Ross grimaced as he turned into his street at the end of his morning run. He couldn’t fool himself any longer; he was getting worse.
The day before he had given himself the excuse that it was just a one-off bad day, that it was the weather, that it was anything except his mental state. But he was too honest with himself, even if he couldn’t be honest with anyone else; it was Stuart Trent.
For the last two nights Ross hadn’t slept well. The turmoil in his mind as he struggled with both worry and anticipation made sure of that. After Lauren had told him about the invitation, Ross had made some discreet enquiries. Between online searches and a few phone conversations with some old football teammates from his junior club, Ross had learnt that Stuart had come out of the closet a year earlier.
Since then, two parallel streams of thought were swirling through Ross’s mind. Would Stuart out him accidentally or deliberately, and was there any possibility of repeating the night from two years before?
Ross was terrified at the prospect of being outed. He had never told anyone because he wasn’t sure he could explain why without tipping people off, but he had been following the story of the American football player Michael Sam who had come out before the NFL draft and hadn’t been picked as early as originally expected. Ross knew that some people said it was because he hadn’t done as well at the combine as was hoped, but others said it was because he’s gay.
Ross’s own combine was coming up in just over a week’s time. He didn’t want history to repeat itself. He had been told that the combine wasn’t the be-all and end-all of the draft, that many players had had a bad result at the combine and were still drafted, but he knew he wasn’t one of the big names. He didn’t want to take any chances.
But there was also a sense of anticipation. Ross was no longer the frightened, not-quite-sixteen-year-old who had pushed Stuart away after his first sexual experience. If Stuart could be trusted, if there was any sort of chemistry between them, then maybe, just maybe, the two of them could hook up. Ross would love to have a boyfriend, but his potential football career was the higher priority.
As he entered the house after his run, Ross’s mother looked up from her bowl of cereal and smiled. “How was it today?”
Ross shrugged. “Not that good. I’m a good 40 seconds off my best time and slower than I was at the start of the week.”
“I think you’re trying too hard. You need to balance things a little better. Take a day or two off and then get back to it. You’ll feel refreshed, and that will make a difference.”
“I was going to skip training on Saturday, but I don’t know if I can afford to take two days off. The following Saturday is the combine, and I need to be ready.”
“You’re not going to be ready if you’re stressed out about it. And Saturday isn’t going to relax you, because you’ll be spending all afternoon watching the AFL grand final. I know you.” Ivy Munroe smiled at her son. “Why don’t you call Wu and organise to go into the city on Friday for the grand-final parade? It’ll be a chance to get out and do something different while still giving you some motivation for the combine.”
Ross realised his mother was right. He needed to get his mind off Stuart and focused back on the AFL. “Thanks, Mum. I’ll do that.”
He wasn’t sure it would work, but it was worth trying. Anything that would help with the stress was worth trying.
* * *
Jim grinned at Deon. “Nervous?”
“Aren’t you?” Deon wiped a sweaty hand on his tracksuit pants as he stared at the glass doors with the etched symbol of the Carlton Football Club. “I’ve spoken to Paul Roos,” he said, referring to the senior coach of the Melbourne Demons, “but that was on the phone. I’m actually going to meet Mick Malthouse!”
Ty chuckled. “Just be yourself. On second thoughts, copy Dad. We don’t want Carlton to know what a big baby you really are.”
Jim glared at Ty. “Brat...”
Deon laughed. “It’s okay. I think I needed that.” He smiled at Ty. “Thanks, brat.”
The Lilydale Leopards always assigned an older player as mentor to each rookie that joined the club. At the start of the year, Jim had been originally assigned as Deon’s mentor, and their other housemate, Ryan, mentored Ty. That arrangement hadn’t worked out, so Jim and Ryan had swapped rookies. Jim had said at the time he would take the brat if Ryan took the baby. Ever since Ty found out what Jim had said, he hadn’t stopped finding chances to make baby references in relation to Deon, though only when they were in private.
Ty smiled. “Go, and if you see Paddy, tell him I said hello.”
It was with more than a small amount of disappointment that Ty watched his two friends disappear into the building. He had gone through those doors in June when Jim was first invited, but this time it was Deon who went along. Ty wanted the best for both of them, but he couldn’t help feeling envious.
Firmly putting his emotions back under control, he limped back to Jim’s car. Jim had driven the three of them into Carlton but had told Ty he could take the vehicle the short distance to the Western Bulldogs’ training and administration centre to see Peter, their old coach.
Fifteen minutes later, Ty found himself staring at the statue of Ted Whitten that stood outside the entrance to the Whitten Oval training facilities. Ty contemplated the image of the Footscray legend in the middle of a typical Aussie Rules kick: his right leg outstretched with the foot at head height, both arms held wide for balance after dropping the ball onto the boot. Ty could imagine the football soaring through the sky and passing between the tall goalposts for six points.
