“Kevin!” Joe whipped off the headphones he was wearing, stood, and stepped away from the sound-booth console to shake the young AFL player’s hand. “I’m really glad to see you again. I can’t thank you enough for what you did on Sunday.”
“I didn’t do a lot. Liam and Doug were there before me.” Kevin’s smile had a nervous edge. He wasn’t used to being around a lot of gay guys, and in the time it took him to walk from the radio station’s front door to the studio where the morning show was being produced, he had already heard two suggestive remarks. Kevin also suspected that the guy who had ‘accidentally’ run into him had done so deliberately since he had been overly tactile while apologising.
“Are you okay?” When Kevin glanced back over his shoulder, where two of the staff were leering, Joe chuckled. “Ignore them. They do that to all the newbies. Well, at least the good-looking ones. They’re harmless. They’re actually a couple and strictly monogamous. A few months ago, someone took them up on one of their offers, and they had to quickly backpedal.”
“Okay.” Kevin wasn’t sure he was willing to believe Joe, but he felt too anxious to question him. This was going to be his first media event that hadn’t been scripted by his football club, and he was terrified that he was going to stuff it up. Doing it at a gay-and-lesbian radio station was just additional pressure in an already nerve-wracking situation.
Joe glanced back into the studio where the two Pride FM morning-show hosts were talking with Jim Henderson. “You’re early.” He waved a hand to the spare chair in the sound booth. “We’ve got you scheduled at the end of the hour, just before we lead into the news. Would you like a coffee or something? If not, you can sit and listen in on the show until it’s time to go in.”
“I’m fine.” Kevin knew his tone was a little short, so he smiled. “I’m just nervous. This is the first time I’ve done something like this.”
“Relax, you’re in good hands. Maria and Michelle are great co-hosts, and Jim will be in there with you, too. I’ll also be on the air, though I have to stay out here so I can monitor things.” Joe picked up his headphones. “I’m sorry, but I need to get back to work. Are you sure you’re okay?”
“I’m fine,” Kevin repeated, even though it wasn’t true.
For the next twenty-five minutes, Kevin watched as Maria, Michelle, and Jim talked between songs, with an occasional interjection from Joe. He could see the genuine sense of camaraderie between the two women and Joe as well as how comfortable Jim was as a guest on the show.
All too soon, Joe turned to Kevin. “You’re on after the next song. I’ll take you in and get you settled once the music starts.” He grinned. “Don’t worry. The girls know they have to be nice to you or I’ll make their lives difficult. You’re the hero of the day, after all!”
Kevin’s lips flicked into a short-lived smile before settling back into an expression of worry. “What if I say something wrong?”
“Just be yourself, and let us handle everything else. The girls have been told: no hard questions.” Joe glanced at the clock. “You’ve got one minute, and then we go in.”
Before he could think too much about what was about to happen, Kevin found himself wearing headphones and a mike and sitting next to Jim Henderson.
Maria winked at him. “Listeners, we have someone special in the studio with us this morning. As most of you will be aware, Joe was involved in a homophobic incident on Sunday while at the VFL grand final. One of his rescuers is with us today. Kevin Scanlan, welcome to Pride FM.”
“Thanks. It’s an honour to be here.” Kevin mentally kicked himself at his lame opening.
“Tell us a little about yourself,” Michelle said. “I believe you’re friends with one of the Leopards, which is why you were at the game.”
“That’s right. Deon Bradshaw and I used to play football together as juniors. We lost track of each other last year after my parents moved to the other side of Melbourne, but we caught up again in the middle of this year.”
Joe broke in. “Kevin seems to be a little modest, so I’ll fill in a few details for our listeners.” He smiled reassuringly in response to Kevin’s momentary look of panic. “Kevin was drafted by the Sydney Swans at the end of last year. He’s played a couple of senior games during the season, but he’s not on the list to play on Saturday. A mistake in my opinion, but I’ll wholeheartedly admit that I’m biased.”
Kevin grimaced as he quickly thought how to correct Joe’s comment. “I’m a long way from getting a regular spot with the seniors. The guys are very strong, and it’s going to be tough to break into the senior team. I’ll be at the MCG on the weekend to cheer them on, but I know how much work I still have to do before I can be part of that team.”
“How did your teammates react to what happened on Sunday?” Maria asked.
Kevin was glad they didn’t ask about what the club administration had to say. “It was good, with several of the guys congratulating me for standing up against homophobia. I haven’t spoken to them since, though, as I’m trying to avoid interfering with their preparations for the grand final.”
Michelle turned to Jim. “Homophobia in sports seems to be coming up in the news more and more. Jim, what’s your opinion? Are things getting worse?”
Jim shook his head. “No, I think the opposite’s the case. I think it’s happening less but being reported more because people, including the AFL administration, know it’s unacceptable. More and more players are realising that homophobic taunts are wrong, something I noticed during the VFL season. There was a noticeable drop in what I experienced from the other teams when I was playing, and several players apologised to me afterwards for things they said in the heat of the moment while on the ground.”
Maria smiled across the table. “Kevin, what’s your opinion?”
Kevin knew he had to tread carefully. “I haven’t noticed any change, but then I don’t think the players are the problem. Or at least not the major part of the problem. There’s always been a lot more abuse from spectators than what occurs on the oval. That’s been true for as long as I remember.”
“I’d go along with that.” Jim shrugged. “Personally, I try not to listen to what the spectators say or do, but there’s certainly a lot more from them than from the players.”
Joe cut in. “The Western Bulldogs president agrees with you guys. He was saying pretty much the same thing in the papers yesterday.”
