‘ACL’. Three of the most dreaded letters in sport. Surgery and an extensive rehabilitation period await whoever is unfortunate enough to damage the ligament.

Few footballers suffer the misfortune of experiencing the dreaded ACL rupture, and even fewer are forced to go through the recovery twice.

In just his second season of AFL football, North Melbourne defender Flynn Perez became one of those unlucky few to endure a second rupture, re-damaging his surgically repaired ligament in the 2021 pre-season.

Perez impressed in his three senior appearances at the end of 2020, and this season looked set to be a breakout campaign for the classy defender.

After another year on the sidelines though, Perez says his motivation to return to AFL level has never been higher.

North Media sat down with the number 39, and this is what he had to say.

You suffered your second ACL tear this pre-season, if you can think back to when it happened, did you just know within yourself that you were set for another stint on the sidelines?
Yeah, to be honest it was a lot different to my first one. The first time I did it I was so, so upset about it, just because it was my draft year and I thought missing out on so much footy would mean I wouldn’t get drafted. This time though, it was just so cruel. I’d had a taste of AFL footy, I thought I was building nicely and I was really fit. It was much more of a ‘why me?’ sort of feeling this time, just asking myself why has it happened again. In those situations, it’s really easy to think negatively. You get all the information you need, and I got the surgery done really quickly, so I don’t think I had too much time to dwell on it, which was probably a good thing.

Even in suffering one long-term injury, let alone a second, it would be quite easy to fall into a bit of a funk and really battle to find motivation. When you go in to attack that second batch of ACL rehab, how did you get yourself motivated to do it properly and get yourself back to fitness?
I feel like there are people who just have a natural sort of competitiveness. For a couple of weeks after the surgery, I’ll be honest, some doubts do creep in about if you want to do it all again and if it’s just going to be too hard, but once you get back into the gym with the other boys, and unfortunately we had a lot of boys in rehab at the start of the year, that natural, competitive drive really does take over. Yes, you have to channel it in a different way because you’re not out on the field, but you’re still trying to win, just in a different way. It’s about those little wins. We had bike races which I found really enjoyable and it did get pretty serious to be honest, then in the gym just lifting, getting as strong as I possibly can. You have to look at that as your game day. As sad as that may sound, if you don’t channel your energy in that direction then it’s so easy to find yourself in a bit of a hole and feeling pretty negative. I think I’ve done that really well and I’ve had the other boys around to support me. Don’t get me wrong, you have some pretty flat days where you just don’t want to be in there, but I’d like to think most of us who’ve had to go through rehab this year have stayed pretty positive the whole time.

On that competitiveness, recently Aidan Corr said the pair of you would be doing jog-throughs, but they’d end up being sprints and you guys really had some competitive sessions together. How helpful has it been to have a more senior player like ‘Corry’ doing rehab with you for much of the year?
It’s pretty funny. I remember him speaking about little bonds made in rehab, and we laugh about it when we’re training, but I absolutely look up to him. He’s pretty much done it all, he’s been to the pinnacle, he’s been to the final day, he’s an established player and when he was at GWS he was one of the first picked every week. To have someone of that calibre alongside me, it gave me a bit of a benchmark. It also gave me a lot of confidence. Sometimes I’d win the races, but he won his fair share too. I’d see how hard he was training and try to match that intensity. Being able to keep pace with him makes me think I’m not that far away. Just his experience and knowledge, and I suppose the natural competitiveness of us both helped us gel together. It sucks whenever I lose to him, and I’m sure he feels the same about losing to me.

With one eye on the upcoming pre-season, are you comfortable with where your recovery is at? How will the start of pre-season look for you?
I’m pretty happy with where I’m at right now. I think my body is in a really good spot at the moment in terms of that I’m really strong for my age. I guess that’s one positive of being injured, I’ve been able to work on that side of things. I’m about five months post-surgery now so I’ve been doing a few of the footy drills. Nothing too strenuous but it’s starting to ramp up a little bit. By the time we come back I should be doing a few non-contact drills with the group, and once we come back in the new year I think the plan is to be fully stuck into it and get pretty much a full pre-season under my belt. Hopefully I can do that because I haven’t really had that since my bottom age year of NAB League, and that was my best year of footy. I think we’re going to place a really big emphasis on really getting through pre-season session by session, and if it all goes to plan I should be right to go by January.

I’d imagine you’ve spent a lot of time with Charlie Comben, being drafted with him and going through a fair bit of rehab with him. It was obviously shattering to hear about his injury at training, but does seeing him make a successful debut in Round 22 give you any added motivation?
I think so. Unfortunately, Jack (Mahony), myself and Charlie haven’t been able to play a single game of footy together yet. The three of us are pretty tight since we’re all from the same draft year, and I like to think we’re all very confident in our abilities. If we get our bodies right hopefully we can all play together sooner rather than later. Seeing Charlie debut and ‘Mahns’ play for most of the year, you kick yourself a bit that you’re not out there with them, but it definitely gives you a bit of a boost. I was absolutely shattered with what happened to Charlie and his collarbone, but you have to take the positive out of the negative. He misses one game and hopefully he’ll be right to go for pre-season. He’s got an abundance of talent and he’s in a bit of a similar situation to me. We just need to let the days pass, get our bodies right, make sure we can handle AFL footy and then, I suppose, the sky is the limit from there.

Aidan Corr said he’d been helping out with a bit of coaching and even a bit of recruiting over this season, just to help him stay as involved as possible. Have you been exploring any of the other aspects of the game to help keep yourself involved in the group?
To be honest I did that in my first rehab while I was at the (Bendigo) Pioneers, and it almost made me feel like I was missing out even more, because I was so present and involved. It was even more frustrating because we weren’t winning at the time. I’ve tried to really channel myself into studying other players who play similar positions. I’ve done a fair bit of work with Aaron Hall since I want to play a similar role to ‘Hally’ and hopefully give him a bit of support next year. I think that’s going to hold me in good stead in terms of not really missing a beat with the game plan and the way we’re playing. So, I haven’t really been doing anything in the coaching space, but I’ve definitely still been staying engaged and making sure I’ve got other things rather than just rehab.

When you did make your appearances at AFL level they were up in the hub, just how excited are you to hopefully be able to get out and play in front of fans on a home Marvel deck?
It’s every kid’s dream to play in front of big crowds, and to be honest I’m a big soccer fan so seeing the crowds back in the Premier League stadiums has just given me a real buzz. The North Melbourne faithful are so loyal and I can’t wait to be out at Marvel with hopefully a big crowd in the stands. I think we’re building something really special and everyone will see that over the next couple of years. The fans are like an extra man on the ground and speaking to a few of the senior guys, they’ve been saying it’s been a bit harder since they’re used to playing in front of our fans. I’m really excited to get back out there.