Ross Munroe glanced at the stopwatch on his wrist as he turned into the suburban-Melbourne side street where he and his mother lived. He grimaced for a moment and then pushed hard to sprint the last part of his run. He hit the stop button as he passed through the gates at his home.
Breathing deeply, he mentally sighed. While his six-kilometre run time was good, he wasn’t satisfied. He needed to improve, and there wasn’t a lot of time left to do so.
It was no surprise that his mother was up and in the kitchen making breakfast when he entered the house just after 6:30 on a Monday morning. She started work early and was usually awake soon after Ross.
“How did you do?” Ivy Munroe asked as her son grabbed a glass and headed towards the refrigerator.
“Decent, but I didn’t get a PB—twenty seconds off my best. I need to work harder.” Ross filled the glass from the bottle of the sports drink he had prepared before the run and downed it in four gulps.
“Drink slower, Ross. You don’t have to do everything at top speed.” She smiled to soften the criticism.
Ross grinned. “I don’t do everything as fast as I can.”
His mother raised an eyebrow. “Really? Food disappears faster than if you were using a vacuum cleaner. Homework is done as quickly as possible so you have more time to train, and while you take your time getting around to doing your chores, when you start them they’re done in the blink of an eye.” The smile was replaced with a frown. “Sometimes I worry that you’re working too hard.”
Ross grimaced. “I have to, Mum. I’ve only really got one good chance at making it into the AFL and I’m already behind the eight-ball. I had hoped to be picked for the national combine, but I only got selected for the state-based one.”
It had been a rude shock when he found out that his name wasn’t on the list for the four-day national camp run by the Australian Football League. He had been sure he’d had a good year and was in line to be drafted. Not a first- or second-round pick, but he thought he’d done well enough for a third- or fourth-round selection. The invitation to the one-day camp for Victorian and Tasmanian prospects that didn’t make the national camp went part of the way towards alleviating the hurt from his rejection, but he knew that he couldn’t take anything for granted.
“But that means that at least two AFL clubs want to see what you can do, and you only need one to think you’re worth taking.” Ivy Munroe sighed. “Yes, I know it’s tough and you need to try your hardest, but be yourself, not who you think the recruiters want. Don’t try to be something you’re not.”
“Yes, Mum.” Ross rolled his eyes as he put his glass in the dishwasher and then returned to the refrigerator to retrieve the sports bottle he had placed there earlier. “Time for some weights.”
“Don’t forget to study, too!” His mother stepped over and gave him a kiss on the cheek, bringing a smile to his face. “I’ve got to go. Take care, and I’ll see you tonight.”
Despite his best intentions, Ross didn’t immediately head to the bedroom that had been converted into a home gym. Since his elder brother, Lawrence, had moved out of home two years before, he and his mother had the house to themselves. His father had passed away when he was fourteen, and Lawrence hadn’t been able to cope. As soon as he had a job, he had left, saying he couldn’t stay in the house any longer: too many upsetting memories. For Ross and his mother, though, those memories were of happy times, and Ross took comfort in them. It had been his father who had started the home gym with a barbell and small set of weights when Ross was ten. Ross still used them from time to time, though only for the weaker muscle groups. For his major muscles, he had long since moved on to much heavier challenges.
Ross gave a long sigh. Even at the start of the short break between terms 3 and 4, Ross’s schedule was full. He had less than two weeks to get ready for the Australian Football League’s draft camp. Then would come his Year 12 exams, and finally, at the end of November, the AFL’s national draft. He, along with hundreds of other young men, would be waiting to see if one of the AFL clubs was willing to take a chance and pick him to join the elite athletes of Australian Rules football.
But that wasn’t what Ross was thinking about. His mind was reflecting on what his mother said about not trying to be something he wasn’t. He knew she was talking about his football, but he always thought of himself as an Aussie Rules football player. It was something else that was bothering him. There was one part of his life where he was trying to be something he wasn’t. At least enough to fool those around him.
Ross Munroe, an eighteen-year-old school student and aspiring football player —known to his friends as Roscoe—wasn’t straight.
* * *
Kevin Scanlan, first-year AFL footballer for the Sydney Swans, stirred in his bed. The noise that had disturbed him had ended before he woke up enough to realise that it had been his phone. Reaching across to his bedside table, he checked to see who had been trying to contact him.
“Shit!” He scrambled into a seated position and quickly called his agent back. As soon as the call was answered and before the other person could say anything, Kevin started speaking. “Sorry, Alastair. I meant to call you yesterday, but I got distracted, and then I forgot.”
Alastair McCrae sighed. “It was a bit of a shock to see your picture in today’s paper, Kev. The story was positive, but I doubt Dean Moore will be impressed. I take it that you’ve just woken up?”
“Yeah, sorry.” Kevin swallowed as he imagined what the Sydney Swans’ football-operations manager would be thinking when he found out what Kevin had been involved in. “What did the article say?”
“That while at the VFL grand final to cheer on your good friend Deon Bradshaw, you were involved in a brawl, that you faced down a number of abusive Footscray supporters, and that you were almost kicked out of Etihad Stadium.” Alastair’s tone changed to one of exasperation. “Your teammates are in their own grand final on Saturday. They don’t need distractions like this.”
“I know. I’m sorry,” Kevin repeated. “It just happened.” While his season with the reserves team was over, the Sydney Swans’ AFL team were playing against Hawthorn in the upcoming premiership game.
“Exactly what did happen?”
