Footy star’s dream crippled in a flash
AS HE regained consciousness, Haydyn Cliff's upper body was inside the front of the car that had just hit him, having smashed through the windscreen.
The 16-year-old glanced to his right and saw the expressionless face of the driver staring straight ahead, seemingly unaware of what had just happened.
"I don't remember a whole lot because I blacked out when the car first hit me," Mr Cliff, now 21, told news.com.au.
"But I remember his face. He was staring straight ahead, he wasn't looking at me coming through his windscreen. He was that out of it - he wasn't with it at all."
For about 60 metres, the car continued hurtling erratically down the suburban street in Maroochydore on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, until eventually coming to a stop.
Moments earlier, just after 9pm on a Friday in late May in 2014, Mr Cliff was putting his overnight bag into the back seat of a friend's car, parked outside his house.
"We were heading to my mate's place just up the road because we had footy the next morning so we were going to go together," he said.
That year, he had been selected in the coveted Under 16s AFL Queensland representative team and it was a week before he was to play in high-profile NAB National Championship
Cliff was a star player with a bright future, who was working towards his dream of making the AFL but in a split second, those dreams were shattered - along with his right leg.
"At first, I didn't think anything major was wrong with me but when I got off the car and tried to walk, my leg was flopped in half," he recalled.
"I dragged myself over and sat in the gutter and I don't remember much from there - I went into shock. My next clear thought is of being in hospital the day after."
Mr Cliff, who could've been killed in the incident, underwent a major operation where surgeons inserted a metal rod into his shattered right tibia.
"I had a compound fracture in the tibia and fibula. It's all held together with a rod and some pins and screws and stuff.
"The bone actually popped out down near my ankle, there's scarring where the bone came through the skin. It wasn't ideal."
Hundreds of hours of physiotherapy and rehabilitation followed over the next three years, completely changing the athletic teenager's life.
Earlier this month, news.com.au launched A Split Second - a road safety campaign to raise awareness of the human cost of the death toll, which worsens over summer.
Annually, more than 1200 people die on our roads and a staggering 35,000 people are hospitalised with non-fatal injuries.
Mr Cliff is sharing his story to highlight the human cost of the issue.
For a while, Mr Cliff said he was angry that the reckless actions of a drunk driver had robbed him of the goal he'd been working so hard towards.
He went from sports, gym and an active outdoorsy lifestyle to being stuck inside, his battered leg strapped inside a moon boot.
"The recovery for my leg was pretty long. I was on crutches for a few months. I had to wear the moon boot for a long time," he said.
"Even after that, I couldn't walk properly so I was doing physio down in Brisbane to do a lot of rehab. I had whiplash too, so I was at the chiro three times a week for a fair while."
But early on, he made the decision not to let himself dwell on the accident and its consequences. He avoided the court case, which saw the motorist sentenced to three years behind bars.
"I'm a pretty strong-minded person, I reckon. I've tried to look forward to the future and just get on with it. I didn't want to get stuck in the negative side of it."
He enrolled in university, studying civil engineering, to keep himself occupied and devoted every spare minute to his physical therapy.
A schoolmate Eric Hipwood, who Cliff had made the state team alongside, was drafted by the Brisbane Lions in 2015. His friend's success helped him stay connected to the game he loved while he was unable to play.
"I got invited to the Brisbane Lions Talent Academy a year after the accident, which helped me so much being able to access the quality physios and have the professionals there help me with rehab," Cliff said.
"I got back into footy very slowly. I still want to make the AFL so I'm working really hard to look after my body and get back to where I was."
Luke Curran is the operations manager of the Lions Talent Academy and distinctly recalls watching the youngster in action in the Under 16s state squad.
"He was showing some really good signs," Mr Curran said.
"The (national championship) is one of the major talent programs in Australia. Recruiting staff from various AFL clubs are watching the boys coming through."
Mr Cliff was one to watch and the Lions slated him to join the Talent Academy after the national carnival.
"He would've started training with us right after. When the accident happened, we waited to see the outcome of the first lot of surgery. We wanted to help him recover and get back to playing his best football.
"The two main parts we helped with were the physical recovery, using Academy physios to help with his rehab … and the mental side of it. It's hard to go from the high of playing for your state playing in the national championships to then have horrific injuries."
Being at the Academy gave him a goal to work towards - recovering and playing footy again.
This year, after a long road, Mr Cliff played part of the season with Brisbane team Sandgate and has been training hard in the off season.
"To see him recover, from walking to running, to kicking and training, has been incredible," Mr Curran said.
"He was over the moon this year to play his first senior game at Sandgate. It was a big milestone for him and his family. He's got many more games ahead of him."
Mr Cliff said his body feels like it's "probably about 90 per cent back to what it was" before the accident, and he's confident of playing every game in 2019.
"It's been four years now and I'm only just getting back to how athletic I was before the accident. I've done so many hours of rehab to get to where I am. Hopefully I can keep improving and maybe get noticed."