“What can we do about that?” Michelle asked, glancing at both guys. “Any ideas?”
“You can’t force people to change their attitudes,” Jim said. “You can educate them, you can tell them not to do it, but you can’t make them change their minds. That has to come from within.”
Maria smiled. “You left off one option, Jim. You can give them role models to follow. Say, an up-and-coming young AFL player and an out-and-proud VFL footballer?”
Kevin blushed. “I’m not anyone special. There are lots of other AFL players who have stood up against homophobia.” He mentally crossed his fingers, hoping they wouldn’t ask him who. He knew there were some, including some from his own club, but his mind had gone blank.
Jim nodded. “Yeah, like Brock McLean from Carlton and Daniel Jackson from Richmond, who marched in the Midsumma parade last year. There are also quite a few well-known AFL names that fronted up as part of this year’s AFL Players’ Association campaign for the International Day Against Homophobia, like St. Kilda veteran Lenny Hayes, Collingwood star Luke Ball, Kevin’s Sydney Swans teammate Adam Goodes, and Patrick Dangerfield from Adelaide.” He grinned. “And I know I’ve left off a lot of other names, so I’ll apologise now. They’re just the ones I can remember off the top of my head.”
Michelle smiled. “The International Day Against Homophobia, or IDAHO Day, is a big thing for us here at Pride FM. The AFL Players’ Association has been supporting the event since 2009, and we believe it’s making a difference. There’s still a long way to go, as Sunday’s incident shows, but there are also people like Kevin here who are standing up to those who want to abuse someone simply because they’re different. I’m sure there are a lot of our older listeners who can remember when no one would stand up against the bullies.”
Kevin didn’t think the praise was justified, but he felt a warm glow at being in the company of the AFL players that Jim had mentioned. If big name AFL stars could be open about being against homophobia, he didn’t need to be worried about doing the same.
* * *
Oliver grinned as his young housemate made an appearance for breakfast. “Morning, Neil. What are you doing up this early?”
Neil glanced at the kitchen clock. It was just after nine. “This isn’t early.”
“It is when it’s school holidays. You should be sleeping in until midday. That’s what I did when I was still at school.”
“You’re up, and you’re not working, so what’s your excuse?” Neil smiled as he headed towards the pantry. “I take it Helena didn’t stay the night?”
Oliver chuckled. “No, she didn’t, and sit down; I’ll cook you breakfast. How does an Ollie Special omelette sound?”
Neil gave him a cautious look before sitting down. “And what exactly goes into an Ollie Special?”
“Whatever I want. Since I’m making it for you, I’ll leave out the Tabasco sauce.” Oliver winked. “Though that’s great for getting the blood racing. Now, if Liam was here, I’d be making them for both of you.” He glanced past Neil to the hallway leading towards the bedrooms. “You didn’t sneak him in last night after I went to bed, did you?”
Neil laughed. “No. We decided that we need to study if we want to go to university next year, so we’re going to do that this morning and catch up mid-afternoon.”
“Studying’s overrated.” Oliver shrugged as he started to get things ready. “But if that’s what floats your boat...”
“We wanted to spend the night together again last night, but Liam’s mum put her foot down. As far as she’s concerned, it was still a school night, even though there’s no school for two weeks.”
Oliver headed to the refrigerator. “What are your plans for Saturday?”
“Liam and I will be going to the family day at the club for the afternoon to watch the AFL grand final. Why?”
“I didn’t expect you to be anywhere else.” Oliver grinned over his shoulder before returning his attention to collecting the items he wanted. “I think Deon’s the only one who’ll be missing it, but since he has tickets to the actual match, he’s excused. No, I was wondering about Saturday night. Surely, Liam’s mum doesn’t consider that to be a school night and will let you spend the night together?”
When Oliver turned around he had to suppress a chuckle. Neil’s face was bright red, and he was studiously staring at the tabletop. “What’s wrong? Nothing to say?”
“It’s okay for you, but Liam and I...well, with his parents in the same house...we need to...”
Oliver took pity on him. “Why don’t you invite Liam to stay here for the night? Paul will be off working, and it won’t take much to convince Todd to spend the night at Lorraine’s place. That will leave the house free for you, me, Helena, and Liam. I’ll even offer to cook dinner. What do you say?”
Neil’s head snapped up. His mouth was open, but no words were coming out.
Oliver chuckled. “No objection? Okay, it’s a done deal. I’ll cook dinner, and we’ll all have a fun night. There’s just one condition...”
Neil’s eyes narrowed. “What?”
Oliver grinned. “If Helena suggests a foursome, you have to tell her no. I’m not sharing, and I don’t want to know what you and Liam get up to. Okay?”
Neil gaped for a moment, and then a smile crept onto his still-red face. “Okay, Ollie. It’s a deal.”
* * *
Ty stopped in surprise as he limped into the gym. “Julie!”
Julie Crowman smiled. “G’day, brat. I heard that you were going to supervise Deon in the gym today, and I thought I’d come along to supervise the supervisor.” She gave him a once-over. “You could do with some extra work, too. I’ve got just the program...”
“Er...” Ty hobbled forward. “Unless you’ve got a painkilling injection for me, there’s a lot I can’t do.”
Julie laughed. “Relax, I’m here to help. We all want Deon to have the best possible chance at the draft, which means getting him ready for the combine. And I’m not here as one of your coaches. I’m here as that annoying bitch who makes you work.”
Ty grinned. “You’re never going to let me forget that I called you that the first day you joined the club, are you?”
