Australian football is hard enough as it is.
It’s a 360 degrees game, you can be tackled at almost any moment from any direction, you need elite hand-eye coordination just to execute the basic fundamentals of the game, you need to be able to handle an oddly shaped ball above your head, in the air, on the ground, and while being tackled.
WATCH THE VIDEO ABOVE: One-armed star’s inspirational football journey. Footage of Sam Carpenter in action courtesy of Cartwright Productions.
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You need to be able to use your hands and feet to make split second decisions. You need to have instincts and vision. You need to be able to tackle, bump, hit, and get hit.
It’s hard enough for able bodied athletes with all of their limbs.
Can you imagine how difficult it would be with only one arm?
You don’t need to imagine. It’s been done.
Sam Carpenter played footy at VFL and TAC Cup (now Coates Talent League) level, won seven straight junior club best and fairests, three junior league best and fairests, a VFL reserves best and fairest, finished every single year of his senior career bar two inside the top three of the best and fairest count, and finished runner-up in the league best and fairest of the NEAFL (before it merged into the VFL).
He did it with only one fully functional arm.
Sam Carpenter in action at VFL level for Frankston in 2006. Credit: Quinn Rooney/Getty Images
Carpenter, 35, has only just called time on his brilliant football career, during which time he reached heights of the game that most players could only dream of.
That he did it with one arm and what he calls his “stump” is, to him, completely inconsequential. To the rest of us mere mortals, it’s remarkable.
Now imagine, for a second, what he could have done with two fully functional arms.
“If my good mate Daryn Creswell nearly got to 250, I would’ve played 300 AFL games for sure by now,” he quipped with a laugh.
“I do get asked that a bit but, yeah, who knows? You never know with hypotheticals, but it definitely would have helped. I think that’s for sure.”
Carpenter grew up in Tyabb on the Mornington Peninsula, south-east of Melbourne in Victoria, where his parents owned a butcher shop.
Butcher shops can be dangerous places for four-year-olds, as a young Sam Carpenter found out.
Sam Carpenter was a star for Wangaratta in the Ovens and Murray league. Credit: Wangaratta Rovers
“I was just a young fella running a bit of amok,” he told 7NEWS.com.au.
“I was in the butcher shop one day and, somehow – I think it was towards the end of the day, probably pack up time and a busy time of day – I just managed to jump up on a chair and whack the left arm into the mincer.
“From there, it all unfolded pretty quickly, and I can still remember it. I remember getting carried across the road. There was a doctor’s surgery there and then the helicopter came in and took me straight to the Royal Children’s Hospital.
“I can remember the windows rattling on the helicopter and looking out the window of the Royal Children’s and seeing the hot air balloons – just things that stick in your memory when you’re a kid.
“It was graphic. I remember looking down and it was just string and blood everywhere. I think it was all just probably muscles and fibres – there would have been not much left of my arm, put it that way.”
The 35-year-old says because he was so young when it happened, he moved on quickly. Before he knew it, after a string of surgeries and hospital visits, life was effectively back to normal.
“I didn’t spend that long in the hospital at all; only a few days in hospital, and then I was back at kinder and you just get on with life,” he said.
“Before I knew it, my life just moved on like, and just, yeah, the arm was gone, but it didn’t really mean that much to me back then anyway. And still doesn’t.
“I think if you did it when you were older, it’d be really difficult because you’ve got to learn to do everything again and start from scratch. But being so young, you’re pretty resilient, you just move on. You don’t even think twice about things. So for me, it’s never really been a big deal.
“To other people, it’s a bit of a big thing. But if everyone had one arm, well, it wouldn’t be an issue. I’m sure amputees, if they have one leg or whatever, it wouldn’t be that big a deal to them either, because you just get on with life and you can’t change it.
“You’re not going to grow another one.”
Sam Carpenter lost his left arm when he was just four. Credit: Wangaratta Rovers
Carpenter became a regular at the Royal Children’s over the next couple of years, where they taught him how to adapt to life with one arm. He had to learn everything from tying his shoe laces and eating to wearing a prosthetic arm.
But doing a loop and a double knot on size six runners is a far cry from playing footy.
That clearly didn’t matter to the go-getting youngster though, who was every bit as active, adventurous and ambitious as the rest of the kids his age.
“Whether it was riding a bike, or getting a motorbike when I was about 10, or playing basketball, football, fishing – there was definitely no ceilings put on for what I wanted to achieve or what I wanted to do in life, that’s for sure,” he recalled.
It’s hard to even fathom how in fact he does ride a push bike – let alone a motor bike. But he just found a way and made it work.
He says he still uses his stump to help him with almost anything he does, like carrying 20kg paint drums for the painting and decorating business he owns. But the question still begs; how did he manage to execute the fundamental skills of football?
“I was able to mark the football in between the stump and my right hand,” he explained.
“When I handball, I rest of the football on the stump and punch with my my right fist. I use the left stump to help guide the football down, even though I obviously use my right hand.
“But I think if I had to rip my arm off up to the shoulder, it would have been real hard to be able to do all those little things in life. And that would change things a lot. But it’s still good enough for me.”
Sam Carpenter used his stump to help mark the ball. Credit: Quinn Rooney/Getty ImagesHe was a star for Frankston in the VFL. Credit: Kristian Dowling/Getty Images
Good enough, apparently, to start playing under 10s footy when he was just six years old. As if he wasn’t already physically disadvantaged enough, now he had to compete with kids four years his senior.
