Gutherson emerges from injury hell
It was close to midnight. Clint Gutherson was driving himself home after a late night scan in Parramatta, holding on to the hope that things would be OK.
Earlier that day, in the Parramatta Eels' dramatic victory over the Wests Tigers at ANZ Stadium, Gutherson's knee had given way.
And not for the first time in his young career, either. But he refused to concede what those around him had already feared.
"I didn't want to believe it until after the scan," Gutherson told NRL.com.
"They said I can do it at 10.30 that night or in the morning the next day. I just said 'get it done, I want to get it done, I want to know right now'."
Driving along the M2 on the lonely trip back home, Gutherson's phone started to ring. It was the doc. Gutherson couldn't control himself.
"Tears started rushing down my face," an emotional Gutherson said as he reflected on the day that brought an end to his blistering season.
"I didn't feel like I wanted to cry, it just happened."
Gutherson returned home that night to an empty household. His girlfriend was away with her family. He was alone with his thoughts, wondering what he could have done to change the course of history.
"It was pretty hard just sitting at home thinking about 'if I wasn't there, if I wasn't pushing up, if I didn't get tackled that way I'd still be playing and be out there next week with the boys'," he said.
Gutherson has always been a player with immense talent. Problem was, most didn't know where he best belonged on a football field.
Hopefully in the next couple of years I can look back on this and say it made me a better player.Clint Gutherson
Parramatta didn't solve that problem in 2017, but wherever the coach put him, most weeks he was their best player.
"I was just loving footy. I was enjoying my footy. I was loving everything about it," Gutherson said.
"Just for it to all come crushing down in one second, one split second where nothing could have stopped it, it's hard. Knowing that I was having such a good year and the team was going so well and looking forward to the finals, it did make it a lot harder."
His teammates couldn't see it in his face. He's not the type of guy who would sour such a special victory by making others feel sorry for him.
But deep down, the players knew the agony he was going through.
"That was shattering for Gutho knowing that was his second ACL," Corey Norman said.
"He was in good spirits when he was around us but you know when he went home that he was feeling sorry for himself, as you would."
Gutherson is renowned as one of the most infectious players at Parramatta. First in, last-man-to-leave type stuff.
But the motivation and desire that once earned the tag from his peers as the coach's pet began to fade as he battled to overcome the emotional heartache of his second ACL injury.
"You don't want to train," he recalled.
"You have no motivation, you have nothing."
It took about a month for things to change. For the flickering light to appear down that long, dark tunnel.
"Once I started seeing the boys at training and had the operation and had to start doing stuff to better it for next year, that's where it sort of clicked," he said.
"I had to move on and look forward and hopefully in the next couple of years I can look back on this and say it made me a better player or that it helped someone else through their career or it helped the team in the long run. That's how I look at things, not just in footy, but in my whole life."
Gutherson has been trying to draw strength and inspiration from those who have and still are trying to overcome the gigantic setback that is a ruptured ACL.
He's been talking to Brisbane Broncos hooker Andrew McCullough and Eels teammate Tony Williams, who are each recovering from the same injury.
Gutherson has also taken plenty from Brisbane back Jordan Kahu's ability to fight through repeated ACL injuries in a short period of time to go on and represent New Zealand.
But the biggest supporter of Gutherson's road to recovery is a former Manly Sea Eagles teammate who has distanced himself from the game in setting up a new life as a restaurant owner in Melbourne.
"Brett Stewart's been massive," Gutherson said.
"As everybody knows, he [missed] a massive chunk of his career through knees. It wasn't just ACLs he had a few different things go wrong. He's been massive for me. He just said tick off all the little boxes. That was his massive thing. Do the little things right and they'll always add up.
"He's always been good to me since I've come up through the ranks. I've known him since I was 15 or 16 coming through Harold Matts. Just him still texting me and calling me out of the blue and just seeing how I am, it's pretty big. It puts you in a good mood for the day and next couple of weeks."
Some players are never the same after rupturing their ACL. Gutherson has now done it twice in the same knee and he's still only 23.
The Parramatta medical staff are extremely mindful of that, and despite Gutherson's best efforts to convince them he will be ready for the season opener against the Penrith Panthers, the Eels will adopt a far more cautious approach.
"I was pushing for round one but I think they are going to hold me back," he admitted.
"We've sat down and had a briefing. Early part of the season is what we're aiming for. If we can get back anytime in the early part I will be a happy man.
"But I don't want to rush it. I'm still young and hopefully I still have 10 or 12 years left in me. I don't want to rush it and come back early and put the risk higher than it needs to be."
Gutherson admits he is scared about the consequences of what a third rupture would have on his career.
But that concern hasn't dented his confidence to not only rediscover the form that saw him in strong contention for last year's Dally M Medal, but surpass what he achieved in 2017.
"I've done it before," Gutherson said.
"I'm four months in, so give me another few months and I'll be sweet. I'll be ready to rock and roll.
"I have full confidence in coming back better than ever. As you said I was in pretty good form last year and I'm going to hopefully do better next year."
As for the coach's pet jibe?
"Don't listen to the boys," he said with a huge smile.
"No chance. He hates me. He pushes me harder."
Somehow, that's hard to believe.
Parramatta Eels 2017 Season in Review