“Nope, and I don’t think you want me to.” She smiled. “Between a brat and a bitch, Deon’s going to be as ready as he can be on October 4th.” She glanced past him. “Where is the innocent victim?”
“Kev and Dad have taken him out for a run. I came in here early so I could get ready.” Ty shrugged. “I mightn’t be able to do much legwork, but there’s no reason I can’t do a solid upper-body workout while I’m waiting. That way I can concentrate on Deon when he arrives back.”
“Speaking of Dad, do you know if he’s remembered to complete a draft-nomination form? The one he filled in when he was eighteen would have expired. They’re only valid for three years.”
“He did that back in June after the Blues contacted him.” Ty chuckled. “He couldn’t get online fast enough. He tries to hide it, but I know he’s dreaming of the AFL as much as Deon.” He dropped his head for a moment and then looked up and met Julie’s eyes. “Me, I want to be the best Leopard I can. We’ve won one premiership, but I’m greedy. I want us to win more.”
“Then let’s get started.” She cocked her head. “You can’t warm up on either the treadmill or bike, so why don’t you start with some push-ups—from the knees, not the toes, so you don’t stress the ligaments—and sit-ups. A hundred of each should loosen you up.”
Ty gave her a hard stare. “If you’re not here as my coach, you can’t tell me what to do.” He frowned. “Seriously, though, what’s the word on replacing Peter?”
Julie sighed. “It’s only been a day, so not much. Peter told both Will and me to apply, but I don’t know what the senior managers are doing. Anne did tell me that they started looking into potential candidates a few weeks ago. It seems that Peter told the board back then that he was resigning, but it was kept quiet while we were in the finals.”
“Just for the official record, I don’t want you as the Leopards’ head coach.” Ty winked. “That’s because you’d make me work too hard. Unofficially, though, I think you’d be great.” He cocked his head. “If you get the job, maybe I should resurrect my campaign to get everyone to call you ‘Mum’.”
Julie gave him a pained look. “Brat, if you do that, don’t expect me to ever go easy on you.”
Ty chuckled. “Not only did you look like Dad when you said that, but you’ve just given me the best possible incentive to do it.” The smile on his face was replaced by one of complete seriousness. “I need people to make me work. Because of you and Dad—Peter and Will, too, but mainly you two—I’m playing the best football of my life. I can’t wait for the 2015 pre-season to start. I want another premiership medal.”
Julie stared back for a moment before the corners of her mouth twitched upwards. “We all do, brat. Okay, time to get warmed up. Start with some slow sit-ups.”
Ty winced. “Slow makes them harder.” He sighed. “Yes, Mum.”
“Brat...” Julie’s warning growl had no apparent effect on Ty, but he shut up and started his warmup.
After a set of forty sit-ups, Ty rolled over and started push-ups. “Do you have any gossip on your brother? I’ve been hearing rumours, and I thought you might know if they’re true.”
Julie made a face. “I suspect that they’re the same rumours I’m hearing, but Paul’s told me to butt out of his personal life. Ollie did tell me that Deon’s sister dropped around to their place last night.”
“That’s what I heard, too. It’s about time. Teresa’s been chasing Paul for most of the season.” Ty paused halfway through a push-up, arm muscles straining as they held his weight, and looked up to catch Julie’s eye. “She could be good for him.”
“As Paul told me, it’s his life, not ours.” Julie shrugged. “We all know why he’s been playing hard to get, so I’m trying not to get involved.”
“Yeah...” Ty resumed his push-ups. Paul had broken up with his previous girlfriend at the start of the year after she’d left him lumped with a sizeable debt when she had defaulted on a car loan that he had foolishly agreed to guarantee. He was still paying off that debt and had secretly taken a second job waiting tables to help make ends meet. After Jim’s 21st birthday had ended up at the restaurant where Paul worked, the situation was an open but unspoken secret amongst the players and support staff. It was generally understood that Paul’s tight financial situation and the underlying reason for that lack of money were why he hadn’t wanted to date anyone.
“What does Paul think of you possibly being our head coach?” Ty asked a couple of minutes later as he finished the set and rolled over for more sit-ups.
“I talked to him last night. I didn’t want to apply if it was going to cause problems. Family comes first as far as I’m concerned. He pointed out that there’s been no problem all year while I’ve been assistant coach, so it shouldn’t make any difference if I’m head coach.” Julie grimaced. “But I think it’s a long shot. Anne told me that they’re going to see if there’s a recently retired, ex-AFL player interested in coaching, but everyone’s going to be treated on their merits. The board needs to make a decision by the end of November so we’ll be ready for the pre-season, but they’re not going to rush the process.”
“Why then? The real pre-season starts in January, so they could make a decision late December.” Ty grinned. “Give someone a really cool Christmas present: head coach for the best team in the VFL.”
Julie chuckled. “Nice idea, but if things go as expected, we’re going to need at least one or two new rookies. They want to give the new coach a say in who we approach.” She cocked her head. “Or do you think that Deon’s not going to get drafted?”
“Of course, he’s going to get fucking drafted!” Ty screwed up his face as he recalled his own disappointment the previous year when he thought he was guaranteed to be picked by an AFL club. “At least I hope he does. Nothing’s certain.”
Julie smiled softly. “Yeah, brat. Nothing’s certain. However, between us, we’re going to make sure he has the best possible chance. Right?”
Ty set his expression into one of determination. “Right.” He and Deon missed out on the AFL in the 2013 draft, but he was going to try his hardest to make 2014 Deon’s year.