“It wasn’t really that much,” Kevin said, speaking quickly. “I was with Clarissa—that’s Deon’s girlfriend—and Evelyn when they heard a commotion. We went over to find two of their school friends facing down seven drunks. The guys were standing between them and this gay couple. Evelyn asked me to help, so I stepped in and tried to calm things down. That’s when I got hit. I didn’t do anything; the guy just punched me. Twice.”
“Well at least that story agrees with what’s in the newspaper article. Now you just have to convince the guys at the club that it’s true.”
“I’ve got video,” Kevin said hopefully.
There was a pause while Kevin held his breath. Alastair had been his agent for almost a year, and in that time Kevin had learnt to trust Alastair’s instincts. He had already steered Kevin out of trouble twice, and Kevin was hoping he could do it again.
“Where did the video come from?” Alastair eventually asked.
“When I stepped in to help, Clarissa and Evelyn got out their phones to record what was happening. That’s what convinced the security guy that we hadn’t done anything wrong, and it was all the other guy’s fault.”
“Okay, send me what you’ve got, and I’ll see if it’s good enough to placate your operations manager. He’ll probably still rip into you, but he mightn’t be too harsh if you’re seen as the knight in shining armour.” A touch of amusement crept into Alastair’s voice. “Can I at least assume that you got the traditional hero’s reward at the end of it, and that’s why you didn’t ring me?”
Kevin laughed. “That’s a yes. Sorry, I was going to, but the girls asked me to wait until the end of the game, and when the Leopards won the grand final, things became a bit chaotic. Evelyn and I slipped away eventually, and then…well…I got my reward, and that’s why I forgot to call you.”
“Understandably.” Alastair’s light-hearted tone relieved some of Kevin’s stress. “I’m guessing that Evelyn is the one sitting in your lap in the photo and the other girl is Deon’s girlfriend?”
“That’s right. Deon got her a ticket to the post-game dinner, so she headed off with him.” Kevin paused. “Has he agreed to sign up with you yet?”
“Not yet, but he’s indicated he doesn’t want to do anything until after the draft. I get the impression he doesn’t want to sign with anyone until he’s actually an AFL player.” Alastair’s tone was approving. “After missing out in last year’s draft, he’s being cautious. I don’t blame him; I just don’t want to see him going with one of my competitors.”
“Don’t worry, I’m telling him about all the great things you’ve done for me. I want the Swans to draft him and then you to sign him, so I’ve been telling him everything.”
Alastair chuckled. “Does that include the incident with the stripper?”
Kevin flinched. “Er…no. I didn’t think he needed to know about that.”
“You’re lucky we kept it out of the papers. But as I said at the time, if you make a big name for yourself, expect the story to get out. I hope you learnt your lesson from that one.”
“Yeah.” Kevin was glad he was by himself as he knew his face was bright red. “Always make sure the girls are really girls before you ask for a strip-tease. Being drunk is no excuse.”
Alastair sighed. “No. It’s not to get yourself into that sort of situation in the first place. Okay, send me those videos and I’ll see what I can do, but I think you should ring Dean Moore yourself before he calls you. It might make a difference.”
A couple of minutes later, as part of his procrastination before making the phone call he didn’t want to make, Kevin was checking his text messages. He smiled when he saw a few texts from his teammates about the newspaper article, including a couple from members of the senior team congratulating him on standing up against homophobia. At least they didn’t seem concerned about the incident.
* * *
Patrick O’Malley wasn’t surprised when the Carlton Football Club’s national recruiting manager entered his office. Nor was he surprised when Shane closed the door to give them some privacy. The old Irishman had been expecting the visit since the Lilydale Leopards’ Ty Flanders had been given the best-on-ground award at the previous day’s VFL grand final.
Carlton had been cautiously scouting Ty since early in the year. He was widely acknowledged as a brilliant footballer, especially considering his age, but his arrogant and selfish attitude leading up to the previous draft had all of the AFL teams reject him as being undraftable. There was a unanimous agreement that he would disrupt the culture of any of the clubs, and so he was left unselected at the end of 2013.
What Patrick had been the first to spot, and what Carlton had been careful to keep under wraps, was that Ty had changed. Since he had joined the Lilydale Leopards, Ty had become more of a team player. Patrick and Shane were constantly hoping that none of the other AFL clubs had detected the new attitude.
“Morning, Shane.” Patrick drawled in his rich Irish brogue. “How can I help you?”
Shane dropped into the chair opposite Patrick. “We’ve got a problem, Paddy.”
Patrick nodded. “Young Flanders being given the Norm Goss Medal at yesterday’s game. It’s going to make at least some clubs look at him again.”
Shane shook his head. “No, it’s worse than that.”
Patrick’s eyebrows rose. “Tell me.”
“Peter Stevenson, the Leopards’ head coach, starts work as an assistant coach with the Western Bulldogs tomorrow.”
Patrick grimaced. “Shit.” Neither one of them needed to state that by the end of the week another AFL club would know that Ty was now a very hot draft prospect. “Do you think they’ll keep it quiet?”
“I certainly hope so. They’re not stupid. The Bulldogs will think they’ve got a steal coming up, especially if they don’t realise that we’re interested in the boy, too. Our best hope is that they decide to take him with a late pick so we have a chance to grab him first.”
