Fremantle midfielder Anthony Morabito may never reach his lofty potential after rupturing an anterior cruciate ligament for the third time, according to leading sports doctor Peter Larkins.
Pick No.4 in the 2009 draft, Morabito was training at Fremantle Oval yesterday when he stepped sideways to tackle and fell to the ground clutching his left knee.
The 21-year-old dragged himself up and limped to the sidelines, only to collapse on the ground once again with his head in his hands.
Scans revealed he had torn the graft on his reconstructed left ACL.
It is the third time in three years he had suffered the same injury, first during the 2011 pre-season then in July last year.
Morabito enjoyed a near-flawless entry to the AFL, lining up for the Dockers in round one of 2010 and playing every game as the club qualified for the second week of the finals for only the second time in its history.
He had an uncanny combination of strength and speed, and was compared to Sydney's dual Brownlow medallist Adam Goodes.
Dockers general manager of football operations Chris Bond said the club would work closely with Morabito to decide on treatment options.
Morabito's manager, Colin Young, said it would be a challenging road ahead.
"He's devastated obviously, he was flying and looking like having a great year," Young said.
"I spoke to him briefly. Obviously, third time around not many people go through that, so it's hard to put yourself in his shoes."
Morabito, contracted to the end of the year, has not played an AFL game since 2010.
Larkins said a third knee reconstruction might be one too many for the young player.
"There's not too many players that have had three reconstructions on the same knee and played anywhere near the same level of football," Larkins said.
"From a technical point of view, the surgery can be done but it does create an issue knowing what sort of tissue the player then makes.
"There could be potentially a genetic component to (the knee injury), which is not going to be altered no matter how good your surgeon is.
"The other big component is the confidence and psychology of it, having done it three times.
"He has got a massive hurdle to overcome in the way of confidence and that's why I would be very guarded to think that he's going to play top footy again."
Morabito's first two reconstructions used traditional methods rather than the controversial LARS method. While it offers a recovery time of only three months, many players have suffered another rupture within a year of LARS surgery.
Larkins said LARS was a major risk on a player who had prior injuries.
"It will be discussed, for sure, because it's always on the radar for clubs, but it's not appropriate to do a LARS for a third reconstruction on anybody. It's never designed for that," he said.
"It's designed for a first-time operation using the original ACL to make the graft, but Morabito hasn't got an original ACL.
"It's designed to be done with a lot of the normal healthy tissue of the player already there.
"All the things you need to do to tick the boxes aren't there for Morabito."
Dockers captain Matthew Pavlich shared his grief on Twitter.
"Bloody tough day - boys (are) all absolutely shattered for Mora," he said. "Seriously not fair after working so hard!!
"Cruel game sometimes."
Other AFL players and clubs joined Pavlich in bemoaning the news and sending well wishes.
Greater Western Sydney player and former Docker Rhys Palmer said: "So sad to hear about Mora doing his third knee. Great bloke and massive talent, hope the footy world gets around him."
Palmer suffered a similar setback while at the Dockers, tearing an ACL shortly after winning the 2008 Rising Star award.