* * *
Kevin was breathing deeply when he, Deon, and Jim finished their run. “Fuck, guys. You don’t do things by halves, do you?”
Jim was the most composed of the three, with Deon looking the worst. “Just be glad the brat wasn’t here. He’d be telling me off for going easy on you two.”
“Fuck!” Kevin shook his head. “Either I’ve lost more fitness than I realised in the last week, or you train at near AFL levels, Jim.”
Jim frowned. “This was what you do in the AFL?”
“No, but if you were going easy on us, I don’t think there will be much in it. A run like that, only harder, is the sort of thing the coaches make us do at the start of the pre-season to show us how much further we have to go. When I started, all of us draftees thought a six kilometre run was a decent effort. It wasn’t long before the expectation was a minimum of ten Ks, with more being desirable.”
Jim chuckled. “The brat and I have been doing these for most of the year, but it was after the Carlton training session that we attended back in June that we really kicked them up a notch. That’s when we learnt how far behind we were when it comes to an AFL level of fitness. Julie got us started, and it’s been a regular weekly job for us ever since.”
“The whole team does this?” Kevin asked.
Jim shook his head. “Only the brat and me—and recently Deon—though he usually joins in halfway through. This is the first time he’s done a full run.”
“And I’m fucking glad!” Deon took a couple of deep breaths. “If I did this every week, I wouldn’t be able to play on the weekend. I don’t know if this is a good idea. I have to be able to still do things when I get to the combine.” He glared up at Jim, though the effect was spoiled by the panting he was still doing. “How far did we run, anyway?”
“12, maybe 13 kilometres.” Jim grinned. “You’ll be fine. We’ll do another run on Thursday and again next Tuesday, but then we’ll let you taper off for the rest of the week. As I said, just be glad the brat’s not here. The two of us keep trying for a half-marathon, and we were a long way from that. I won’t try to push you towards that goal.”
“Thanks, I think.” Deon grinned back as he laced his fingers behind his head during another deep breath.
“Don’t thank me too quickly. The brat’s in the gym waiting, remember? He’s not going to go easy on you.”
“Don’t remind me.” After an exaggerated sigh, Deon smiled at Kevin and tilted his head towards the entrance to the Leopards club gym. “Time to die—the sequel.”
“Good luck,” Jim said. “I’m off for a shower and then back to Pride FM for some more work.” When Kevin gave him a look of surprise, Jim explained. “They’re my sponsors, and while I’m usually doing football clinics during the school term, they like me in as much as possible during the school holidays. I think they’ve got some more station promos they want to record, but I’ll find out when I get there.”
“Oh, okay.” Kevin stuck out his hand. “Thanks for this morning, by the way, and it’s been great getting to know you. I’m sure I’ll see you around.”
Jim chuckled as he shook Kevin’s hand. “I’m sure you will. At the house, if not here. Don’t let this guy slacken off,” Jim said as he nodded towards Deon.
“I won’t.” Kevin grinned at his friend. “If he’s going to play with me in Sydney, he’s going to have to get used to hard work.”
A couple of minutes later, Kevin and Deon entered the gym. Deon hesitated a moment as they entered before continuing in. “Julie! I didn’t expect to see you.”
“I heard about what the brat and Dad had planned, so I thought I’d come along to check it out.” Julie contemplated Kevin for a moment and then smiled. “Hi, I’m Julie, one of the coaches here. You must be Kevin. If you’re trying to help Deon get ready for his combine, then I’ll ignore the fact that the rules state outsiders aren’t allowed. The brat’s organised a program for Deon—”
“Which you rewrote!” Ty interjected.
“—so I’ll let him get started. If you need me, just call out.” She smiled at Ty. “He’s all yours, brat.”
Kevin couldn’t help notice that Ty was sweating profusely. “You look like you’ve been doing a hard workout.”
Ty glanced at Julie’s retreating back. “Yeah.... Someone decided I needed some exercise.” He gave Deon a half-smile. “At least she didn’t decide to supervise you directly. You’d be dead if she did.”
“She’s tough?” Kevin asked.
Both of the Leopards laughed. “You have no idea,” Deon said. He turned to Ty. “Okay, brat. What’s first on the list?”
Kevin and Deon both ran through the exercises under Ty’s direction. There was nothing complicated, but Kevin hoped that having someone else doing them would help push Deon to try that little bit extra.
They were well into the program when the door to the gym opened and Jim entered. His hair was still wet and he was barefoot. He had a phone stuck against his ear. “He’s here, so I’ll ask him now.” Jim pulled the phone away and looked at Deon. “Are you free on Thursday? We’ve been invited to the Carlton Football Club. Mick Malthouse wants a chat with both of us.”
The casual dropping of Carlton’s senior coach’s name stunned Kevin. Before he could react, Deon had said yes.
Jim smiled as he returned his attention to the phone call. “Did you hear that? Good. We’ll see you first thing Thursday morning.”
“What about me?” Ty asked, raising his voice.
Jim shook his head, though his attention was clearly on listening to the person on the other end of the call. “Okay, bye.”
Ty looked expectantly as Jim put away his phone. “Well?”
“Sorry, brat. It’s just Deon and me this time.” In response to Ty’s grimace, Jim moved over and put a hand on Ty’s shoulder. “Don’t worry about it, brat. Think of how good this is for Deon.”
“The Blues are interested in him, too?” Kevin scowled and pointed a finger at Deon. “Don’t encourage them, mate. I want you in Sydney!”
Deon laughed. “Thanks, Kev. I’d like that, too, but I’m not going to turn down Carlton if they pick me.”