Carlton had finished just above the Western Bulldogs at the end of the AFL’s home-and-away season, but that gave the Bulldogs the draft pick immediately before Carlton’s. It was still possible for the draft order to change, because draft picks were often traded along with players in the lead-up to the national draft, but there was no guarantee that the Bulldogs would trade away their first pick or that Carlton would be able to trade for an earlier pick. They already had pick number 6, but the Bulldogs had pick number 5, and with the calibre of players in the 2014 draft both were worth holding onto.
“That may not work.” Patrick sighed as he turned to his computer and brought up the records on Ty Flanders to refresh his memory. “Earlier in the year, we had one of our trainers who had previously worked with the Leopards’ coach sound him out about young Flanders. I also spent time with both of them two weeks ago after Ty dislocated his kneecap. Stevenson almost certainly suspects our interest in the boy. They may not wait.”
Shane scowled. “I knew helping him with his knee was a stupid move, Paddy. You shouldn’t’ve pushed him to get ready to play in the VFL grand final. Not only has that attracted a lot of unwanted interest in the kid, but it may’ve revealed our hand.”
Patrick shrugged. “Water under the bridge, Shane. What we need is to misdirect attention.” He leant forward. “We invited the Henderson boy here in June to train with the team. How about inviting him back for another visit? If we make it look as if we’re interested in him, not young Flanders, it may allay suspicions enough that the Bulldogs don’t take Ty with their first pick.”
“That might fool the other clubs, but it won’t fool the Bulldogs. The Leopards’ head coach—or rather ex-head coach—will know who we’re really interested in.” Shane thought for a moment. “Don’t those two share a house with the Bradshaw kid? Maybe we can invite him, too, and create enough doubt for us to get Flanders first.”
“Deon Bradshaw.” Patrick nodded. “And we don’t have to fool Stevenson. We only have to fool the Bulldog’s recruiting manager. Peter Stevenson will be new. They’ll listen to him, but they won’t take everything he says as the gospel truth. If we make it look as if we’re interested in the other two, any interest in Flanders could be taken as just trying to get a feel for his housemates’ characters.”
Shane tapped his lips as he thought. “Bradshaw is a hot prospect in his own right. Probably not a round-one pick, but round two or three, definitely.” He stood up. “Okay, Paddy, I’ll extend an invitation to Henderson and Bradshaw to visit.” Shane chuckled. “I’ll do that tomorrow to give them a chance to recover from any celebrating they did last night. I’ll also see if Mick is willing to talk to them. That will get tongues wagging.”
“It certainly will.” They both knew that if Mick Malthouse, the senior coach of the Carlton Football Club, was known to be talking to the two players, it would immediately raise both of them to the status of prospective draftees in the eyes of the other clubs. Patrick grimaced. “We’ll have to tell them that Flanders is not invited, that it’s just the two of them. It’ll break the poor boy’s heart.”
“He’ll get over it.” Shane grinned. “Come November, he’ll be more than happy.” The grin faded. “I just hope it’s with us and not the Bulldogs.”
* * *
Liam wasn’t actually asleep when his mother knocked on the door and yelled that it was time to get up. He had been in a pleasant, dazed zone that was due to being snuggled up with his boyfriend after spending their first night together.
There was another bang. “Lunch is in ten minutes, and you’ve got study to do this afternoon. If you’re not out when the food’s on the table, I’m coming in to drag you out.”
“We’ll be there!”
Liam gave Neil one last squeeze and then let go. “Time to get up.”
Neil sighed. “Yeah, I heard.” He gave Liam a quick kiss on the lips, which Liam then reciprocated. The kisses started to get more passionate until the boys simultaneously backed away from each other, giving each other knowing smiles.
“I think separate showers,” Neil said.
“Good idea.” Liam waved a hand. “You first.”
Neil grinned. “You just want to perve at me on the way there.”
Liam grinned back. “And you’re not going to do the same when it’s my turn?”
Neil’s grin broadened before his expression slowly faded into one of neutrality, and he dropped his gaze. Liam started to worry. It had taken him a long time to get Neil as his boyfriend, and he was always concerned that if he did something wrong, he would frighten Neil off. Liam didn’t know what was going through Neil’s head, but he didn’t think it was good. “Thanks, Liam. I had a wonderful night,” Neil said softly, in an almost resigned tone.
Liam knew that Neil was still insecure at times. He had been a loner for a very long time. Liam had a part in that, though he told himself that his bullying days were over. He guessed that Neil was thinking that, after their first night together, Liam had got what he wanted and would move on. Neil would have been right on the first part, but wrong on the second. “I did, too, Neil. I’m looking forward to more times like this.” Liam’s reward was a bright smile reappearing on Neil’s face as his boyfriend looked back up. “Now go before I lose control and my mum finds the two of us in an extremely embarrassing position.”
Neil chuckled and gave Liam a cheeky wink before disappearing.
It was closer to fifteen minutes before the boys appeared in the kitchen. Liam’s mother gave them a mock scowl. “About time.” She smiled. “Liam, can you tell Noel that it’s lunchtime? He’s in the lounge room.”
“Neil, you can help me put out the food.”
“No problems, Mrs. Bellweather.”
Liam grinned at his boyfriend one last time before heading into the other room. The familiar noise told him that Noel was playing on the family’s PlayStation. He entered the room and then stopped in surprise at the unexpected figure who was battling his younger brother.
Doug Harding glanced up for a moment before returning his attention to the TV screen. “Give me a sec, mate. I’ve almost got this bastard.”
