Ben King knew he'd done "it" straight away.
It was February 10, 2022, when the towering Gold Coast forward was about to leap for a mark in a regulation match simulation session.
The problem was, he didn't get airborne. King's knee tweaked and he crumpled to the Austworld Centre Oval turf. Teammates and coach Stuart Dew surrounded him, fearing the worst.
"I just remember being in excruciating pain and when that subsided after 10 or so seconds, I thought "gee, if I haven't done my knee, it's bloody close"," King recalled in a lengthy chat with AFL.com.au.
"I was able to get up and walk off, which I knew from past experience was a bad sign.
"I was laying on the physio table while the doctor was checking my knee and he knew straight away.
"I remember asking "is it, it?" I don't even think I could say it. He said "yeah, you've done it".
"It all sort of hit me at that moment. I remember lying back and looking up through the trees at the sky and I just started crying.
"It's one of those things you think is never going to happen to you. It all hit me at once and I got pretty emotional."
The "it" was confirmed later that night when scans revealed the then 21-year-old had ruptured the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee.
What ensued was 12 months of toil, countless hours of support from his parents, advice from twin brother Max, detailed rehabilitation from Gold Coast medical staff, a two-week visit from a United States reconditioning guru, and ultimately the transformation from a "footballer to a professional athlete" that will be unveiled against Sydney on March 18.
After the incident
King is young, but he's an imposing individual. As we stand on the Sunshine Coast's North Shore beach near Twin Waters in early February as part of the club's pre-season camp, his chiselled 202cm and 98kg frame dwarfs me.
In his three previous seasons with the SUNS, King had a nice, linear progression and was part of the core of young players they were building a future around.
Fresh off 47 goals in 2021, he, the coaching staff and everyone at Carrara was hopeful of another big season individually and collectively.
The injury came just before lunch time on a sunny Thursday morning and sent a shudder through the club. After he was assessed for a few minutes, King left the field with the help of head physiotherapist Lindsay Bull.
A couple of journalists, myself included, saw it unfold and worked with the SUNS about how, and more importantly when, to "break" the news. The club wanted to give King time to make one important phone call before the news got out to the general public.
Housemate Jack Lukosius left the training field moments later to go and check on King's welfare.
Then came the call from King, to his parents, who he knew would be "shattered" after going through the same rehab with Max in his final year at school.
"Time stood still," Marni King recalled.
"If Ben is calling me in the middle of the day when it’s a training day, my heart sinks.
"I picked up and said: "Oh Jesus, what's wrong?"
"It was heartbreaking, no other way to explain it, it was just heartbreaking when you hear those words.
"You're shattered for him, but as a parent you want to go into pragmatic mode: "we can do this, we've been through it before, we know what to do, we can get through this, Benny."
Of course, she was right, although in those initial stages it seemed a long way off.
Later that night, a dozen players along with Dew and CEO Mark Evans – who housed King in his first 12 months at the club – popped around to the house he shares with Lukosius and Matt Rowell to have a drink and console their rising star. It meant a lot to him.
The next day he was on a plane to Melbourne, to spend time with family prior to surgery in his home city.
That meant seeing Max, who had been through the same procedure just shy of four years earlier. But rather than mope and wallow in despair, their conversation was much different.
"It was a weird one," Max said.
"We don't speak heaps about footy and don't have a lot of real serious talks.
"He was pretty positive from the get-go, not like he needed much advice from me, but I just wanted him to know it'd be good for him to have someone down the line to bounce things off if he needed to, but to be honest he didn't really need that."
It was the no-nonsense conversation Ben said he needed to hear.
His resolve was immediately tested with a blood clot forcing surgery to be delayed by a couple of weeks.
The clot itself didn't affect him, but before surgery could occur, he needed his blood to be thinned, which could only happen through twice daily injections into his stomach.
Marni was responsible initially, but by her own admission, her hand was unsteady having to perform the task – she felt guilty if it caused Ben pain - so Ben took over for "the worst moment of each day, twice".
Successful surgery followed on February 23 with Dr Hayden Morris, which coincided with Marni's birthday and her last day of working the same job for 28 years. Max was also playing a practice game for St Kilda, so it's little wonder the date is burnt into mum's memory.
Barely able to move in the ensuing days, King slept in his parents' bed, with Marni sleeping on the floor, in a position to give medication through the night and assist with going to the toilet.
"They're quite groggy and it's pretty hard for them to manoeuvre, just the first few days," she said. "You don't want them getting out of bed, just the first few nights until they get more mobile.
"It was only four nights I slept on the floor and then I left him to it."
Although he loved being home, and that month set him on a good path, King was itching to get back to the Gold Coast. Really, he was itching to make progress with his rehab and get back around his second family.
The long road begins
Alex Rigby is Gold Coast's high-performance manager. He got the job just a few months before King was drafted by the SUNS with the sixth pick in the 2018 NAB AFL Draft.
Along with King, Lukosius, David Swallow, Touk Miller and a host more, Rigby was there in the early stages of the current build. The players know him as a personable, innovative, and tough, fitness boss.
With Bull giving the green lights for when King could progress from one stage of his rehab to the next, it was Rigby's responsibility to get him between phases, along with performance coach David Bailey.