“You’re not allowed to, anyway. You go wherever you’re drafted, even if that means moving to the other side of the country.” Ty frowned at Kevin and then Deon before smiling. “And if you stay in Melbourne, you’ll be able to continue dating Clarissa, so that’s a positive.”
Kevin was torn. He knew how much Clarissa meant to Deon, but he was also selfish and wanted Deon playing with him for the Sydney Swans. He desperately wanted to say something to counter what Ty had just said, but he couldn’t think of anything.
Jim smiled at the other three guys. “I’ve got to get going. Deon, you’ll have a voicemail, too, but you don’t have to call them back. They know you’ll be there on Thursday.”
Jim raised a hand in acknowledgement as he exited the gym.
Kevin stared at the door through which Jim had left. “Do you guys ever wonder...?”
“About what?” Deon asked.
Kevin paused and then shook his head. “It’s not important. Time to get back to work.” He grinned. “You need to impress everyone at the combine, and that means getting prepared.”
He had never thought much about homosexuality before, but after being propositioned a couple of times at the radio station that morning, he couldn’t help wonder what it was that gay guys did in the privacy of their own rooms. He knew he could look up the details on the Internet, but that wouldn’t tell him how they felt. Why was it that they found other males attractive? Kevin couldn’t understand it.
* * *
Peter Stevenson knocked on the office door and peered in. “You wanted to see me?”
Jason stood and smiled. “I certainly did. Close the door and have a seat. There are a few things I wanted to go over with you.”
Peter could guess what they were, and for most of them he didn’t have a problem. But he suspected that the Western Bulldogs’ recruiting manager would want to talk about Dave, and that was going to be tricky. Dave Islington was one of two Leopards who had been invited to the AFL’s Victorian combine. An older midfielder, he’d had a brilliant season and, along with Deon Bradshaw, had attracted a lot of attention.
The problem was that after receiving the invitation, Dave had sent a letter to the AFL, explaining that he had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and that the clubs could contact his psychologist for more details. It was the details that Peter was sure Jason would be interested in, and while Peter knew more than most, what he knew was extremely sensitive information.
Once they were both settled, Jason grinned. “How’s your first day going? We expected you to start a couple of weeks ago, but we kept having to change our plans because your Leopards kept winning.”
Peter chuckled. “Things are good. I’m still working my way through all the new procedures I have to learn, but I’m all ready to dive in and get busy. Brendan seemed a little distracted, but he’s already given me a heap of things to do once I get all the admin stuff out of the way.”
Peter grinned at the memory. The Western Bulldogs’ senior coach had been mildly exasperated at the delay before Peter started work, but the agreement at the time he signed on was that Peter wouldn’t start until the Leopards had finished their season. No one at the Western Bulldogs had expected them to make it to the VFL grand final or that they would be playing against the Western Bulldogs’ VFL team, Footscray. Peter had already received a number of light-hearted complaints about the way the Leopards had defeated Footscray to win the premiership.
“I can appreciate that. Brendan’s got a lot on his plate at the moment, including getting ready for next week’s combine, but that’s not something you need to worry about. I’m sure you’ll be off and running on the things you enjoy soon enough. However, though I’d like to just chat for a while longer, I also have things to do. This is the busy time of the year for me, and I’m hoping you can help me out.” Jason flicked his attention to the computer screen on his desk for a moment. “There are a couple of Leopards that we’d like your views on. What can you tell me about Dave Islington?”
“Dave’s tough and reliable. He’s very focused and a solid inside midfielder. Frankly, he scares the other teams, and they usually try to avoid sending the ball anywhere near him. If I need someone to shut down an opposition midfielder, he’s one of my two main options.” Peter grimaced for a moment. “Or rather, he was. I’m still getting used to the fact that I’m not the Leopards coach anymore.”
Jason chuckled. “I can appreciate that. They were your focus up until two days ago.” The smile disappeared as he leant forward. “I understand he has a mental-health condition.”
“Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It was only diagnosed this year.” Peter hesitated before continuing. “There were some minor adjustments we had to make, but otherwise it had no impact. If his teammates are supportive and give him the space he needs, the PTSD won’t matter.”
“What sort of adjustments?”
Peter thought quickly. He was moving into potentially dangerous grounds. “He has problems with interpersonal relationships. If things are kept at a professional level, there are no problems, but other players shouldn’t try to push him to be involved in social activities.”
Jason frowned. “I believe there’s something about showering?”
“Dave doesn’t use the communal showers. He showers by himself. It’s a quirk resulting from the PTSD not being treated for so long. It’s a minor thing.”
Jason settled back in his chair and stared at Peter. The next question was the one that Peter had dreaded. “What caused the problems?”
“Sorry, I can’t tell you. Dave’s provided the contact information for his psychologist if you want the details.”
“Yeah, we’ve tried that.” Jason scowled. “Our head psychologist won’t tell me what’s going on, either. He just says that things are manageable and won’t interfere with Dave’s ability to play. He also said that he was happy to take over treatment if that was required, though he was comfortable with Dave continuing treatment with his current psychologist.” Jason gave Peter a pleading look. “Are you sure you can’t even give me a hint?”
Peter shook his head. “Sorry.”
Most of the Leopards either knew or suspected the truth. Peter was one of the ones who knew what he considered to be too much, even though he didn’t have the full details. Dave had been raped as a child; raped in a communal shower block by his coach after junior-football training one night. He had suppressed the memory for over a decade. Peter had been there when the memory had resurfaced earlier that year, an event that had resulted in Dave having a psychotic incident that required sedation and an emergency trip to the hospital. Dave had been under the care of a specialist psychologist ever since.