Noel chuckled, and ten seconds later Doug threw the controller onto the cushion next to him. “Fuck!” Doug gave Liam’s brother a scowl. “How did you do that?”
Noel grinned. “It was easy. All I did was—”
Liam interrupted. “Sorry guys, but Mum sent me in to tell you it’s lunchtime. You can continue this conversation while we eat.”
Noel continued to instruct Doug on the fine details of how he had been beaten until the three entered the kitchen. Noel fell silent as soon as he noticed who else was in the room.
Doug nodded his head once in the direction of Liam’s boyfriend. “Neil,” he said in a neutral tone.
Liam smiled. He knew it would take time, but Doug appeared to be moving past his previous antagonism. He, Doug, and Neil had a history that stretched out over almost six years, years in which—barring the last five months—Neil had been his and Doug’s favourite bullying target at school. That had all changed when he learnt that Neil was gay. That one piece of information was enough to turn Liam’s life upside down, and while Doug had never approved of Neil, he hadn’t stood in his best friend’s way. Indeed, Doug had played some crucial parts in the sequence of events that had resulted in Liam and Neil becoming boyfriends.
Unlike Doug, Noel took some time to get used to new people, but Liam was used to his brother’s behaviour. Having an autistic sibling had given him a broad opinion of what was ‘normal’, and for at least another month Liam expected Noel to be quiet when Neil was there.
After the four boys were seated, Doug fumbled with the bag at his feet. “While I remember…” He pulled out a newspaper and shoved it across the table to Liam. “Our pictures are in the paper! With an AFL footy player, no less!”
Liam scanned the accompanying article. Catching Neil’s quizzical look, he read part of it out loud. “During the halftime break at yesterday’s VFL grand final, first-year Sydney Swans player Kevin Scanlan was involved in an incident with seven intoxicated Bulldog supporters. He was punched twice before stadium security staff could intervene. The incident was started when one of the Bulldog supporters took offence at gay couple Joe Parelli and Alan Blackmore kissing. Kevin Scanlan, along with two friends, Liam Bellweather and Doug Harding, stepped in to defend the gay couple, receiving a bloody nose for his troubles.”
Neil’s jaw dropped. “You never told me any of this!” He narrowed his eyes at Liam. “Why didn’t you say something last night?”
Liam’s face was red as he gave Neil a sheepish smile. “It wasn’t important. Kev was the only one hit, and security broke the fight up before anything serious happened.”
Doug coughed loudly. “He wasn’t the only one hit. I got the bastard who did it with a solid punch before we were stopped.”
Neil’s eyes flicked to Doug for a moment before returning to Liam. “You could’ve gotten hurt!”
Liam glanced past Neil to see his mother’s frown indicating that she, too, wasn’t happy. He gave them both what he hoped was a reassuring smile. “It wasn’t that big a deal, really. We were trying to talk our way out of things when one of the drunks snapped. That’s all.”
Doug waved a hand at the newspaper still in Liam’s hand. “Keep reading, there’s more.”
Liam redirected his attention to the paper, though he knew he’d be getting the third degree later. The only uncertainty was whether it would be from Neil, his parents, or both. “Peter Gordon, the president of the Western Bulldogs, has issued a public statement apologising to Scanlan, Bellweather, Harding, Parelli and Blackmore for the behaviour of the Footscray supporters on Sunday. Referring back to incidents of racial vilification by Bulldog supporters earlier in the year, he said, ‘It is a sad fact of the history of football that the usually anonymous, always cowardly, mob mentality of going after someone because they are black, they are gay, they are a woman, or they barrack for the wrong team, is endemic to our past. We think the time has come to say you go to the football to enjoy it. If your principal purpose of going is to belittle or vilify someone or make their experience of the football bad, you are there for the wrong reasons.’ Gordon went on to say that the Western Bulldogs are investigating to see if the supporters in question are members of the club.”
Doug grinned. “I know Joe said he’d get our names mentioned on the radio, but we’re in the paper!” His expression hardened as he glanced at Neil. “Joe didn’t mind telling people about us.”
“Will you give it a rest, Doug?” Liam scowled for a moment. “I’ve already told you why he didn’t use my name that time.”
Back in July, Neil had been interviewed by Pride FM—the gay-and-lesbian radio station where Joe Parelli worked—on how his life has been progressing since he ran away from home. Because Neil hadn’t been able to get in touch with Liam at the time to get permission, he hadn’t mentioned Liam’s name on the air, referring to him only as his boyfriend. That had annoyed Doug at the time, but Liam understood that Neil had been protecting his privacy.
Doug sighed and then gave Liam a wry half-smile. “Yeah, I suppose you have…” That smile faded as he stared at Neil for a moment. He then nodded his head once. “You should’ve tried harder to get in touch with Liam, but I suppose you did what you could. It wasn’t your place to out Liam on the radio.”
Liam kept quiet. Doug had been slowly accepting Neil, and the begrudging acknowledgement was a sign of progress. Liam was more worried about his mother, whose lips were pinched tight as she stared in his direction.
* * *
Jim Henderson chuckled into his phone. “Sorry, Sam. Deon hasn’t surfaced yet, and even if he did, I wouldn’t want him driving. He’s still almost certainly over the legal limit, given how much he drank last night.”
Sam Bradshaw, Deon’s father, chuckled back. “I expected that. Teresa has already volunteered to pick me and Marcus up and take us to the airport, but I know how much Deon prefers to drive us himself.”
