Local hero pulls through for comeback

Barnaby Howarth run out for Pennant Hills last weekend.It’s hard to imagine anything could better producing both co-captains of the AFL’s premier team, but something happened last weekend that swelled Pennant Hills Football Club hearts all the more. Barnaby Howarth became a footballer again.

Eight years ago, Howarth was the Sydney Football League club’s 25-year-old captain, who’d won best and fairests, played for the Swans in a night final at the MCG, been best afield when “Penno” won its first-ever premiership. Then came what he calls his “wrong place, wrong time” moment; out one Saturday night, Howarth and some mates got in a scuffle, and he was king-hit.

His world didn’t immediately fragment – he recovered, thought he’d “dodged a bullet”, even captained the SFL to a big interleague win the following Saturday. After training the next week he collapsed; blood that was clotting an artery in his brain following the bashing had shifted, and Howarth had a stroke.

He was in a coma for four days. His family were told to say their goodbyes. Doctors have been unable to say why he pulled through. “My take is it was the fitness I’d built up playing footy,” he says. “I was never blessed with immaculate skills, never took hangers or kicked bags, but I was incredibly hard-working.”

For this, he believes his football club saved his life – literally, and figuratively as a place where he knew he belonged.

He spent six weeks in a wheelchair, and for a long time his movement was so seriously restricted he couldn’t brush his teeth. Even now, his vision is so affected the football appears as a red blur; distance and depth play tricks on him, and co-ordination is a constant battle.

Howarth has done so much regardless – climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, made documentaries, written a book, become a motivational speaker. Recently he voiced a regret – that his football career had stalled on 96 games.

A club official hatched a plan and, with medical clearance, he ran out on Saturday with Pennant Hills’ fourths. All being well, his 100th will coincide with a past players’ day at the old home ground in a fortnight.

Previously, when running the water, he hadn’t realised how much he’d missed truly being part of the team. He rates his performance last weekend as average, with a rider. “I’m not a sensational footballer, more of an encouraging teammate.”

Late in a tight game, as the ball came in over his head in the forward pocket, Howarth turned and ran to it. In a flash he realised the scores were tied on 44 – the number he’s always worn – and here he was, about to gather and kick the winning score. “I was so excited that when the footy got in my hands I tremored and dropped it out of bounds.”

The teams kicked another goal each, and in the rooms he luxuriated in a time he thought he’d never know again – those minutes after a game when goals and marks are relived, and banal chatter fills the air.

He already knew he loved his club. At a function a few years ago, he’d spoken of what Penno had done for him, before and after his stroke. “I said I love that footy club so much, if I could wake up next to something every morning, it would be Pennant Hills Football Club.”

Last Sunday he was stiff and sore – not too bad, just enough. “It was beautiful, I loved it. It was the perfect amount to make me realise I’d played a game of footy, which is just a beautiful thing.”

He says what he’s been through didn’t make him yearn to “inspire the world, create foundations, win eight Tour de Frances”. But he didn’t want to crumble either. “I just wanted to keep living a normal life.

“Playing fourth division footy at Pennant Hills is exactly that – it’s a normal life. It’s perfect. I was a footballer before the stroke, and I’m a footballer now.”

The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.