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Where Are They Now? Ryan Fitzgerald

Katrina Gill  April 4, 2014 10:01 AM

AFL 2002 Rd 4 - Essendon v Adelaide

Ryan Fitzgerald of the Crows contests the mark against Dustin Fletcher of the Bombers during the round four AFL match between Essendon Bombers and the Adelaide Crows at the Colonial Stadium in Melbourne, Australia on April 19, 2002.

I remember ringing Dad and I was just in tears. He started crying too. I said to him, ‘I’m over it. I’m just over football. I can’t do this anymore.

Ryan ‘Fitzy’ Fitzgerald only played eight games for the Crows, but he’s arguably one of the Club’s most famous – and popular – past players. The talented media personality talks about his footy career and unexpected rise to stardom in the latest instalment of ‘Where are they now?

A record-holding little athletics star, football was always Fitzgerald’s No.1 love but the AFL wasn’t on his radar growing up. As a teenager, the skinny defender’s sole objective was to break into the A-Grade team at Port Noarlunga in the Southern Football League …
We won the Under-17 premiership at Port Noarlunga in 1993. I went up the seniors the following year, but I wasn’t good enough for the A-Grade, so I played in the B-Grade. I was very skinny and not that tall either, and then out of nowhere I started growing. When I was 17 or 18-years-old, I started to get a bit of confidence and in 1997 made the A-grade team at Port Noarlunga. We won the premiership that year – our first one since 1985. It was amazing to win it with all the mates I’d grown up with.

Ahead of the 1998 season, Fitzgerald was invited to try out at South Adelaide and Glenelg. But his SANFL career got off to a rocky start …
I was lucky enough to get a call-up to try out for South Adelaide. My dad, Mick, had played for Glenelg and they wanted me out there as well. I barracked for Glenelg, but I was working at Mitsubishi making seats, so it was easier to get from work to training at South. I also had some mates at the Panthers, so I decided to go out there.

I really enjoyed my year at South under coach Ken Applegarth. I played as a defender in my first three games and got absolutely spanked. Brendon Parker from North Adelaide kicked a bag on me. Barry Stoneham from Sturt kicked four goals on me and West Adelaide’s Adam Richardson kicked eight on me. I thought, ‘I’m gone here after three games. Ken’s going to drop me’, but halfway through my fourth game Ken said to me, ‘Why don’t you try centre half-forward?’ It was against Glenelg and I stood Chad Cornes. Something just sort of clicked. I took a few grabs and started getting a bit of confidence. It all started from there and after one year at South.

The 1998 season was memorable for another reason. The lifelong Crows supporter had a brush with his beloved team on the biggest of stages …
I went to both the 1997 and 1998 Grand Finals with a group of mates from Port Noarlunga. We didn’t get into the first one. We didn’t have tickets, so we watched the game from Punt Road. In 1998, we got tickets. We were in the ground and had a few drinks during the Under-18s game.

We saw a volunteers stand up and yell out, ‘Whoever needs their red overalls, follow us’. A mate and I just happened to be in the area at the time and we thought we’d follow them. We went down underneath the MCG, got the red overalls and found out we were in a group of on-ground volunteers. The next thing we knew, we were out on the MCG helping set up and Muhammad Ali was driving past us. We kept the red overalls just to remember the day, but at the end of the game when the Crows got up we looked down and all the guys in red overalls were on the ground taking out the stages for the presentations. Security didn’t question us at all, so we ran down onto the ground. It was a couple of months before the draft. ‘Blighty’ (Malcolm Blight) and ‘Bicks’ (Mark Bickley) looked and me and asked, ‘what are you doing out here?’ I said, ‘It’s a long story. I just hope I get to pick No.16 and you guys can draft me!’ It was one of the greatest days.

The now 199cm athletic forward didn’t make it close to pick No.16. He was snapped up by Sydney with No.4 in the 1998 AFL National Draft, four selections ahead of would-be Swans teammate and good friend, Jude Bolton. Fitzgerald’s first two years at Sydney were ruined by back-to-back shoulder reconstructions …
For the bogan from Port Noarlunga, moving to Sydney was really hard. I was such a parochial Adelaide boy and had a really strong relationship with my family and friends. I ended up loving my time there and met some great friends, but the first couple of years were tough. I needed to bulk up because I was very skinny, but I had the two shoulder reconstructions, so I couldn’t get into the gym and it was frustrating.