Jim nodded to himself, relieved that Deon’s older sister was going to do the chauffeuring. Before this season, Deon had been estranged from his father for a long time—ever since his father had divorced his mother and then moved to Sydney to be with his gay lover. It was only ear1ier that year that the two had re-established contact, and Deon had eventually come around to seeing that his father wasn’t the complete bastard that he had spent nine years hating. The two had since become close, with Deon regularly driving to and from the airport as Sam and Marcus flew down to watch him play football.
“Well, have a safe flight home, Sam. Are you planning any more trips down this year?”
“One more in two weeks’ time when Deon’s at the AFL draft camp. We don’t know how it’ll go, but we wanted to be there for him as moral support if nothing else. We’re also going to try to make it to the Leopards’ award night mid-October, but that will depend on our finances.”
“Yeah, I can appreciate that. You’ve made a lot of trips down here this year. You and Marcus should have a swag of frequent-flyer points, though. Can’t you use some of them?”
“Believe it or not, we’ve only got enough points for a one-way trip from Sydney to Melbourne. We can pay to top up the difference, but it’s almost as easy to pay for a discount ticket and save the points for later. We’re hoping to get a few more by having Mandy, Teresa, Deon, and Jordan up for Christmas. Mandy’s already expressed her approval of the idea.” Sam chuckled. “She said any Christmas that doesn’t require her to cook is a real Christmas holiday for her. Anyway, that’s for the future. Take care, Jim, and keep an eye on Deon for us.”
Jim smiled as he responded. Mandy, Deon’s mother, was also rebuilding her relationship with her ex-husband. “I’ll do that. Now it’s time you headed off to the airport and I went and collected my parents and did the same.”
Jim stood up and stretched. He was still a little the worse for wear after a heavy-drinking session the night before, but he wasn’t going to be driving. Tony, his boyfriend, was going to take them to the airport, and then the two were going to head into Richmond to the Pride FM radio station.
While Jim wasn’t required to go in, Pride FM had been sponsoring him all year, and he wanted to make sure they got their money’s worth out of him. He would be thanking the staff for their support not only during the season but also for their attendance at the grand final. He wouldn’t be surprised if he was also asked to go on air. As a semi-professional footballer, Jim needed the sponsorship money to make ends meet. The match payments weren’t enough, though the bonus for making the finals and then winning the grand final meant that Jim could plan something special with Tony.
* * *
Ross Munroe glanced across as Wu Tang dropped onto the couch next to him before returning his attention to the television.
Wu answered the unspoken question. “You didn’t answer the door, so I let myself in.” He nodded towards the big screen. “Aren’t you supposed to be studying?”
“I am.” Ross grinned as he hit the pause button on the remote control so he could chat with his smaller Asian friend. He’d had a secret crush on Wu for a couple of years before he accepted that his good friend was straight and wasn’t more than someone to dream about. “What’s up?”
“I needed a break, and Lauren’s unavailable, so I thought I’d come over to see what you were doing.” Wu waved a hand. “Roscoe, tell me something. How is watching a footy match studying? Is there some sports-fanatic course at school that I’ve missed?”
Ross chuckled. “I never said I was studying for school. No, this is for the draft combine I’ll be going to on Saturday week. I’m checking out the competition.”
Wu frowned. “That doesn’t look like one of your games—those guys are too old to be playing in the under 18s—but it’s not an AFL game, either. What is it?”
“Yesterday’s VFL grand final between Lilydale and Footscray. A couple of the Lilydale players will be attending the same combine, and I wanted to see what they were like.” Ross grimaced. “It’s not good news. One of them is a forward, same as me, but he looks so much better.”
Wu gave him a light punch to the bicep. “What are you talking about? You’re a fantastic footballer!”
“But am I good enough?” Ross sighed as he glanced at the notes he had taken for the appropriate time and then ran the recording back to an earlier part of the game to show his friend some of the action. “Watch Number 7 for Lilydale.”
“They’re the brown and black team?” Wu asked as he leant forward, resting his forearms on his thighs.
“That’s them. The Lilydale Leopards.” Ross fell silent as the section of the game he had viewed earlier was replayed. Number 7 was battling against a taller Footscray opponent but managed to hold off the opposition player long enough to take a one-handed mark. A minute later, he had successfully kicked a goal from what Ross knew was a difficult angle.
“Okay, he seems decent,” Wu said as he twisted around to look at Ross. “Who is he?”
“Deon Bradshaw, and he’s going to be at the combine with me in twelve days’ time. He’s only a year older, and he was the VFL’s top scorer this year. As you saw, he doesn’t miss very often. Because we’re both forwards, that’s who I’ll be competing against when it comes to impressing the AFL clubs.” Ross pulled a face. “If he doesn’t get drafted, I don’t think I’ve got a chance, and if he does get drafted, it might be my spot he’s taking.”
“Hey, don’t be so hard on yourself! You’ve told me time and time again that the AFL clubs are looking at potential as much as current talent.” Wu indicated the television screen. “Maybe he’s already reached his potential while you’ve still got further to go? I don’t know how tall that Footscray player was, but Bradshaw didn’t look that big. You’re probably taller than he is.”
“I am, by a fair amount based on his online profile. He’s 191 cm and I’m 198.” Ross grimaced. “But you saw that play. He still gets the ball despite not being as tall as most of the defenders he competes against.”