Ty stood there for a moment longer. He wondered what it must have been like to play football for two decades, from the 1950s to the 1970s for a total of over 300 games. While some AFL players still reached that total, it was a rare occurrence. The modern professional game took a harsh toll on players, with many retiring or being dropped due to injury well before that magic number.
With that thought in his mind and with a grimace at his still-sore knee, Ty turned and limped his way towards the entrance that sat beneath the semi-random collection of red, white and blue squares adorning the building facade. It was time to catch up with Peter and find out how the Bulldogs were treating his former coach.
Ty smiled at the receptionist. “Hi, I’m Ty Flanders. I’m here to see Peter Stevenson.”
The young lady smiled back and then glanced at her computer screen. “Take a seat. I’ll let him know that you’re here.”
Ty didn’t sit down. Instead, he spent the time inspecting the various displays in the room. The Western Bulldogs, previously the Footscray Football Club, had a long and proud history, and the reception area reflected that.
Ty turned and grinned at his former coach. “Peter!” After shaking hands, Ty cocked his head. “What’s the plan? I’ve got Dad’s car so I need to head back to pick up the guys at some stage, but otherwise I’ve got the morning free.”
“I thought I’d give you a quick tour and then have a cup of coffee. Also, our recruiting manager wants to talk to you.” Peter smiled. “He wants your opinion on Deon. I didn’t think you’d mind.”
“Of course not!” Ty’s momentary flash of hope was quickly suppressed. Ty would be more than happy if Deon ended up with the Bulldogs, but he couldn’t completely hide his disappointment that it was Deon, and not himself, that the Bulldogs were interested in. “What about Dad? Any chance of talking about him, too?”
Peter laughed. “How am I supposed to shut you up? Yeah, that’s fine. But let me show you around and introduce you to a few people first.”
Ty let himself be led away while he forced his mind into more productive channels. This was his chance to help his housemates on their way to the AFL.
* * *
After Ty limped out of the Barker’s Cafe on his way back to Jim’s car, Peter turned to Jason. “Well?” The three had been chatting at the new Whitten Oval cafe when Ty received a text message asking him to return to Carlton to pick up Jim and Deon.
Jason settled back into his chair. “I’m impressed enough to want to know more. In particular, why Flanders pushed so hard to try to make me consider Henderson for the draft. Is there something going on between those two?”
Peter kept the frown from his face as he moved quickly to stomp out the implication that Jason was hinting at. “Ty’s father is a crock of shit, but Ty only really started to understand that at the start of the year. Jim’s the one that got through to the brat, and the brat has fixated on Jim as a replacement father figure. That’s why he started the nickname of ‘Dad’ for him. Ty has a healthy respect for Jim and doesn’t hesitate to give Jim any support he needs. He also listens to Jim, and while he doesn’t always follow Jim’s advice, between Jim and Karen—Ty’s girlfriend—Ty’s being well-managed.”
“Hmm...” Jason tapped the side of his mouth in thought. “Does that mean that Flanders could go off the rails again if he’s taken out of their influence?”
“I don’t think so.” Peter shrugged. “Anything’s possible, but the brat doesn’t spend all his time with Dad and Karen. He’s his own person and will stand up for what he believes. The damage his father’s done is being repaired, and I think those repairs will hold. He’s a completely different person now from what he was at the start of the year.”
Jason snorted. “You don’t have to tell me. I didn’t say anything because I don’t know if he remembers, but I met Flanders last year at the national combine. It was at an interview he had with Brendan,” he said, referring to the Western Bulldogs’ senior coach. “I was in the background while they talked. Flanders was so arrogant that I wasn’t surprised when no club drafted him. He felt it was his God-given right to play in the AFL, and it was just a case of him picking which team he wanted to play for.”
Peter sighed. “I never saw that. The only time I spent any time with him was after the draft, when I approached him to play for the Leopards. He was one very angry young man, but I could tell he was also shattered by not being in the AFL. I had hopes that the disappointment would allow him to rebuild, because his native talents were—and still are—amazing. Jim’s the one who played the major role in that rebuilding, and he’s done a fantastic job.” Peter smirked at the Bulldogs’ recruiting manager. “You saw the results of that rebuild last Sunday.”
“Don’t remind me!” Jason rolled his eyes. “I’ve never doubted the kid’s football ability. The question was always whether he was capable of being a team player. Whether he would listen when told to do something.”
“He is and he does, and there’s an entire season of football playing for the Leopards to prove it.” Peter stared for a moment. “What’s the next step?”
Jason stood up. “I need to do some more checking, but I’m happy to put him on the list for consideration.” He held up a hand. “I’m not saying I’ll draft him, but I’m willing to think about it.”
