Josh Dunkley: Good Friday football means so much more to us players than you may think

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WHEN I WAS growing up, there were always three games of the year which would grab my undivided attention; the Grand Final, Anzac Day and Queen's Birthday. I used to park myself on the couch, grab my snacks and watch every single second of these blockbuster clashes.

I loved seeing the jam-packed grandstands at the MCG and hearing the roar of the crowd as the best teams in the game battled for supremacy. And every time, without fail, I would watch and dream that one day it would be me playing on such an occasion.

Back then, there was no such thing as Good Friday football. And truthfully, even if there was, I don't think it would have felt as gripping or must-watch as some of those other marquee contests.

It was during the 2017 pre-season that we learned we would be playing North Melbourne in the inaugural Good Friday game. The playing group initially had no idea what we were playing for, and so it was treated like any other game. Don't get me wrong, it was cool to be playing on a Friday evening, but we didn't really see it as anything special. You know, it's funny. Just writing this now makes me laugh; we could not have been more wrong.

Fast forward five years and the Good Friday game now holds a special place in my heart. It's an occasion I no longer take for granted and a fixture I circle at the start of every season. I owe a lot to what this game has given me, including a fresh and healthier perspective on life. It's changed me as a person, for the better.

Unlike those other games I touched on, Good Friday is one which probably means more to the players than many of the fans - at least at the moment while it's still in its infancy. We all know that the day is synonymous with the Royal Children's Hospital and the excellent Good Friday Appeal, and us football players are fortunate enough to play a small role in it, by bringing some joy to those who need it most.

I really didn't know what to expect when the club first asked me if I would like to visit the hospital. To be honest, I probably went into it treating it like any other obligation you have as a football player. But once you arrive and start walking through the wards, you can't help but be overwhelmed with emotion.

At first, seeing literally thousands of sick children in hospital beds is super confronting, but the positivity and resilience they continue to show, all while battling horrible life-threatening illnesses, is truly inspiring. When you hear "you're my favourite player" or "go Bulldogs" it just melts your heart.

I'll never forget one young boy I met a few years back. He was a Dogs fans but literally couldn't speak and was laying in bed, surrounded by all sorts of machines and cords.

But when I walked into the room, and he looked up and saw me, the faintest smile crept across his face. His parents were almost in tears thanking us for making their son's day. It's a moment I will remember for the rest of my life.

My first experience at the Royal Children's Hospital really gave me a new perspective on life. Many of us get frustrated and angry with something as insignificant as sitting in traffic or missing our morning coffee. Even as players we often complain about little niggles or a tight muscle. But here are these kids, many of them fighting for their lives from the moment they are born, and still able to smile and enjoy life.

Ever since that first visit, I try and put things in perspective by reminding myself of those hospital wards whenever I encounter a stressful situation, either in football or my everyday life.

I also make sure that I'm the first to raise my hand each year when the club begins looking for players to head to the hospital. It's an experience I cherish and always want to be involved in. If I can go in and put a smile on just one face, it's all worth it.

For us players, Good Friday really does feel as if we're playing for those kids. All of them. That's why it's so special for us. When I run out onto the field on Friday afternoon, just know they will be in the back of my mind.

We understand that to the average footy fan, the Good Friday rivalry isn't quite the same as Collingwood and Essendon on Anzac Day, but when it comes to the emotion felt as a player knowing the joy you are bringing to so many sick kids, it means just as much, if not more. All of the players now know and fully understand the purpose behind the game.

I've been lucky enough to play in two Grand Finals so far in my career. And yes, they are big games with huge meaning, however this one to me and many others is right up there.