THE END of March and the start of April was an awful time for Jeremy Howe.
Stuck in a hospital bed for a fortnight while recovering from a nasty infection that siphoned the life out of him, the Collingwood veteran looked like a vampire. The prospect of playing a role in September didn't feel realistic back then. But now it does.
But on Sunday, the 32-year-old returned to the scene of the injury that sidelined him for four months and required four bouts of surgery to repair the arm he shattered to pieces in the gruesome collision with Geelong small forward Tyson Stengle in round one, completing a remarkable recovery in the Magpies' thrilling two-point win over Adelaide.
For Howe, the numbers only tell one side of the story. Six breaks in total: four in the forearm, two in the elbow. Plus an AC joint injury for good measure. The other issue is the extensive nerve damage that will take at least another 12 months for him to fully regain feeling in the tips of his fingers.
It has meant three sessions per week with a hand therapist to regain the strength in his hand, forearm and – most importantly – mind, following the most harrowing experience of his playing career, an episode that Magpies coach Craig McRae didn't think he would return from in 2023 and his wife Kahlia didn't think would allow him to play again at one point.
Howe collected the first of his 20 disposals six minutes into the game, much to the delight of most of the 65,930 fans inside the MCG, plucked a signature hanger among his eight grabs, to go with nine rebound 50s, six intercept possessions and 478m gained in a seamless return to the big stage.
"It was everything you could hope for, really," Howe told AFL.com.au in the rooms on Sunday night.
"To get on the right side of a thrilling win like that is an amazing experience. Just to get the game day vibes again, to get the butterflies again. I've watched too much footy than what I would have liked in the past few years. Moments like these when you get to share it with the family are really special. Look forward to continuing on for hopefully the rest of the year."
Like many at Collingwood, Howe is still chasing the elusive ultimate prize. He played in the 2018 Grand Final loss to West Coast in his third season at the club after moving from Melbourne following 100 games in red and blue. But his time since then has been halted by injury, although it hasn't prevented the mobile defender becoming one of the most influential players inside the AIA Centre, both in terms of his output and leadership.
The Tasmanian played only four times in 2020 due to knee surgery and just eight in 2021 due to a long-term hamstring injury. Last year he roared back to form, finishing fourth in the Copeland Trophy after playing 24 games to show how important he is to Collingwood's premiership chances.
With the Magpies getting within a kick of a Grand Final in 2022 and establishing themselves as one of the clear flag favourites in 2023, Howe admitted he was worried the injury would preclude him from slotting in alongside Darcy Moore, Brayden Maynard and co. down back, especially when the infection tore through him.
"I was (worried I wouldn’t get back), given it was such a traumatic injury and the original diagnosis was looking a bit more long-term. The original feedback was the long-term effects could hang around," he said.
"Thankfully it has recovered really well; I've still got some symptoms here and there. But where it was and where it is now doesn't really align at all. It is good enough to play and hopefully it will continue to get better.
"But the isolation in hospital was incredibly tough. My wife was coming in – and she was amazing through the whole situation – but 23 hours a day when you're just laying there not doing anything, pumped full of drugs and antibiotics and you just feel like shit, to be honest.
"I just questioned whether it worth it or not. I couldn't pick up my little man or do anything like that. You do question things. But once I checked out and started getting healthy again, the club was super supportive and gave me time; I didn't rush straight back to the club; I took a week to get myself right; and once I was in, I was all in and rehabbed it as good as possible."
Howe had to receive approval from the AFL to permit him to wear a sleeve with padding to protect his forearm and provide him with an extra layer of confidence, channelling NBA superstar Steph Curry, who started wearing a shooting sleeve after a shoulder injury.
It may have looked unusual on Sunday, just like Mason Cox's goggles, but the Dodges Ferry product won't be hiding the reminder of the damage below underneath a long-sleeve jumper anytime soon.
"No way, I don't like them. There is only certain types of blokes that wear the long sleeve and I'm not one of them," he said with a laugh before racing off to take his son Zander back up the race and out onto the MCG for a kick of the footy.
"Obviously got plenty of stuff going on (inside the sleeve). Plenty of support and protection all the way through my arm. Just with the sleeve over the top it holds everything together. It's like an element of compression and holds everything together, just makes it feel safe. I'll see out the year with it."
If things go to plan for Howe and Collingwood, the courageous backman will be holding the premiership cup aloft while wearing that sleeve on the final Saturday of this September. No wonder he didn't want to give up on 2023.