“Fair enough,” Peter said as he rose to his feet. “What about Deon? His debut season in the VFL was almost as impressive as the brat’s."
Jason chuckled. “You think I don’t already know that? Winning the Frosty Miller medal for leading goalkicker for the season as an eighteen-year-old? Unprecedented. We’re looking at him, too, though he’s not the only young forward we’re considering.”
Peter stuck out his hand. “Thanks, Jason.”
“Don’t thank me yet. There’s still a long time to go before the draft. We have to get through the combine next week and then Trade Week after that. Who knows what’s going to happen between now and the draft?”
Peter nodded. He couldn’t ask for anything more.
* * *
“Stop it,” Lauren said without looking up from her laptop.
Wu chuckled. “Stop what?”
“I’ve got to finish this essay, Wu, before we do anything else.” She glanced up and smiled. “And we’re not doing that, so get your mind out of your pants.”
“I still don’t know what I’m supposed to stop doing,” Wu said as a socked foot rubbed gently along her leg under the cover of the kitchen table.
“That!” Lauren glared. “I have to get this done, so stop it.”
“You’ve got over a week before school starts up again, so what’s the rush?”
“Because, unlike you, I want to get everything done well before the deadline. That way I can enjoy next week while my boyfriend panics and does all his homework at the last minute.”
Wu shrugged. “I’ve done about half already, and we’re almost halfway through the school holidays, so it’s time for a break.” He reached over and started to slowly close her laptop screen.
He sighed and settled back in his seat. “You know it’s not going to work. Someone’s going to get hurt.”
Lauren looked up and gave him a perplexed frown. “What are you talking about now?”
“The party on Saturday. You’re trying to set up Ross, but it’s not going to work. I know him. He’s not gay.”
Lauren stared for a moment and then closed her laptop. “I’m obviously not going to get anything more done, so let’s get this over with. Firstly, I don’t know he’s gay; I only suspect it. You never saw the way he would look at you or the jealousy he showed when we started to go out.”
“Listen to yourself.” Wu jabbed a finger in her direction. “Even you admit that he’s not doing those things now. Okay, he was jealous when we started going out, but that was over a year ago. At the time, he and I did everything together, and that changed when we started dating. Being a little jealous is natural.”
“It’s not just that. It’s the sum of all the things I’ve observed. To me, it was obvious he had a crush on you. He may’ve gotten over that, but it doesn’t eliminate the fact that he did have a crush on you. What seventeen-year-old straight guy has a crush on another guy?”
Wu glared for a moment and then smirked. “Why shouldn’t he have a crush on me? I’m awesome!”
Lauren couldn’t keep the scowl on her face. She grinned. “Be serious. He was seriously fixated on you, and he’s never had a girlfriend. He—”
“His focus has always been on his football. He’s got a chance to get into the bloody AFL, for God’s sake! That’s why he’s never had time for a girlfriend. He’s dated, though, so it’s not like he’s been ignoring the girls.”
“Double dates only. If you weren’t there, he wouldn’t go out. None of the girls I know have ever had a solo date with him.”
Wu’s eyes narrowed. “Have you been gossiping about Ross? Because if you have—”
“No, I haven’t!” Lauren screwed up her face. “I’ve been listening—quietly—for a few months now, ever since I first raised my suspicions with you and you shot me down. There are a number of girls that have their eyes set on Ross, but none of them get very far. He politely puts them off, using his football as an excuse.” She leant forward to emphasise her words. “And it’s an excuse. He has time for you but not for a girlfriend? It’s not conclusive by itself, but in combination with everything else...” She shrugged.
“You don’t think that trying to get into the AFL is worth it? That dating is more important than his dreams?”
“Don’t put words into my mouth!” Lauren took a deep breath and visibly calmed down. “Look, all I want—all we both want—is for Ross to be happy. I know football’s important to him, and I’d love to see him in the AFL, but I’m concerned about what he’s sacrificing to get there. He thinks he can’t be gay and be a football player, and that’s not healthy.”
“He’s not gay!” It was Wu’s turn to pause and lower his voice back to normal conversational levels. “Not that there would be anything wrong if he was, but he’s not. I know him, Lauren. We’ve been best mates for years. If he was gay, he’d tell me.”
“Not if you’re the one he was crushing on.” Lauren sighed. “We’re not getting anywhere with this conversation. Look, I know you disagree, but when I found out that Stuart’s a football player, that he knows Ross, and that he’s gay, I couldn’t do nothing. The opportunity seemed too good to let go. If Ross isn’t gay, then no harm done. If he is, maybe he’ll have a chance to be as happy as we are.”
Wu smiled as he reached across the table to take her hand. “Your heart’s in the right place. It’s your understanding of Ross that’s all screwed up. Okay, we’ll see how it goes. Hopefully, it won’t end in a disaster.” He squeezed once and then let go. “Aren’t you supposed to be doing homework?”