The trio would set the program for each stage and then oversee it for progression.
Speaking at the café that adjoins Gold Coast's training headquarters late in the current pre-season, Rigby laid out the SUNS' thinking for King quite clearly.
"When he entered the rehab phase, we all sat down and worked out how he wanted to get better as an athlete, how he could improve physically to be the best forward in the game.
"We quickly identified his strength and ability to work really really hard and consistently was probably something we could target.
"The early days were all about looking after the knee and rehabbing it, but outside of that was putting in a plan on how he could get stronger.
"If you return as the same athlete, you've probably wasted 12 months. He had a lot of areas to work on, Ben, and we just keep referencing that best forwards in the game, and what attributes do they have? They're strong, they've got extremely good repeat efforts and they're fit."
The challenge was laid out for King, and he got to work.
Sometimes it was monotonous, sometimes it was inspiring. It was just as mental as physical. Rigby said the middle of the season was probably the most difficult with Gold Coast playing well and King doing a mountain of work on his own.
"There was a period in the middle there where I was pretty consistently still feeling pain in my knee at home," King said.
"I was on the couch and feeling for it and in my own head thinking: "if I'm feeling it at home then what hope am I going to have in not thinking about my knee when I'm on the track"?
Lukosius said he saw a different man in the months following surgery.
"Talk to anyone around the club, his car is the first in most mornings and one of the last ones out most days.
"He's a very intelligent bloke, He's left no stone unturned.
"He's become obsessed with it a bit. He's a pretty switched on dude and he's become obsessed.
"Early on it was all about putting on weight and what he was eating and lifting, and he's gone to new levels with that.
"As the rehab went on it turned to his running and now it's going into match-sim and football stuff and his marking. He's planned it all out so well."
Part of staying on top of things mentally brought King to one of his biggest challenges through the recovery – Rigby's Tour de France challenge.
Tour de France
Right in the middle of winter, the middle of the comeback where there wasn't always a lot of evidence of improvement, came the fabled Tour de France.
Rigby loves setting a challenge. Something tangible for the players to chase. When Matt Rowell was coming back from a shoulder reconstruction in 2020, he set the teenager the challenge of 'Everesting', getting on the home bike trainer and riding 359km with the same elevation (8848m) as Mt Everest.
The pair did it together with Dew at the SUNS' headquarters inside 24 hours.
Rigby has also had the players get into teams of five, where they would run relay legs of 400m each until they completed a marathon (42.2km) between them, in an attempt to complete it in the same time as the Australian record.
For King, it was the Tour de France. No, he wouldn't ride the same distance as the 3000km-plus, three-week race around France, but he'd have daily challenges linked to the distances ridden on the Tour.
"We wanted to challenge him mentally as well as physically to see if we could increase his capacity to work," Rigby said.
King was presented with a three-week calendar that laid out the daily challenges.
Stage one was a 13.2km time trial, so that's what King did – got on the trainer and punched out 13.2km as quick as he could.
Stage four was a hilly 171.5km, so King had to swim 171 x 25m efforts in the pool. All on a 45sec cycle. So, if he swam the 25m in 30 seconds, he got 15 seconds recovery.
This was one of the biggest growth areas for him. King was not a good swimmer, and during his rehab, Rigby took him to a strong squad at Tallebudgera Creek where he was forced to swim in open water. It went from being a distinct weakness to a viable option of cross training.
"There were times in the challenge where he was at the club at eight o'clock at night swimming seven kilometres, in the middle of the year when there was nothing coming up, but still, looking back on that now, it changed the way he approaches footy preparation," Rigby said.
Stage nine was a mountainous 193km, so King had to read 193 pages from a selected book.
Stage 15 was another 193km through the hills, so King did 193 push-ups each hour for six hours (the duration of the stage).
Other challenges centred on the ski ergo, chin ups and meditation. Then there were the rest days in the Tour. What would King do then? No access to his phone from 8am to 8pm. This was as much mental as it was physical.
"It was bloody tough," he said.
"It was one of the hardest things I've done, but it honestly was the best part of my rehab.
"It's quite a monotonous road back and you do a lot of the same stuff repetitively and that's how you get back.
"It just broke up the year for me. I got so much out of it mentally. I remember looking at the sheet of what my month would look like … and I never would have thought I could do something like that.
"I felt like it taught me a lot about what I'm capable of and how to push myself."
By the time the Tour challenge had finished, King was about to be joined in rehab by Lachie Weller and Connor Budarick, who both ruptured their ACLs within the space of a month in the middle of the season.
While it was a horrible situation for both men, and the SUNS, it was a blessing for King as his rehab began to drag on.
Weller progressed quickly, and by the time Gold Coast resumed its pre-season in November – after King had a mental break on a European holiday with Lukosius, Rowell, Noah Anderson and Charlie Ballard – the running defender was doing some of the same drills as King.
Having three players in rehab from the same injury, and an unfortunate history of knee problems at the club, the SUNS enlisted the services of renowned American reconditioning guru Bill Knowles, who spent two entire weeks at Carrara.