Ross knew there were a lot of tall forwards in the 2014 draft pool, with one of them, Patrick McCartin, already talked about as a top-three draft pick. Another, Darcy Moore, was almost certain to be selected by Collingwood before the draft, under the father/son rule, which meant that Ross was unlikely to be picked by his favourite team. While Ross was one of the tallest in the pool at 6’ 6”, there were enough other strong forwards like Deon Bradshaw that Ross was worried he mightn’t be picked by anyone.
“Yeah, yeah. Rub it in that I’m the runt here, Roscoe. You don’t have to keep pointing out that you’re freakishly tall.” Wu smiled as he cocked his head. “Since you’re taller than Bradshaw, as you improve, that height advantage is going to make the difference. The AFL teams will be looking at that, too. Bradshaw is probably at the peak of his game.” He shrugged. “Maybe he’s good enough to play AFL-level footy now, but can he get any better? You’ve got the genetic advantage with your height, and that makes you a better long-term prospect as a key forward. Don’t get so caught up with the here-and-now. You’ve told me lots of times that the AFL clubs take the big-picture view, planning for years in advance.” His brow wrinkled. “Didn’t you tell me last month that most draftees don’t play in the AFL itself for the first year, and it’s not uncommon for them to still be waiting for their debut well into their second year?”
“Yeah…” Ross sighed and then restarted the video. “But will I do well enough at the combine for them to make that sort of investment in me?” He nodded to the screen. “These are the top-two teams of the VFL. Their best players have a chance in the AFL, and if I want a chance, I have to show that I can be as good as they are, if not better.”
Wu settled back on the couch. “Then let’s watch the game and see what we can learn.” He grinned at Ross. “Not that I know that much, but you might see something useful. You mentioned there’ll be a second Lilydale player at the combine?”
“Dave Islington. One of their midfielders. He’s a lot older that Bradshaw. You’ll see plenty of him, too. I think he’s more of a wildcard because of his age, but if an AFL team wants a solid experienced midfielder, he’s a likely candidate. At least he’s not competing with me for a forward’s place.”
Ross didn’t mention that there was a third player he would be watching during the game. That one was for personal reasons. Jim Henderson was the VFL’s first openly gay football player and a teammate of Deon and Dave. Ross couldn’t help feeling both envy and awe whenever he saw Jim play. Envy because Ross didn’t feel he could come out without hurting his chances of playing in the AFL. Awe because Jim was Australia’s top-ranked openly gay footballer. While Ross was sure that with around 800 players in the AFL there were some that were gay, none were publicly known even after retirement. The Australian sporting media were waiting eagerly for the first gay AFL player to step forward.
One thing Ross knew: it wasn’t going to be him.
* * *
“Kev!” Deon grinned as he stepped back and let his friend into the house. “What made you decide to drop around? I had the impression from Clarissa that you and Evelyn were getting close, and I didn’t expect you to surface for a few days.”
Kevin shrugged. “I’ll be heading off from here to pick her up and take her out for dinner, but I thought I should check on you first.” He grinned. “What time did you get out of bed?”
Deon’s face went red. “Not that long ago. The brat beat me up, but not by a lot.” He caught Kevin’s eye. “What time did you get up after your Mad Monday celebrations?”
“Almost two in the afternoon, so probably about the same time as you.” Kevin chuckled as Deon led the way. “There’s something about binge drinking after abstaining for most of the season. I’m guessing you’re not up to doing too much at the moment.”
“Yeah…” Deon pulled a face. “I’ve already missed taking my dad and Marcus to the airport.” He called out as they entered the kitchen. “Brat, do you remember Kev?”
Ty Flanders stood up and limped forward to shake Kevin’s hand. “Of course I do. We played together in the Vic Metro team last year.” He grinned. “How’s Sydney treating you?”
“Pretty good overall, though the AFL is a lot tougher than I expected. I was lucky to get any senior games this year. If they weren’t resting some of the players before the finals, I doubt I would’ve played in the last game of the regular season; it’s that hard to break into the seniors’ team.” He glanced down at Ty’s leg for a moment before looking up and smiling. “I told your girlfriend yesterday that I couldn’t believe that you were playing injured. You didn’t look it when you were out there on the oval.”
Ty shrugged. “Painkillers are wonderful things. I’m just not allowed to use them all the time.” He grinned. “The knee’s getting better, but I’m still paying the price for playing before it was 100%.”
Deon’s head snapped around. “What? I thought you were okay and it was just the normal pain and stiffness you were feeling in the days leading up to the grand final.”
Ty chuckled. “It is. That’s not the price I’m paying.” He ran a hand sheepishly through his hair. “I rang my boss earlier today to say I’m fit for light duties and I can start back on Wednesday. It didn’t feel right to play yesterday and then tell him that my doctor wants me to have two more weeks off work because of my knee.”
“You’re too honest,” Kevin said. “Most people would take the two weeks.”
Ty raised an eyebrow. “Does that apply in the AFL, too?”
“Fuck no! We want to play, but you have no idea of the hell we get if someone’s caught hiding an injury.”
Ty waved a hand to indicate Kevin should take a seat and then stopped Deon as he headed to the kettle. “I’ll do it. What’ll you have?”
Ty took the coffee orders and then watched as Deon and Kevin sat at the kitchen table.
“What are your plans for the next few weeks?” Deon asked. “You’ve got another seven weeks off, right?”
“Yeah. The AFL Players’ Association is pretty strict on that. The clubs aren’t supposed to contact us for eight weeks unless it’s urgent.” Kevin winced. “That doesn’t mean they don’t keep tabs on us, though, which is why I had to ring them this morning.”
