It takes Charlie Comben quite a while to remember whether it's 23 or 24 broken bones.

Regardless, he views them all differently now. Yes, at the time, each was a frustrating setback that delayed a career that has promised so much. But now, Comben looks upon his injury run as a reminder of what he's been through to get to this point. They're used as motivation to make the most of this next opportunity.

Comben himself is reluctant to describe last Friday evening's career-best performance against Brisbane as a breakout game. "I only played one good half … and it was only one game," he tells But the fact he was even out there at all is undoubtedly worth celebrating.

As with any young, versatile and athletic key-position player when arriving at a rebuilding club, Comben whetted the appetite of North Melbourne fans like few others when he was drafted with pick No.31 back in 2019. It's why his succession of unavoidable injuries have frustrated Roos fans, and Comben himself, to the utmost degree.

There was the broken back, sustained after copping a stray knee from Oscar McDonald in a pre-season practice match, that kept him sidelined for his entire debut AFL campaign in 2020. Upon his return the following pre-season came a stress fracture in his tibia that required surgery.

He came back late in 2021, only to sustain a broken collarbone from a fend-off delivered by teammate Jared Polec at training. Patella issues from the screw inserted into his leg as a result of his previous stress fracture then meant more time on the sidelines in 2022.

Last year brought about his longest run in the senior side yet, seven straight games to start the season. Only for that horrific injury against Melbourne – resulting in a dislocated ankle, a broken fibula and a syndesmosis issue – to put him back into rehab for the next six months.

"From a frustration point of view, I thought my career was just starting to take off and then I had this big injury again. I remember thinking, 'Is this ever going to get better?'" Comben says.

"The three years leading up to that as well, they were so frustrating in terms of off-field stuff as well as on-field injuries. It all took a toll and there was just pent-up frustration. I was probably worried about whether I'd actually be able to make a career out of this. Yes, I've never had soft-tissue injuries and I've always been confident in my body, but it was just a luck thing for me.

"You definitely waver. I'm obviously not out of the woods yet, I've played one game. I want to string as many games together as possible. Injuries are obviously inevitable with footy, but I've just had such a bad run. To this point, I've broken 23 or 24 bones. That's just ridiculous.

"But the one thing I've learnt from all of this that's happened in the last four years, and even by extension in my junior career, is to build resilience. That's something I've been forced to learn and forced to go through. I'm a much better person for it.

"You can get caught in looking so far ahead and thinking, 'shit, my career is done'. Being able to take things day-by-day and one week at a time, it's one mechanism I've used to get through a lot of the tough rehab stuff."

Some injuries – like the graphic incident against Melbourne last year – will likely mean a lifetime of soreness for Comben. He might have returned relatively unimpeded last weekend, but the memories aren't far away.

"I still play with a bit of that now," Comben says.

"I'm 100 per cent fit, but I can still feel it a bit. It's slowly getting better every week. I can get through a full game now and I only feel it in some moments, like when I land on it heavily. But I think that's completely normal. It doesn't impact my footy whatsoever, but there are still times when I can feel it in games. It's just at a point where I can manage that."


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North Melbourne fans would hardly have any trouble in recalling Comben's extensive injury history since arriving at Arden Street. But what has made the young defender's return all the more improbable were the ones that occurred before he'd even stepped foot inside an AFL program.

See, Comben was drafted having played little junior football, either. As a 15-year-old, he missed time after breaking his wrist and then his collarbone in on-field incidents. At 16, he spent almost an entire season sidelined after severely breaking two parts of his inner cheekbone playing for the Gippsland Power.

At 17, he landed awkwardly playing junior basketball and suffered a broken tibia, a fractured kneecap and a dislocation of his kneecap. Repeated surgeries to repair the damage cost him significant time throughout his draft year, as well.

The culmination of nearly a decade's worth of injuries have meant Comben has had to slightly tweak the way he attacks the contest. It's also why, despite a conversation among North Melbourne's coaching team after Callum Coleman-Jones went down with a season-ending Achilles injury earlier this season, a decision was made to keep the talented youngster in the backline for the foreseeable future.

"To a certain extent, yes, I've had to change the way I play," Comben says.