Jason stared at him impassively for several seconds and then pulled a face. “If that’s the way it has to be.... You said he has problems with interpersonal relationships. What do you recommend to be the best way to ensure there would be no incidents?”
The two spent ten minutes discussing Dave. Peter was on edge the whole time, always pausing before responding to make sure he didn’t slip and reveal more about Dave’s condition than was appropriate. He knew Dave’s PTSD had to be taken seriously, but if the Bulldogs’ head psychologist had said it was manageable, then Peter didn’t want to counter that view with unnecessary comments.
As the conversation wound down and Peter became less and less forthcoming on Dave’s personal details, Jason turned to his computer screen again. “Okay enough on Dave. Deon Bradshaw. What can you tell me about him?”
Peter relaxed. He was much more comfortable talking about Deon. “He’s a strong forward, good at following instructions, knows how to read the play, and I’d back him in a one-on-one contest against almost anyone in the league, despite his lack of height.”
“I’m not interested in his football.” Jason grinned. “We already know how good he is. What sort of person is he? Would he fit into the club’s culture, or would there be clashes? Will he maintain the effort required, or will he slacken off once he’s in the AFL?”
The two discussed Deon for several minutes while Jason pulled out fine details about Deon’s personality with probing questions. Peter answered most of the questions freely to the best of his ability, though he hesitated at one point when asked about hot-button issues that Deon may have.
Peter responded with a question of his own. “How much homophobia is there here at the Bulldogs?”
Jason’s eyebrows rose. “Not much that I’m aware of. Why, is Deon gay?”
“No, but his father is, and Jim Henderson’s one of his housemates. If he’s got a hot-button issue, that would be it.”
Jason nodded slowly. “I think all of the clubs interested in him know about his father and Henderson. In our case, Deon talked with one of my team earlier in the year and asked the same question you did about homophobia. I didn’t realise it was such a big thing for him, though.”
“He’s probably more sensitive than most. Jim was his mentor at the start of the season until Jim swapped with Ryan and took over the brat. After the divorce—maybe ten years ago now—Deon hated his father for a long time, and they’ve only reconciled this year, partly as a result of Jim’s coming out. Yes, it’s a big thing for Deon, but he won’t go overboard.”
“The brat?” Jason glanced at his screen. “I don’t see a reference to who that might be.”
Peter smiled. “Ty Flanders, another one of Deon’s housemates. If you don’t have him on your list, put him there. You’ll want him.”
Jason typed for a moment, scanned the file he had brought up, and then shook his head. “We eliminated him earlier in the year. He’s not draftable.”
Peter’s jaw dropped. “You’re kidding, right? He just won the Norm Goss medal for best-on-ground in the VFL grand final. If there’s one player in the Leopards who stands out over all the rest, it’s him. How can you say he’s not draftable?”
“He’s a fantastic player; no one disputes that. But that chip he has on his shoulder stops him from fitting in. He wouldn’t be part of the club, part of our culture. We’ve been monitoring him all year, but nothing’s changed.”
Peter frowned. “What do you mean ‘nothing’s changed’? He had an attitude problem at the start of the year, conceded, but Dad—I mean Jim Henderson—sorted him out before the season commenced. Since then, he’s been a first-rate team player.” He shrugged. “He’s made mistakes, but he was only eighteen, and that’s to be expected. I certainly don’t have any complaints about his attitude, and he certainly doesn’t have a chip on his shoulder.”
“That’s not what I’ve heard.” Jason paged through the online notes. “We tried contacting him in July, but he wasn’t interested in talking to us. The comment here says he was thinking of dropping out of top-level football.”
“Rubbish.” Peter scowled at the idea. “He’s as keen to play football as anyone I know, and if he’s reluctant to say anything about playing in the AFL it’s because he missed out last year. He might also have been concerned about looking too far ahead. Up until Sunday, his focus was on playing for the Leopards, not the AFL. I know him and he’s keen to make it into the big league. He’s more than capable, and he’d fit into any team that’ll take him.”
Jason pinched his lips as he considered Peter’s passionate defence of his former player. He drummed his fingers on the desktop and then nodded his head once. “Okay, why don’t I call him now while you’re here, and we’ll see if he’s interested?” Not waiting for a response, Jason put his phone on speaker and dialled the number that was displayed on his computer screen.
A few seconds later there was a response. “Robert Flanders.”
“Hi, Robert, I—”
Peter jumped in. “Sorry, wrong number.” He reached over and disconnected the call.
Jason looked puzzled. “Why did you do that? I thought you wanted to talk to him.”
“Not Ty’s father.” Peter frowned. “Why did you ring him and not Ty directly?”
Jason waved a hand to indicate his monitor. “That’s the number we have for Ty Flanders. It’s from his draft-nomination form.”
Peter felt a slow anger starting to burn. “That bastard. That complete and utter fucking bastard!” He glared at Jason even though he wasn’t the target. “Have all the calls you’ve made gone to Ty’s father? Have you ever spoken to Ty directly?”
Jason’s expression was one that told Peter he had better explain quickly, but Jason reviewed the computer records before commenting. “We’ve only spoken to his father. The first time we called, Ty refused to come to the phone. The second time, he never called back. His father was most apologetic.”