He made his long-awaited AFL debut against St Kilda in Round One, 2000. As you may have heard (Fitzy has recalled this story many a time on radio) he kicked five goals that day …
Look, not many people know I kicked five on debut and I don’t like to talk about it too much! No, it was great. It was all a bit of a blur. I remember Andrew Dunkley came off the ground with the blood rule and that was the only reason I got onto the ground. I went on and three quarters later I remember thinking, ‘Oh my God, I’m lining up for my fifth here’. It was probably the only highlight of my career, but it’s a night I’ll never forget. The best part was that I had my Mum and Dad there and my Aunty Trish to experience it with me. It was brilliant.

Unfortunately, injury hit the unlucky goalkicker again, and he was limited to 10 games for the season …
The next week, we went over to West Coast and I stood Glen Jakovich and Ashley McIntosh. My confidence was up and I was really enjoying it. Unfortunately, I was struck down with a really bad case of osteitis pubis. Sydney wanted me to keep playing with it, but it kept getting worse. I played for three quarters of the year and it got so bad I couldn’t walk after games. I had to get both groins sliced to release the pressure and while they were operating they discovered I had a double hernia as well. It set me back for quite a bit.

Fitzgerald recovered only to suffer a season-ending knee injury before he’d even played a game in 2001. Towards the end of the year, the writing was on the wall and the South Australian moved to engineer a trade to Adelaide …
I had a sense that the Swans weren’t going to go with me again. I’d signed a three-year contract and was approaching the end of my third year. I didn’t know what was happening. I was disappointed because I wanted to prove myself at Sydney and I’d made some really good mates, but I was just so happy to come back home and get an opportunity to play for the team that I barracked for since their inception into the AFL.

I can still remember negotiating the trade with (former Adelaide Football Manager) John Reid. I didn’t really have much negotiating power. I can remember distinctly his gruff voice saying, ‘Fitzy, I’d love to give you more money mate, but we’ve got no money … no money at all’. A year later they forked out about $700,000 for Wayne Carey, but they had no money! I reckon that was Reidy’s standard line in any contract negotiation!

The new Crows’ No.15 made his debut for Adelaide in Round One, 2002, and played eight straight games, including a four-goal haul against Sydney, before his ‘good’ left knee buckled under him. He retired from AFL after only 18 games …
I knew straight away that was it. I got pretty emotional that day. I knew I’d need another reco and be out for the whole of 2002. The Crows gave me a one-year contract to see if my body would hold up and, unfortunately, it didn’t. I wondered how I was going to handle it, but I thought to myself, ‘I’ve got great facilities here at the Crows, so I’ll make the most of it, rehab my knee as best as I can and try to get ready to go back into the SANFL’.

The Club looked after me even when I left. They allowed me to see the physios and doctors and I could use the facilities to get my knee right. I went back to South Adelaide the year after and the week before I was due to come back, I went to twist and tackle someone and did my left knee again.. I remember ringing Dad and I was just in tears. He started crying too. I said to him, ‘I’m over it. I’m just over football. I can’t do this anymore’. I had to get out of Australia. I didn’t want people to ask me about my knee, so before I had the operation I bought an around-the-world plane ticket and travelled for two months by myself.  I just didn’t want to deal with it. While I was travelling I thought, ‘I wouldn’t mind having one more crack at football’, so I got my knee done again and rehabbed it with the intention of going back to South Adelaide. Fortunately, while I was doing my rehab I got the opportunity to audition for Big Brother …

Mates convinced him to enter the reality TV show ...
My mates said, ‘Why don’t you audition? We think you’d be good for it’. In everyone’s circle of mates, there’s always a few who think they’d be good on television! I didn’t think I was ever going to get in. I sent off my tape, went in for a couple of auditions and then I got a call saying, ‘We want you to go into the Big Brother House next week and go into lockdown’.

I remember sitting down with Robert Pyman, who was the coach of South at the time. I said, ‘I’ve got a once in a lifetime opportunity to go on TV’. He said to me, ‘Why would you do that, mate? You’re a footballer. I need you. I’ve planned to put you back into the forward line when you come back’. I said, ‘Can I be honest with you? Footy hasn’t been working for me that well over the last five years. I can’t really trust that and I think this is a better option’. He said, ‘I understand. Off you go’.”