"I wouldn't say I've completely changed. I'm still see-ball, get-ball and I'm very hard at the footy. It's more about knowing how to protect my body in a contest. I found a lot of times I'd just run back with the flight, head looking at the footy the whole time, and not actually seeing what was in front of me.

"To get my career going, we decided it's probably safer to play in the backline for now. I don't have a ruckman dropping back into me, I can attack the ball, I'm the one hitting the contest and I can control my landing a lot better.

"I've never had problems with soft-tissue injuries, they've all been from impact and from contest work. I'm probably to blame for that a bit. I've been pretty haphazard going into contests and I haven't been protecting my body the way I should. I was quite reckless in the way I attacked the footy.

"It was a combination of dampening that a little bit, but still attacking the footy and playing my normal game. But also knowing when to go and when probably not to. Being able to see the game unfold in front of me, it's been great from a defensive point of view."

Comben's talent, unlike his luck, has never been questioned. It was on full display last Friday evening, when he was among the few standouts in North Melbourne's bitterly disappointing 70-point loss to Brisbane in Gather Round.

Despite the result, Comben had 25 disposals, 13 intercepts, eight marks and six intercept marks. His 22.2 AFL Player Ratings points – Champion Data's most definitive statistic to measure influence on a game – was the most of anyone on the ground. Not bad for someone playing just his 10th AFL game, his first as a defender, and his first in any capacity at senior level in 342 days.

But while it was somewhat pleasing, it also added to Comben's sense of frustration at having previously been denied the chance to help the struggling Kangaroos arrest a run of just 12 wins from their last 88 matches.

"There's a sense of helplessness," Comben says.

"You try to rally around the boys, but you're not out there participating. That's been so frustrating for me. To sit and watch and feel so helpless, knowing you can't contribute and help the club, it's another reason why rehab is so hard for a lot of blokes.

"Especially in our position with where we're at as a footy club at the moment, trying to build and grow something special, you don't feel like you can contribute on the field and that's why you're paid to play football.

"That's one of the hardest things about rehab, it's so isolating. The group goes out to train and you're in the gym doing rehab exercises. You feel quite isolated from the playing group, so you lean a lot on the people you work with like (reconditioning coach) Daniel Cross, (ex-Kangaroos physio) Steve Dean and (current club physio) Liam Phillips.

"They're obviously rehabbing your injury from a physical point of view, but mentally for me they were just as important to be able to speak my mind and my thoughts to them. They supported me on the days where I'd come in and be really shitty and angry with the world."


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On those days, where Comben would feel the world was against him, he would find other avenues to instil a purpose into his life in the absence of football. Fortunately for the intelligent and affable youngster, discovering new interests to pique his curiosity hasn't been difficult.

Keen to adopt a second language and discover more about his family origins, Comben has started taking classes to learn Polish once per week, while he is now podcasting, and is combining footy with his commerce studies at the Australian Catholic University (ACU).

A passion for 35mm film photography has led to a growing collection of cameras – he has a 1972 Minolta Super, a Canon AutoBoy 1 and 2, and a Yashica Electro 35 in his current stable – while he has recently started sharing his pictures on Instagram under the handle @chomflicks.

There's also a growing vinyl collection. Asked to reflect on his three current favourites, it's one of few times Comben is genuinely stumped. "MTV Unplugged by Pearl Jam, X&Y by Coldplay – that's a bit basic but I feel like Coldplay's older stuff is really good and it gets lost now – and I quite like the War on Drugs. Their live album is unbelievable," he eventually says.

But it's on the field where Comben truly wants to divert the overwhelming majority of his time and energy. In this capacity, after years and years of adversity and setbacks, you can hardly blame him for feeling his luck's about to change.

"The amount of support the club's put in me – I haven't played a lot of footy – so I haven't given a lot back to the club yet. I still feel like I owe a lot to this footy club," Comben says.

"I want to be part of the journey to bring us back to where we should be at the top of the ladder. I've been through four years of hardship footy, where we haven't been able to play the way we wanted. I want to be part of the group that lifts us back up.

"Something that's really important in my values is loyalty. This club's shown a lot of loyalty in me and now I want to pay that back."