“His father is a lying bastard that I wouldn’t go out of my way to avoid running over.” Peter leant forward to emphasise his words. “Ty hasn’t spoken to his father for months. The few times they’ve spoken, it’s been to fight. His father effectively abandoned him after he failed to be drafted. Ty moved into one of the houses we maintain for our players, and that’s where Jim took over his mentoring. When he first joined the Leopards, Ty had chips on both shoulders, as you said before, but they quickly disappeared when Jim read him the riot act.” Peter scowled at the phone before returning his attention to Jason. “I know the brat, and what you’ve said isn’t Ty. To me it looks like his father’s been stopping any calls from getting through to him. Don’t believe anything that lying piece of shit’s told you.”
Jason stared back impassively across the desk, and his fingers started to drum on the desktop again. Peter let the Western Bulldogs’ recruitment manager ponder the implications, while he tried to keep his own temper under control. The personal development in Ty that Peter had witnessed through the year simply reinforced how badly damaged Ty had been at the start of the year, and Peter had no doubts as to who was to be blamed.
“I presume you have Ty Flanders’ phone number?” Jason asked. When Peter indicated he did, Jason nodded. “Okay, let’s give him a call and invite him here. I want you to do all the talking, but don’t tell him too much. In particular, don’t mention what his father’s been doing, and don’t mention we might be considering him.”
“Why not? That bastard’s trying to do his best to ruin the brat’s chances at the AFL. Why should we let him get away with it?”
Jason smiled, though with a hard edge. “We’re not. If you’re right, Ty’s just jumped into the top group of our potential draftee list. But as long as the other clubs don’t know about it, no one else is going to try to draft him ahead of us. I don’t want Ty blabbing to someone and the word getting back to one of our competitors. If he doesn’t know, he won’t mention it. We’ll play this low key, and if he works out, we’ll spring a surprise at the draft.”
Peter thought about what Jason had said and then grimaced. “I’m not sure, but I suspect Carlton knows. They were making enquiries about the brat at the start of the year, and one of their staff members was instrumental in getting him ready to play in the grand final.”
Jason shrugged. “They either know or they don’t. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. At the moment our pick each round is before theirs, though that could change during the trading period.” He pushed the phone across to Peter. “Give Ty a call, and let’s see what happens. See if you can get him here this week or next for a visit. Come up with some excuse; I don’t care what. Just don’t let him know we’re considering him for the draft. I want to see for myself if you’re right.”
Peter snorted. “I’m right; don’t you worry about that. Since there’s nothing I’d like more than to see him here as a Bulldog next season, I’ll keep my mouth shut on that subject as long as you promise that I can be the one to tell him when it doesn’t matter anymore.” Once he had Jason’s approval, he put the phone back on speaker and dialled Ty’s number.
“G’day.” There was a distinct note of uncertainty in Ty’s voice.
“Brat, it’s Peter. How’ve you been doing?”
“Peter! I’m good. Well, as good as I can be with this knee, and after Julie decided to make me train. How are things at the Bulldogs? Have they killed you yet because we beat them on Sunday?”
Peter laughed. “Not yet, but I’ve been promised there will be dire consequences in the future if the Leopards do that again.”
Ty chuckled. “Then it’s been nice knowing you, because we’re going to do it again next year, even if it’s without Dad and Deon. Carlton’s invited Dad back for another visit, and this time they want Deon to go with him. Kev cracked it when he found out; he wants Deon in Sydney with him, but I don’t care. As long as they’re drafted, that’s all that matters. It’d be nice if they’re at the same club, but that’s outside of our control.”
Peter didn’t need Jason’s sudden stiffening to know he needed more information. “Was that Kevin Scanlan, Deon’s friend?”
“That’s him. He and Dad took Deon out running this morning, and then I supervised, with Julie’s help, while Deon did a session in the gym. We’re all trying to get Deon ready for the draft combine.” There was a momentary pause before Ty continued on a more serious note. “Shit. I should’ve asked Charlie to pass on the details to Dave, just in case he wanted to join in. He needs to be prepared, too. I’ll do that as soon as we’ve finished.”
“Good idea, brat. Say, when are Dad and Deon off to Carlton, and are you going, too?”
“Thursday, and no. It’s only those two this time. I rang Paddy to ask if I could tag along, but he told me that Mick Malthouse wanted to speak to them, and they wouldn’t have anything to keep me busy.” Ty chuckled, though with an unhappy edge. “I suggested to Paddy that I sit with him while the others were off doing their own thing, but Paddy told me he was going to be too busy as they get ready for the draft. He apologised and offered to take me out for beer the next time I’m in the area, but I told him not to worry about it. The important thing is to make sure the Blues draft Dad and Deon. I don’t want to stand in the way of that.”
Peter could see Jason’s questions, but they would have to wait. Peter knew that Patrick O’Malley had taken a shine to Ty, and Ty, in return, had taken a liking to the old Irishman. The fact that Ty had rung Patrick didn’t surprise Peter. The news that the Carlton senior coach wanted to talk to the two guys was intriguing, but Peter couldn’t spend the time chasing up on that titbit.
“I’ve got an idea. The Whitten Oval is maybe ten minutes from Visy Park, so while the other two are doing their thing with the Blues, you can come here and see me.” Peter chuckled. “I want to show the guys I’m working with the sort of players I had to put up with all year, and there’s no better example of that than you. They’ll get to see how much cheek you give me, and they’ll be thankful that they don’t have to coach you.”
Ty laughed. “Okay, but I can only stay for the morning. I have to go to work in the afternoon. Maybe between the two of us we can convince the Bulldogs to take Dad. There’s no reason Carlton should be the only one interested in taking him.”
Peter frowned. “You’re working? I thought you were still off sick.”
