ON any given Saturday during football season, Stratford player Cohan Lee would cross the white line to enter the field of battle.
With the words ‘dare to win’ and ‘dare to struggle’ tattooed on either foot, Lee appeared every much the stereotypical hard man.
But in recent years there was a secret battle he was facing, unbeknown to most, which was the one playing out in his head, as he grappled with the challenges beset upon by mental health.
Thankfully, Lee found the pathway back to the light, and has called on others battling their own demons to reach out.
“Gone are the days where the ‘men are tough, men don’t cry or suffer’ agenda is pushed,” he said.
“We all have our battles and we are allowed to be vulnerable.”
Before he was part of Stratford’s 2018 premiership team, Lee’s football career began in the Mid Gippsland league playing for Trafalgar, where it’s fair to say he experienced a whirlwind few years.
In 2008, he was the unfortunate runner-up in the league best-and-fairest, only to later discover that the ‘winner’ had rigged the votes.
The culprit, a player from Mirboo North, was caught dead in his tracks after suspicions were raised the next year.
A video camera was set-up in the Mirboo North secretary’s office, which showed the player sneaking in to white out names on the best-and-fairest cards.
As Lee explained, the episode was rather humorous given the fact it was a reserves best-and-fairest and it was amazing to think someone would be that desperate to feel the need to cheat in order to win the award.
“It was quite the saga when it all came out,” he said.
“I think I only played under 10 games that year for the twos on the back of doing my knee early in the season.
“I remember thinking I was a shoo-in for three votes against Mirboo North, only to have his name pop up that round and he couldn’t get a kick in a martial arts tournament.
“I got a phone call from The Footy Show and the paper informing me of what had happened.”
Surprisingly in the years since, Lee has never been acknowledged as the true best-and-fairest winner.
“I’d hope to see one day my name etched in history as a league best and fairest winner. He can keep the trophy,” Lee said.
If having a league best-and-fairest award stolen was cruel, what happened to Lee the next season was downright shattering.
Having established himself in the Trafalgar senior line-up, Lee played 19 games for the season, including a semi-final, only to be left out of the team that would go on to win the premiership.
“As basically still a kid that all I lived for was footy that was one of the worst moments of my life,” he said.
“I was working away at the time and chose to take the week off training after the semi-final in order to keep my job thinking a solid end to the season would hold my spot.
“I quit my job on the Thursday before the grand final to drive home six hours to make training.
“I lost my job over it and watched my team cruise to a premiership while I ran water.
“Was soul destroying if I’m honest.”
In a show of strong mental resolve, Lee avoided the temptation of walking out on the club, and fronted up again the next season.
“I was bitter for some time and with offers from other clubs it was a tough decision to go back,” he said.
“But in the end it was hard to leave such a talented team.”
With Trafalgar marching toward back-to-back premierships, it appeared certain Lee was going to miss out again, as he was still in the reserves come finals time.
The reserves bowed out in the semi-final, leaving Lee with the daunting prospect of continuing to train with the senior team with only the slight chance of getting a recall.
“There was nothing else to do but turn up, train hard with the seniors and see how the chips landed,” he said.
Come Thursday night selection for the senior grand final, Lee’s name was not read out, and naturally, he was resigned to the fact he would not be playing yet again.
But just when all hope appeared lost he was unexpectedly given a Hail Mary offer and was drafted into the team at the 11th hour.
“I found out at 11am Saturday morning. I was in the line for the bar at the time,” he said.
Amazingly, Lee had woken up a spectator grand final morning and ended up a premiership player.
Despite making up for the previous year’s heartbreak, Lee was circumspect about what had led to what was his first senior premiership.
“It felt empty that flag. Although I may have deserved to be there I still feel like it wasn’t earned the right way,” he said.
This emptiness was eased two years later when Lee won another Trafalgar senior premiership, this time in a more regulation fashion.
Lee’s time at Trafalgar, where he went from not being named in two grand finals to eventually winning two senior flags in the space of four years, may serve as a lesson in persistence.
“Turn up and train hard. You can’t get picked if you don’t put your hand up,” he said.
As well as Trafalgar and Stratford, Lee also did the seemingly unthinkable and had stints at the two Woodside clubs.
“We nearly went all the way with a home grown DWWWW team,” he said.
“I only played one year at Woodside in 2011 and we ran eighth.”
Lee would be premiership teammates with some of the Stratford opponents he played against seven years later when he was at Woodside.
The move to Stratford in 2018 appeared to come out of nowhere, as Lee had played on an off-and-on basis in the three years prior.
Around that time he was also dealing with a few issues much bigger than football.
“Off the rails certainly isn’t the explanation I’d use,” he said.
“I went through some life changes as many people do unfortunately and it took its toll.”
The Stratford decision seemed to give Lee a new lease on life, and he was able to celebrate another senior football premiership when the Swans defeated Lakes Entrance in the 2018 decider.
“It was a shock to most (going to Stratford), but I promised my best friend I’d play a year with him being his last year and we took home a premiership,” he said.
“Great club and great group of blokes. Extremely talented senior team.”
Having been something of a journeyman footballer, Lee believed the Alberton league in its heyday offered a good challenge.
“My first year in the Alberton league playing for Devon-Welshpool-Won Wron-Woodside was such a big step up from Mid Gippsland with powerhouses like Foster, Korumburra and Wonthaggi throwing big cash around,” he explained.
“The East Gippsland league top three would be neck and neck with the equivalent Mid Gippsland teams.
“The Stratford team I won a premiership with would have pushed any Traf team I played in.”
Despite playing in four different leagues across Gippsland, a career in the Gippsland League never came to be, although Lee said it was close.
“I had a few talks over the years but eventually work gained priority and maybe the fear of not being good enough played its part,” he said.
As one of the many success stories to recover from a mental health illness, Lee urged anyone struggling to seek help before it was too late.
“Don’t be like me and keep it all in because eventually you explode,” he said.
“Grab a mate, sit them down and let them in.
“There’s no need to fight it alone.
“Tough is not just how hard you go at the footy. Being able to accept something is wrong and letting those that love and care for you in so you can battle whatever it is together to me is the pure example of toughness.”
If you or someone you know is suffering, phone Lifeline on 13 11 14 or BeyondBlue on 1300 22 4636.