Kevin, initially hesitant, filled Ty and Deon in on the incident during the halftime break. By the end, Ty was scowling. He pulled out his phone. “I wonder if Neil knows about this.”
When Kevin gave him a quizzical look, Deon explained. “Neil’s Liam’s boyfriend. He’s one of the runners for the team, which is why he wasn’t with Liam when this happened. The brat is one of the guys who’s been keeping an eye out for Neil.”
Ty didn’t look up as he typed a text message. “We all have. Deon’s done his fair share, too, including finding somewhere for Neil to live next year.”
Deon shrugged while not meeting anyone’s eyes. “I asked my dad to look after him. Assuming Neil gets into a course, he’ll be moving to Sydney next year to start his studies. He wants to be an engineer.”
Ty put his phone away. “Sam and Marcus are cool guys. It took him a while, but Deon finally conceded that I won when it came to having the world’s worst old man.”
Kevin didn’t know what Ty was talking about for a moment until a memory surfaced from the previous year when they had both been on the Vic Metro team during the national under-18 carnival. He winced as he recalled Ty’s overbearing, egotistical, sarcastic, and pompous father. “You must be happy now that you’re not living at home anymore.”
Ty snorted. “You have no idea. One of my happiest times this year was not doing anything for Father’s Day for him. I haven’t seen or spoken to him in months, and that’s the way I like it. Dad’s the only father I need, and that’s the way it’s going to stay.”
“Jim Henderson,” Deon said. “Nickname: Dad.”
“Now I remember.” Kevin smiled. “You’ll have to introduce me at some stage. That way I’ll be able to tell the guys on the team I’ve met him. You remember what they were like a couple of months ago?”
Deon laughed and then turned to Ty. “It was when we had that weekend off and I flew up to Sydney. That’s when I ran into Kev, and he took me down to meet some of the Swans’ senior players after their match. They were really curious as to what Dad was like. It was just after that training session he had with the Blues and his rather unfortunate choice of words at the following press conference.”
Ty grinned. “Just so you know, Kev, I don’t believe Dad’s improved his bedroom skills since then. His football skills are great, but you know what he said: his bedroom skills aren’t going to get him into the AFL.”
Kevin chuckled. “That comment certainly prompted a lot of questions from the guys, but Deon denied all knowledge of what Jim gets up to in private.”
“And I don’t know.” Deon smiled for a moment and then raised an eyebrow at Kevin. “Before we got side-tracked, I asked you what you were doing for the next few weeks. I was hoping we could catch up a few times before you head back to Sydney.”
“I was hoping the same. Indeed, I was thinking…” Kevin paused for a moment to make sure he had Deon’s full attention. “You’ve got your draft camp in just under two weeks, and I want to make sure I don’t lose too much fitness over the break before the preseason starts, so what do you think about training together for the next couple of weeks?”
Ty pumped his fist. “Perfect!” He grinned at Deon. “Dad can take you on runs, I’ll supervise you in the gym, and Kev can help Dad train you on your footy skills. We start tomorrow.”
Deon glanced from Kevin to Ty and then back to Kevin. “Are you okay with that? Don’t let the brat railroad you into doing more than you want.”
Kevin shrugged. “No, that’s fine. As I said, I want to keep in shape so I’m not behind the other guys when the preseason starts in November. Tomorrow sounds fine.”
When Ty’s phone beeped at him, he pulled it out, read the text message, and then laughed. “Neil says that he found out this morning about the halftime event, and Liam’s mum is currently ripping into her son for not avoiding trouble. Neil’s planning on spending the rest of the day looking after his boyfriend.”
The three chatted for the next ten minutes, planning the training. They then followed up with a verbal replay of the previous day’s match, interspersed with Ty and Kevin reminiscing about events when they played together for Vic Metro the year before. The conversation was interrupted when Kevin’s mobile rang.
Kevin checked the caller ID and immediately grimaced. “Alastair! I hope this is just a social call.”
“Sorry, Kev, but no. It has been suggested to me that if you want to keep the fallout from yesterday’s incident to a minimum, then it might be a good idea for you to front the media. There are some accusations that the story is currently all from third parties and you’re not as innocent as has been made out.”
“Shit!” Kevin sighed. “What do I have to do?”
“We’re going to keep it low key, but I’ve contacted Pride FM, and they’re happy to put you and one of the guys involved behind a microphone so you can tell your story.”
“Not one of the Bulldog fans, I hope.”
“No. It’ll be the guy who got hit at the start of the incident, the one that works at Pride FM. They’re also trying to get Jim Henderson, too, as an extra commentator on homophobia within the AFL. We shouldn’t wait too long, so are you available tomorrow morning to join them on their breakfast show? It’ll mean an early start.”
Kevin grimaced. “I was hoping for a sleep in.”
Alastair chuckled. “You’re still collecting your hero’s reward?”
“Yeah…” Kevin went red. “Okay, I have to do this. Send me the details of where I have to go and what time I have to be there, and I’ll do it.”
After he hung up, Kevin gave the other guys an apologetic smile. “Sorry, but I’m going to be late tomorrow. I have to do a radio interview. Alastair thinks there’s still some fallout from yesterday’s incident that needs to be fixed. He said that they’re going to try to get Jim there, too, so both of us might be late.”
“Which radio station?” Ty asked.