“I am, but it didn’t feel right to tell my boss that I wasn’t able to work when I played footy on Sunday. It’s not like he doesn’t know, either, since he’s a rabid Leopards fan. He said I could take longer off if I wanted to, but I told him I’m fit for light duties. I think that means being stuck behind a desk, but surely that can’t be as bad as one of Julie’s training sessions. Can it?”
Peter grinned. “I don’t know; it might be. I hate paperwork, even if it’s sometimes necessary. Anyway, I’ll see you Thursday morning then?”
“Yeah, sure. Say, is this your new work number? Can I pass it on to the guys? I’m sure they’d all like to keep in touch.”
“No, it’s not. I’m using someone else’s desk at the moment. But I haven’t changed my mobile, so they can call me at any time. There’s no need to ring me on my desk phone—when I finally get one, of course.
“One quick question before I go. The people here tell me that they tried to contact you back in July. They wanted some info on Deon, but they couldn’t get hold of you. Do you remember getting a message about that? I think they might’ve rung the wrong number by accident.”
“I’ve definitely had no calls from the Bulldogs or anyone else for that matter. I spoke to a Hawthorn recruiter after one match during the season, offering to tell them whatever they wanted to know about Deon, but they never rang me.”
“Okay, thanks brat.”
After a few more pleasantries, Peter hung up. He raised an eyebrow at Jason. “Did you hear enough?”
Jason nodded. “He’s either lying through his teeth or he never got the messages. I’m happy to assume he never got them and that we should take another look at him. We’ll see on Thursday if he’s still got a chip on his shoulder, though I’ll admit that it didn’t sound like it from that call.” He cocked his head. “You two have a good rapport.”
“We do.” Peter grinned. “He was our vice-captain for most of the season. He’s still maturing, but he’s come along in leaps and bounds this year. I won’t take the credit for that, though. Most of it was Jim Henderson, even if I played my part a few times.”
“Okay, before I let you go, I’ve got a few questions.” Jason glanced at the notes he had made during the phone call. “Who’s Kevin Scanlan? The name sounds familiar, but I can’t recall from where.”
Peter proceeded to fill in Jason on the fine details regarding the conversation. It was twenty minutes later before he finally left the recruiting manager’s office. But when he did so, Peter had a smile on his face. It looked to him that he might be coaching Ty again in 2015.
* * *
Ross had just finished his third two-minute set of boxing with the speed ball when he heard a round of applause. He turned and saw Wu Tang and his girlfriend, Lauren Whitman, standing in the doorway. Ross grinned as he stripped off his gloves. “I really should start locking the doors. You never know what riffraff might wander in.”
Wu chuckled. “True, but given the lowlife that lives here, most of them wouldn’t want to take the risk.” He waved a hand in front of his nose. “The body odour by itself is enough to keep them away.”
Lauren smiled as Ross frowned and sniffed his arm. “Ignore him, Roscoe. He’s just jealous. He knows he couldn’t do what you were just doing.” She stepped forward and stretched up to give Ross a kiss on the cheek.
“But who would want to?” Wu shrugged. “What time are you finishing up?”
Ross smiled. “I can finish now. I’m just filling in time while trying to motivate myself to do some more revision. I’ve got a chapter of my maths textbook I’m trying to avoid. Give me a few minutes to take a quick shower, and then I’ll be with you.”
“Sounds good to me.” Wu beckoned to Lauren. “We’ll be in the living room.”
Ten minutes later, the three were chatting away; Wu and Lauren were on the couch while Ross lounged on one of the chairs with a leg draped over the armrest.
“...and so this guy’s parents are going to be out of the house all Saturday night.” Wu winked. “You know what that means.”
“A party.” Ross’s lack of enthusiasm was obvious. “Wu, I’ve got to get ready for the following weekend. I can’t go out partying until all hours of the night, especially at some stranger’s place.” He smiled to try to soften the rejection. “You two go, but I’m trying to avoid late nights so they don’t disrupt my body clock.”
Lauren smiled. “It’s not some stranger’s place. He says he knows you, and when I said we go to the same school, he asked me explicitly to make sure you got an invite.”
“I thought you said he was friends with one of your cousins. How does he know me?” To the best of his knowledge, Ross had never met any of Lauren’s family.
“I asked him the same question. He said you and he used to play football against each other. Do you remember a Stuart Trent?”
Ross felt a chill run through him. “It doesn’t ring any bells,” he lied.
“He said to remind you of a game back in the under sixteens. Apparently, you totally humiliated him by kicking twelve goals when he was the defender assigned to stop you.” She chuckled. “He said you made it up to him afterwards, though he was angry at the time. Anyway, when I mentioned you were trying out for the AFL draft, he wanted to see you again and asked that I made sure you got an invite.”
Ross shook his head. “Sorry, I don’t remember him. I remember that game, though. It’s my top score in any serious match I’ve played.”
“But you’ll come to the party?” Lauren smiled. “I know you won’t be drinking, but it’ll be good to get out of the house and relax. You can’t spend all your time between now and the draft-camp thingy studying or training.”
“Plus, you can be the designated driver.” Wu grinned. “You’ll do it for us, won’t you, Roscoe?”
Reluctantly, half-knowing it was a mistake, Ross agreed. He remembered Stuart Trent, that game, and every detail of what happened afterwards. Stuart was the first and only guy he had ever had sex with. It was only the one night, and Ross had quickly shut down any attempt by Stuart to establish a relationship, but it also meant that Stuart was the one person who knew for sure that Ross liked guys.