Josh Thomas has been a ballwinner and goalkicker in 2018.
Josh Thomas has been a ballwinner and goalkicker in 2018.

Drug bans, Uber driving and a prelim final

JOSH Thomas put off making the phone call.

The Collingwood midfielder knew it was bad - he just didn't know whether it was "real bad", or "semi-bad".

In an effort to have things clarified first, the then 23-year-old waited a "fair few" days before ringing his mum, Leanne, to break the news.

He'd taken illicit drugs on a night out at the St Kilda Festival, that was one thing he had to tell her.

But a positive doping test on February 10, 2015 indicated that what he and then-teammate Lachie Keeffe had taken that night was laced with clenbuterol, a banned performance-enhancing drug that is a common cutting agent in recreational drugs.

 

Josh Thomas fronts the media after his positive doping test. Pic: Michael Klein
Josh Thomas fronts the media after his positive doping test. Pic: Michael Klein

 

He was going to be banned. He knew he had to tell them - it would come out soon enough.

But telling dad, Greg? That just seemed impossible.

"I wasn't fully sure what was going on," Thomas said this week.

"I knew it was bad, but I just didn't know if it was real bad, or just semi-bad.

"And then I knew I had to tell them at some point. I rang my mum - that was pretty tough.

"I didn't want to tell my dad, so I got her to tell him. I think she probably told most people from there, so I didn't have to.

"But it's one of those things, you've just got to cop it."

In the end, he was banned for two years - the maximum under the AFL's Anti-Doping Code when the tests were recorded. Commit the same infraction today, and it's four years.

His parents were supportive but the hardest part was facing "peripheral people, like your friends' parents" once he returned to Brisbane to serve his time out of the game.

 

After serving a two-year ban, Thomas is now preparing for an AFL preliminary final. Pic: Michael Klein
After serving a two-year ban, Thomas is now preparing for an AFL preliminary final. Pic: Michael Klein

 

Thomas, 26, has been a key behind the Pies’ resurgence. Pic: Michael Klein
Thomas, 26, has been a key behind the Pies’ resurgence. Pic: Michael Klein

 

"There was nowhere to hide," he said.

"But the experience in itself teaches you a lot. I'd call it resilience … you just had to cop it."

As the clock ticked on his suspension, Thomas worked in a mate's gym, drove Ubers - around 700 or 800 trips, he reckons - and spent one day in a factory that supplied products to a garlic bread maker.

Thomas' girlfriend stayed in Melbourne - "we did long distance, which was hard" - but at least he was back with his family and best mates in Brisbane,

He owned his sporting crime, he said, and was prepared to do his time. But it was slow.

"I just was part of the crew again and just doing everyday things that I used to do when I was 17 or 18," he said.

"That helped, because I just felt like a regular 23 year old and it took my mind off it.

"It was sort of enjoyable in some ways, without downplaying it, because I hadn't done that.

"I'd been drafted and left. I tried to enjoy it … make a positive out of a negative. I made of it what I could."

Thomas wrote off 2015, spending part of it travelling Europe.

But he joined up with Keeffe in 2016 and they hit the training track in an effort to salvage their AFL dream.

 

Adam Treloar and Will Hoskin-Elliott get around Thomas after he booted a goal against GWS in the semi-final win. Pic: AAP
Adam Treloar and Will Hoskin-Elliott get around Thomas after he booted a goal against GWS in the semi-final win. Pic: AAP

 

"With our situation, it's just such a slow build. It's a really long time, and you can't really do that much - you can only keep fit," he said.

"We just tried to focus on that.

"It's literally probably three years building towards this season for me - it hasn't happened overnight and I just had to stick fat through it, really.

"There's been a lot of times where it wasn't my time - I had to chip away and I felt like if I got my chance then I just wanted to give it my best."

The pair met on the middle of the MCG last Saturday night, with Keeffe now a Giant, in a moment Thomas admits possessed a touch of irony.

"Afterwards I shook his hand … we just sort of both understand where we've been," he said.

"We wouldn't have thought … even Keeffey, he didn't play the week before, so he got picked and when I saw that it was pretty exciting.

"We both appreciate the fact that we've come back from a long way back. For us, it was a bit of a cool moment to both be out there."

 

Josh Thomas: “I tried to enjoy it … make a positive out of a negative”. Pic: Michael Klein
Josh Thomas: “I tried to enjoy it … make a positive out of a negative”. Pic: Michael Klein

 

When he returned, Thomas said the Holden Centre felt like a completely different club - like he'd never even been there before - with so many new faces.

He took time to adjust. He played only nine games last year, but this year the 26-year-old has hit his straps, playing every game booting a career-high 38 goals.

Thomas had expelled the doubts that clouded his mind as he traversed the Brisbane streets as an anonymous Uber driver.

"That was a million miles from AFL," he said.

"I know how hard it is to play AFL, and consistently at that level. It's tough. I just tried to be positive and just felt like if I stuck to a plan, eventually it would come together.

"It wouldn't be overnight, but if I had the right plan and worked hard and control what I could control … that's all you can do."

As for how his 2015 European summer compares to being part of September action in Melbourne, Thomas allows a wry smile.

"I'd definitely rather be here. It was a cool trip, but I wouldn't trade this for anything," he said.