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Early adversity drives Docker
Ryan Crowley trains at Fremantle Oval. Picture: Paul Kane/Getty Images

The story of Docker Ryan Crowley's rise to elite sport is as remarkable as the "dog hunger" in his style of play that coach Ross Lyon loves.

At just five, while growing up in regional Victoria, Crowley was diagnosed with a benign tumour, an osteoid osteoma, in his right leg.

It deteriorated to the point where he had surgery to remove 90 per cent of his femur.

But after months in a body plaster-cast, he started to chase a football dream that led him to the Dockers, where his hunger to succeed is now fuelled by his past adversity.

"It had sort of eroded a fair part of my leg so they cut away nine-tenths of my femur to get it out," he said.

"Because I was still pretty young at the time, the bone re-grew. But for four months I was in plaster head-to-foot and used to get around the house on like a little luge-type thing that Dad had made me.

"It took until a couple of years after that to be 100 per cent right. The main thing I was flat about is that I had to start footy a year later."

Melbourne sports doctor Peter Larkins said yesterday it was rare to forge an elite sporting career after losing such a significant part of the femur. But the fact the tumour was on the bone and not in a joint had been in Crowley's favour.

"Even 20 per cent would be a big section to be taken out . . . it's a massive story," Dr Larkins said.

"We know that young bones will grow and recover and kids, we think, are resilient and are made of rubber and they bounce back.

"But even so, for a person to end up as an elite footballer off the back of having a 90 per cent excision of the main bone in your entire leg is exceptional."

Crowley has made time in his schedule to become an ambassador for Redkite, a principal charity partner of the Dockers, which supports children, young people and families affected by cancer.

The 28-year-old said he was driven to help young cancer sufferers find purpose in their lives.

"Because I've been in a similar situation, I try to show the kids that you can come out the other side," he said. "It's very rewarding and sometimes when I go and see them in hospital, it takes me back to when I was there."

Crowley played a crucial role in helping Fremantle progress to Friday night's semifinal against Adelaide with his tagging role against Geelong's James Kelly.

Kelly was a childhood friend at St Brigid's Primary School in Gisborne, 55km north-west of Melbourne. Crowley's parents missed Fremantle's greatest win in their 18-season history because they were in Paris on their first overseas trip.

Speaking by phone to his father Larry in the MCG change rooms after the match, Crowley said plans were being made for an early return from Europe in case the Dockers went further into the finals.

Crowley was so convinced his time at Fremantle would finish at the end of last season that he had been packing up and looking at places to live back in Victoria.

But with Lyon's backing, he cut his weight from 96kg to 88kg and is now hell-bent on helping Fremantle chase its first premiership.

"We're trying not to get too far ahead of ourselves, but I feel like there's something special going on," he said.

"Friday night, another final, it's what it's all about."