“The gay and lesbian one: Pride FM. Joe, one of the guys involved, works there, so I should get a sympathetic hearing.” Kevin grinned nervously. “I haven’t had to do much in the way of media stuff before now. The only interviews I’ve done were for the internal Sydney Swans media people.”
Ty waved a hand dismissively. “You’ll be fine. If Dad’s there, he’ll help you. Unlike my old man, he knows how to encourage and support, not just criticise.”
* * *
Robert Flanders was preparing to pack up and head home when his phone rang. After a heavy sigh at what he expected to be another work call, he answered the call. “Robert Flanders.”
“Hi, Robert. I’m looking for Ty.”
Robert frowned. This was the second call that day for his miserable excuse of a son, and that didn’t make him happy. Ty had changed since he moved out of home and joined the Lilydale Leopards VFL football team at the end of 2013. Previously, he did what he was told—not well enough to make it into the AFL, but that wasn’t Robert’s fault—but since he had taken to spending his time with that homosexual Jim Henderson, Robert’s son had become rude and obnoxious. Robert was almost happy to have seen the last of him if it wasn’t for the AFL football clubs that kept ringing to ask about him. “Who’s calling?”
“Sorry. I’m Isaac Long from the Hawthorn Football Club. I rang you a couple of weeks ago after Ty had hurt his knee.”
A faint sneer appeared on Robert’s lips at the memory. He had contacted the Leopards after that call and learnt that Ty had dislocated his kneecap. A quick check of the Internet had then revealed that his son was going to miss the rest of the VFL finals as a result of that injury. Robert thought that was poetic justice for the way his son had treated him. “That’s right. What’s this about? Ty’s still resting.”
Isaac laughed. “I’m not surprised. I take it he overindulged celebrating the Leopards’ victory yesterday. It was a great game, and the Leopards did well to win their first premiership in fifteen years. What I wanted to do was to ask him if he’d like to come and visit us next week and have a chat about his football. We’d like to sound him out about moving on to the AFL next year. He’s certainly got the potential.”
Robert disagreed with the assessment but gave an exaggerated sigh to make it sound like he supported the Hawthorn recruiter’s comment. “But he’s wasting it. He no longer pays attention when people offer him good advice; he insists on doing his own thing. It’s like yesterday. He was supposed to be resting his knee, but he insisted on getting up to watch the game. He’s not going to last very long if he keeps doing things like that, but he just doesn’t listen.”
There was a distinct pause before Isaac responded. “Okay, thanks. Tell Ty that I called and ask him to ring me when he’s feeling better. Don’t worry about the time; I’ll take the call whenever he rings.”
Robert smiled as he stomped on that scenario. “I’ll do that, but don’t expect him to do it. He doesn’t seem interested in the AFL anymore.” Since Ty didn’t want anything to do with him, Robert was going to make sure his son didn’t hear from any of the AFL clubs.
After some short pleasantries, Robert put away his phone. He stood up and stretched as he grinned. That conversation had ended his working day on a good note. It was time to head home and open a bottle of wine to celebrate.
* * *
Isaac frowned as he slowly packed up his things. While his body operated on remote control, his mind was running over the conversation he’d had with Ty’s father. It had been a huge shock when he realised that Mr. Flanders didn’t know that Ty had not only played in the VFL grand final but had been voted the most-valuable player of the game.
The part-time recruiter’s mind was in turmoil as he tried to sort out what it meant. The one thing that was clear was that he couldn’t trust anything that Ty’s father had said. If that was true for all the other times that the Hawthorn Football Club had tried to contact Ty, then it was quite possible that Ty was back near the top of the hot-prospects list for the upcoming AFL draft.
None of the AFL teams had drafted Ty Flanders the previous year despite his obvious talent, because his attitude had clearly indicated he wasn’t a team player and that he wouldn’t fit into the culture of an AFL club. After a conversation where Ty had praised his teammate Deon Bradshaw, Isaac had thought that Ty had corrected his attitude problem. However, comments from Ty’s father after that time when Hawthorn had rung him had reinforced the view that his attitude hadn’t changed. As a consequence, Hawthorn hadn’t given Ty any priority in their draft-prospect research.
But if Ty’s father had been lying…
Isaac knew he needed to think long and hard before taking any action. There were still things to be explained, but finding another way to contact Ty had become a necessity. The only contact details on Ty’s AFL draft-nomination form went to his father, so Isaac would need to go through a third party.
At the back of Isaac’s mind was the thought that maybe Ty’s father had been lying to the other AFL teams, too. If so, Hawthorn might be the only ones who knew of Ty’s true potential, and they would be in the position to draft a star player under the noses of all their competitors.
Isaac made a decision as he walked out the door of his day job. Rather than going home, he would go straight to Waverley Park, Hawthorn’s training and administration ground. He needed to speak with Hawthorn’s recruiting manager to discuss the situation.
Copyright Notice — Copyright © March 2016 by Graeme.
The author copyrights this story and retains all rights. This work may not be duplicated in any form – physical, electronic, audio, or otherwise – without the author's expressed permission. All applicable copyright laws apply.
Disclaimer: Some public figures have been included in this story for effect. This is fiction, and the words and actions of those characters are mine and not those of the real person. All other individuals depicted are fictional, and any resemblance to real persons is purely coincidental.
I would like to thank C James and MikeL for the advice they gave on early versions, rec and ken84050 for editing this story for me, and a special thank you to ricky for that crucial final review before publication.