Knowles has worked with some of the biggest sports names in the world including Tiger Woods, Andy Murray, Jonny Wilkinson, Peyton Manning, Alex Rodriguez and AFL players Nic Naitanui and Christian Petracca. He's seen just about every lower limb injury in every sport imaginable.
"It's another voice," Weller said.
"We have massive trust in Lindsay and Riggers … he probably put us in positions where we didn't think we could quite get to just yet.
"He gave us confidence to do the things he did with us. It shaved a heap of time off (recovery) I reckon.
"In terms of our agility, it was a massive difference from what we were doing at the start to the end (of his two weeks)."
Knowles worked diligently with the trio, setting up a series of drills for them to do while the rest of the SUNS players trained. They were intense two-hour sessions, sometimes twice daily.
His emphasis was on deceleration. He said: "if you can't slow shit down, don't speed it up". Braking aggressively, changing directions, turning, pivoting, landing from the air, it was all equally as important as getting aerobically fitter, what he called the "low hanging fruit" because it's easier, and stronger.
But in King, Knowles saw a special athlete.
"He's got a secret weapon," Knowles said with a smirk, almost pausing for me to guess. "He's got really good, strong calves and he's really bouncy.
"Those calves are superior for jumping and they can be for landing.
"He's a really proportionate athlete and has a very cool way to move and manipulate his body. It's not big and blocky, not that thick, hardened 28-year-old.
"I think we just tighten up that body for the future. He'll naturally keep strengthening and then he's going to keep physically maturing at 23, 24, 25.
"I'm really impressed with how he bends for a big guy.
"He doesn't have to bend over to scoop the ball, he can get low and scoop on the run quite well. It's not clumsy, it's pretty fluid. He has those qualities."
King said the America was "incredible" and gave him confidence after struggling with a few things.
"He just made you feel like you could overcome all those challenges … and you'll be moving better than you were before.
"In terms of the movement technique stuff, we still do some of his drills today and will keep doing that into the future.
"It's a long 12 months and it gave us something different to think about as well."
A new King
As Christmas came and went, King was about to reintegrate into main training. The peak of the mountain didn't seem as far away any more.
The one word that everyone associated with him came back to now was "professional".
Weller said he'd seen the change up close. Along with Budarick, they had bonded in rehab, comparing notes with each other about where they were sore, and why.
"I've seen a massive change in him being a footballer and now being a professional athlete," Weller said.
"Just thinking how he can be better, training standards … you figure that out as you go, you don't come straight into the system with that, and this has been a time where he's figured that out.
"He's figuring out how he can be the best forward in the comp.
"To see him run out and play, I'm obviously stoked for him, but it helps me enormously. If he can do it, there's nothing stopping me from doing the same."
When he runs out against Sydney on March 18, he'll be a fitter, stronger, more agile and more resilient spearhead. King knocked 25secs off his (already strong) 2km time trial. He's now among the best at the bench press in the club. He's formulated marking drills with medicine balls and bands on his own.
The hunger is there.
"He's put on a few kilos, his running has improved out of sight, his ability to repeat efforts has improved out of sight," Rigby said.
"I don't know how you put a number on that … I guess you'd say he'd be 20 per cent better, but that's just throwing a number up. It's a big improvement.
"He's learnt that doing the program will get you so far, but if you want to be the best, you need to add to it.
"I just think you're going to see a more steely-focussed, determined, talented player. He's added the steel focus and determination and ability to outwork his opponent. He's clearly extremely talented, but he's added a few strings to his bow."
King re-enters a forward line chock full of talent, a forward line that was responsible for the seventh most points in the home and away season last year.
He'll play alongside a combination of Lukosius, Mabior Chol, Levi Casboult, Ben Ainsworth, Joel Jeffrey, Nick Holman, Malcolm Rosas Jnr and others.
Although Knowles says the 'comeback year' is a real thing, where athletes take time to regain their absolute best form after a traumatic injury, King is having none of it.
"The main goal coming back is that I don't want to have one of those gap years where you get used to playing football for a year and set yourself for the next one," he said.
"I want to have a good solid year, regardless of injury, and one I can look back on and say: 'It's not a good year considering I had a knee last year, it's just a good year, fullstop'."
Marni will be at Heritage Bank Stadium for the return game, and despite her son's bullish nature, admits to having some nerves.
"I'd like to say I'm excited, but it's a real mixed bag for us footy mums that have gone through injuries with their boys.
"I'm excited for him. I do take comfort in …. seeing Max go through it, he got up and started playing and it's well and truly behind him now.
"I hold my breath and wait for the games and then breathe a sigh of relief when it's over.
"It is stressful."
When King runs out, it will be 574 days since he last played an AFL game – coincidentally against the same opponent in late 2021.
Perhaps just as significantly it will be 401 days since he crumpled to the turf clutching his knee last pre-season.
A far cry from the young man who stared into the sky with tears in his eyes, King is now full of hope and optimism.
"I didn't know what I was capable of physically and mentally, what I could endure, some of the stuff I did over the last year.
"I'll definitely take that confidence that I can endure more than I thought I could.
"I'm so excited. I've realised in the last 12 months how much I miss playing football and how much I love the game."