From his top age year of under 10s through until under 16s, he won club best and fairests every single year, and league best and fairests in under 12, 13s and 16s. He made his senior debut debut at Crib Point as a 16-year-old – a daunting enough task for a kid with two arms.
Carpenter did it with one – and kicked five goals. On debut. As a 16-year-old. With one arm.
You couldn’t script this stuff.
The week after that, he made his debut for the Dandenong Stingrays in the TAC Cup, the most elite under 18s competition in the country, from which dozens of AFL players are drafted every year.
He played a handful of games as a bottom-ager before establishing himself as a top-ager the next year, finishing top three in their best and fairest, alongside future Melbourne captain, Nathan Jones, in what was very nearly a premiership side, but for a star-studded Gippsland Power outfit which boasted the likes of future AFL stars Scott Pendlebury, Dale Thomas, Xavier Ellis and Tyson Goldsack.
“I remember when I made my debut for the Stingrays, it was a really big deal,” Carpenter said.
“Craig Hutchison from Channel 7 came down in a helicopter into Summerville Football Oval for an interview to go on the news, and it was the same when I made my VFL debut; the media did make a big deal of it. I guess I just had to embrace it and take it in my stride and just keep focused.
“I think I handled it alright, but I didn’t see myself any different to the other 21 teammates I was running out with every week. So that’s probably the part that I didn’t like; I was getting sort of put up on a bit of a pedestal at times and I didn’t really like that because in my eyes, I was just another part of the side and had to make sure I went out there and played my role for for the side each week.”
He won Frankston’s VFL reserves best and fairest in his first year. Credit: Kristian Dowling/Getty Images
Carpenter and a group of his Stingrays teammates who didn’t get picked up by an AFL club went straight to Frankston in the VFL, where it didn’t take long for the inside midfielder to make a name for himself. He played six senior VFL games in his first year and won the best and fairest in Frankston’s VFL reserves, before eventually establishing himself as a regular senior player the following year.
With a long career at VFL level beckoning for the 19-year-old, he decided to leave it all behind and move to Corowa, a regional town on the New South Wales side of the Victoria border.
“At the time, I spoke to (coach) Brett Lovett about it and said I’m going to head bush, and ‘Lovey’ said, ‘Look, I reckon you can have a 200-game plus career in the VFL. You’re sure you want to do that?’” Carpenter said.
“But for me it was more about a life decision, not just football. I just wanted really wanted to get away from the hustle and bustle and try something different.
“It was one of the best things I did. I met my wife, Renee, we’ve got a couple great kids and I like the relaxed life in the country.”
He spent two years playing for Corowa-Rutherglen, finishing second in their best and fairest in his first year, winning it his second, and fell short of the league best and fairest, the Morris Medal, by just one vote.
Taggers would run with him “most weeks”, he said. But that would only fuel his drive even more.
“I used to get tagged most weeks actually. That was a real challenge, but I used to enjoy the challenge of the taggers and getting on top of them and beating them” Carpenter said.
“Peter Tossol was our coach at Corowa, he was a great coach, and he used to say, every week, ‘I want you to get the three votes today’.”
Word of this star goalkicking midfielder had spread all the way to Queensland, where state league club Aspley drew up a plan to lure him for the 2010 season. The jumper he wore on the field might have changed when Carpenter made the move north, but the accolades were constant. He finished second in Aspley’s best and fairest in his only year there.
Carpenter could pack a punch despite playing with only one full arm. Credit: Quinn Rooney/Getty Images
He came back to Victoria after 12 months, where he had stints at Bonbeach, Chelsea, Wangaratta Rovers and another one at Corowa-Rutherglen, winning best and fairests at Chelsea and Wangaratta, along with four runner-up finishes at the Rovers.
For someone with that much talent despite his obvious limitations, he would be forgiven for allowing his mind to wander. ‘What could have been?’ is a question that will never be answered. But it doesn’t matter to Carpenter, who is more than content and fulfilled with how life has turned out for himself.
“I mean, I have thought about it before – it’d probably be hard not to at different times, thinking what could have been,” he admitted.
“When you’re having a few beers with mates or something, it comes up. But not often, if ever, put it that way. Just maybe once or twice you might think, ‘Oh jeez, yeah, I could have been alright or life could have been completely different’.
“But look, the path that everything has taken, I wouldn’t change anything. We’ve got a great life here, and I’m pretty lucky to have a really good family. We’ve got a couple good kids and I wouldn’t change anything for the world.
“I might have been born with two hands and lost one, but I also feel like I was born gifted with some natural ability. My football genetics are strong; my father was a gun and my uncle went alright as well. So, I feel like if I didn’t give it a good crack, I wouldn’t have been satisfied and I would have felt like I let myself down.”
Regardless, Sam Carpenter is living proof that there are no limits – not even missing limbs – on what athletes can achieve. And while an AFL player with only one arm may seem fanciful any time in the future, it may not be too far away.
“I think there is a kid coming through down Melbourne way somewhere at the moment that I was reading about. Someone reached out to me and and pointed it out,” he said.
“I think he might be only under 10s or 12s and is coming through and playing really good football with a similar disability to myself.
“You’d probably have to be a lot better than everyone else to put yourself up to that bracket to get looked at by AFL recruiters to play at the highest level with a disability, that’s for sure.
“But you can never say never.”
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