," she says.
"I didn't cut (my Giants teammates) off, but I wasn't trying to stay in touch. I just tried to stay away for a period of time.
"And then I came back – and they welcomed me like I'd never left."
As the shadows lengthened at the end of a crisp Melbourne afternoon earlier this month, Hicks stood on the wing at Victoria Park and pondered her next move.
Having spent most of her second coming at the Giants in defence, Hicks had been thrown into the midfield in the late stages of their match with Collingwood, which resulted in her first goal of the season and her first at the highest level in two-and-a-half years.
But it was what Hicks did next that best exemplifies her transformation as a player in her comeback season.
As the ball spilled out of the centre-bounce contest, she continued her sprint into the centre square and, without breaking stride, cleanly gathered the ball at ankle height with just one hand, pushed off her left foot, found some space between the crowd of players and sent the ball forward again.
Having once been so cluttered in her mind that she would second-guess her every move, she was so free in that moment that she didn't even realise what she'd done.
"I didn't even remember picking the ball up one-handed," she says
"(Watching a replay afterwards), I saw it was my left hand, and I was like 'holy s***!'. That's something I would do mucking around in the park when no one's watching.
"But that is me just getting the footy. See ball, get ball.
"Beforehand, I would have been like, 'Oh, I'm not picking it up two-handed, I've got to make sure I have ball security'. Then next minute, I don't even have the ball.
"The thought process when I have a clear mind, I'm obviously playing a lot better. I've learnt that a lot this year, and I've also had the freedom."
Five years after she was first drafted with the No.5 pick, Hicks is finally starting to realise her footy potential. Bernasconi's decision to play her in defence instead of forward has proven to be a masterstroke, which has seen Hicks earn coaches' votes in three of her eight games and double her average disposal count from that nightmare 2021 season.
With her footy back on track, her cricketing dream remains alive as well. She's been training with the NSW Breakers in between her commitments with GWS and will again look to push her name forward for state and Big Bash selection in Sydney club cricket this summer.
Most importantly, Hicks says she's grown as a person and an athlete. Having once described herself as a perfectionist who never perfects anything, she now understands her game well enough that if something goes wrong, she knows how to remedy it, and to be kinder to herself in doing so.
"I'm a lot more content," she says.
"When we win or lose, I know why we're winning or losing. I know more about my game, I trust the way I want to play, I understand the way the coaches want us to play, and I'm realistic about the injuries that have happened in our team (this season).
"Before, I didn't know the game or myself well enough to have those reflections."
And given where she was just 18 months ago, that fact she's simply having fun again, and loves the game again, is a victory in itself.