MELBOURNE James Hird, the Australian Rules football coach at the centre of the nation's biggest doping crisis, has said he hopes to return to the game after battling depression and a drug overdose that nearly cost him his life.
The former Essendon Bombers coach was suspended for a year by the Australian Football League in 2013 for bringing the game into disrepute after the Melbourne club was found to have run an organised regime of highly dubious supplement injections.
The Bombers were also stung with a record A$2 million (1.24 million pounds) fine and disqualified from the 2013 playoffs. Thirty-four players swept up in the affair were issued two-year bans for doping in January, 2016 after long and tortuous investigations.
One of Essendon's favourite sons and among the finest players of the modern era, Hird returned to coach the club in 2015 but resigned after another season overshadowed by the doping scandal.
He was rushed to hospital in January this year after taking an overdose of sleeping pills and spent five weeks at a mental health clinic.
In his first public comment since the overdose, Hird said he had suffered depression for years before his breakdown.
"Everyone has a breaking point and I reached mine after years of continual stress," he said in a column for Melbourne's Herald Sun newspaper.
"I am not ashamed to say that I needed the care I received and, without it, I do not know where I would be. Depression is more than just sadness.
"Certainly, it was no holiday camp but (the clinic) provided a supportive, welcoming, safe and caring environment and allowed me to receive the treatment I needed."
With 12 of Essendon's listed players serving doping suspensions last year, the club finished bottom of the championship but most have returned for the coming season which starts next week.
"I was not a student of the football in 2016, and have some catching up to do, but I look forward to engaging with footy people again and immersing myself in the great game of AFL," Hird, 44, said.
"I am an extremely lucky man to get a second chance and I am embracing it with everything I have.
"The Essendon theme for this year is about their comeback story.
"I can't wait to watch the comeback for many reasons."
($1 = 1.3009 Australian dollars)
(Reporting by Ian Ransom, editing by Nick Mulvenney)