I always knew I wanted to get into the media. I knew (Sports Director) Cam Thompson well from FIVEaa. Cam’s father, Paul Thompson, ran DMG Radio. Cam said to me, ‘Mate, keep your eye out because Nova is going to start up in Adelaide at some stage’. I was doing a bit of boundary riding for Triple M and a few bits and pieces, but I knew it was hard to get a foot in the door. Then Big Brother came up and it all went from there.

Fitzy, or ‘Fryzie’ as he was known then, didn’t win Big Brother but he won over the Australian public. His participation in the reality TV show led to remarkable career change, with a spin-off television series and a breakfast radio gig with Nova in Adelaide. Since then, the loveable larrikin has moved to Sydney to co-host the Nova 96.9 Sydney breakfast show ‘Fitzy and Wippa’. He’s also had television roles on The Project and Before The Bounce. A humble and hard worker, the laidback lad from ‘down south’ has to pinch himself to believe where he is today …
I’ve been at Nova coming up 10 years now and I still feel like I’m learning so much. I’m so blessed to have that opportunity. It’s just funny where things take you in life. One minute I was at rock bottom, thinking the one thing I was good at in life, football, was being taken away from me. The next thing I know, it was a dawn of a new career which I absolutely love. I loved playing for the Adelaide Crows in front of 40,000 in a Showdown, but the thrill I’ve got from doing radio for 10 years is just as good. I’m very, very lucky. I thank my lucky stars all the time that I’m in this job.

Through his ‘dream’ job at Nova, Fitzy’s met a host of stars in cities across the world …
Wippa and I went over to Los Angeles to interview the cast of Twilight and then on the way back we went to Bangkok to speak to The Hangover cast. We get sent on trips that are just unbelievable. We’ve struck up relationships with people like Hugh Jackman, Sofia Vergara and Ricky Martin … it just blows you away! For three years we’ve been lobbying for Russell Crowe to come on our show. He finally came on the other day and at the end of it he said, ‘Boys, do you want to come to a Rabbitohs game with me, have a beer and a night out?’ We were just sitting there thinking, ‘Oh my God!’

It’s a great industry and we have a great breakfast team here at Nova now. We all get along well and have a common goal. It reminds me a lot of a footy club. The premiership is to get to No.1 and, hopefully, one day that will happen for us.

He’s also married to the love of his life Belinda or ‘BJ' as she’s affectionately known. The couple has two young sons, Hewy and Lennox, who are budding Crows supporters …
Hewie has a fluffy Crows pillow that he sleeps with every night and says, ‘Go Crows!’ He loses concentration a bit with footy. I’ve been trying to kick with him a bit and he starts Auskick next year. This is the dilemma I have though, we live in Balmain and the nearest Auskick club is Drummoyne. They are the Drummoyne Power, so Hewie might have to wear a Power guernsey when he first starts his footy! But as long as he has a footy in his hand I’ll be a happy man. I can’t wait to take the boys to Adelaide Oval. I’m really looking forward to that.

The Fitzgerald’s have a special attachment to Adelaide Oval …
We got married on the Oval before the redevelopment. It was one of the greatest nights of our life and we’ll never forget it. They turned the lights on around 10pm. We had 180 little footballs made up, so everyone went out and had a kick. Everyone was trying to clean up ‘Roo’ (Mark Ricciuto), so he was getting upset and ripping shirts of peoples’ backs. There were a few injuries by the end of the night, but it was really good.

Fitzgerald’s latest venture as host of the Fox reality football show, The Recruit, will prevent him from being at Adelaide Oval this weekend to watch his two former teams do battle. But there’s no doubting who he’ll be cheering for from his couch …
We don’t talk AFL too much on our radio show because it’s a Rugby League-centric town. Everyone over here thinks I barrack for the Swans, but I’ve always been an Adelaide Crows man. I’ve still got a couple of good mates at the Swans, but I’ll always be the red, yellow and blue and barracking for the Pride. We always play alright against the Swannies, so hopefully we get up this week.

A Crows Ambassador, Fitzy will always be proud South Aussie too …
We absolutely love Sydney, but we also miss home. I want my kids to have the life I had. We love the life by the beach and we love Port Noarlunga. No doubt, we’ll come home one day but we’re enjoying it over here at the moment. It’s like a footy career; it’s not going to last forever. We’ll enjoy it while we can and Adelaide will always be there.

Ryan (left) in his Sydney days and (right) son Hewie, 4, in his Crows gear