Lauren snorted as she opened her laptop. “I’ve been trying...”
* * *
“How was Peter?” Deon asked once they were back on the Eastern Freeway and headed towards Lilydale.
“Great!” Ty said. “He took me around their facilities. There are a lot of similarities to what Carlton have at Visy Park, though naturally there are differences, too.” He grinned. “The coffee shop’s better.”
Jim chuckled from his position in the driver’s seat. “And that’s the way you decide if an AFL club is any good?”
“Of course not!” Ty glanced at Deon in the back seat before replying to Jim. “The good AFL clubs are the ones that draft you guys. If they don’t draft you, they’re no good.”
“Brat...” Jim glanced to the side before returning his attention to the road. “There’s no guarantee anyone will draft us. The recruiting manager at Carlton made that very clear. They are interested in both of us, but they said a lot can happen between now and the draft, and they won’t make any promises.”
“I know.” Ty dropped his head. “Even being in the Academy doesn’t mean you’ll get drafted.” Ty had spent two years in the AIS-AFL Academy, starting when he was picked as one of the top sixteen-year-olds in the country. As part of the program, he’d had an ex-AFL player as a mentor, travelled to Europe to play exhibition matches and experience what it’s like to be on the road as a footballer, been given special tuition in training and nutrition, had appointments with sports psychologists, and had been provided an education in such things as public speaking and using social media—all while still going through school. Ty had never done well in those non-football portions of the program—he’d never seen the point of them since they weren’t about playing football—and in hindsight he wondered if that had played a part in his not being drafted.
“Sorry, brat.” Jim’s tone was gentle. “If it makes you feel better, both Deon and I spoke to Mick Malthouse about you.”
Ty’s head snapped up. “Don’t!”
“Don’t talk about it.” Ty scowled, his eyes flicking to Deon in the back seat. “I’m not the one the clubs are interested in. Don’t make this about me. You two and Dave are the ones the AFL clubs are looking at. I’m not on their radar.”
“And if you were?” Jim’s voice was still soft.
Ty closed his eyes tight. He didn’t want his friends to see him cry. He’d been courted by over half the AFL teams the year before, but when it came to the crunch, none had selected him. At the end of the draft he’d been left standing there—wondering what the fuck had just happened. He couldn’t go through that again. He couldn’t let himself hope.
“I’m not.” He opened his eyes and glared at Jim. “And don’t fucking mention this again! I don’t want to discuss it.”
Jim frowned as he glanced across at Ty. “Okay, brat. If that’s what you want.”
Ty turned in his seat and scowled at Deon. “That goes for you, too.”
Deon nodded slowly, though Ty felt it was more humouring him than agreeing with him. “Sure thing, brat.” He gave Ty a tentative smile. “So...what’s Peter been up to?”
Ty took a deep breath before responding. That was a subject he was much more comfortable discussing.
* * *
“Isaac, can you drop around tonight? Something’s cropped up, and I want to discuss some strategy options.”
Isaac’s brow wrinkled at the comment from the Hawthorn Football Club’s recruiting manager. “Sure, Garry, I’ll be there as soon as I finish work. What’s happened?”
“Flanders visited the Western Bulldogs today. If they are looking at him, I’m not sure if it’s worthwhile doing any investigation to see if he’s suitable for our club. We’re going to have the last or second-to-last draft pick of the round—I’m hoping it’ll be the last—and if the Bulldogs are interested, Flanders is unlikely to still be around when it comes to our turn.”
Isaac gave a wry grin at the draft-pick comment. Initial draft picks were assigned in the reverse order of the teams’ finishes in the season just ending. The winner of the AFL grand final that Saturday would get the last draft pick of each round. Naturally, both Isaac and Garry wanted Hawthorn to win. “Only if they take him with their first pick. If they don’t know we’re interested, they may delay selecting him. And you never know, they may trade their first-round draft pick in the lead up to the draft, which will open things up for us.”
“Agreed, which is why I want you in to discuss strategy. I’m still not convinced Flanders’ attitude has changed, but I’m willing to entertain the possibility. I’m just not sure how much effort we should be putting in.”
“Any idea how they found out about him?” Isaac glanced at the clock. He had just under an hour before his day job finished and he could move onto his other job and passion as a scout for his beloved Hawthorn Football Club.
“The Leopards’ head coach started working there earlier this week. He would’ve told them.” Isaac could hear Garry drumming his fingers on his desk. “What time will you be getting here?”
“Depending on traffic, around six.”
“Okay, I’ll see you then. Bye, Isaac.”
“See you soon.” Isaac hung up the phone and then frowned at his desk. He had a couple of critical jobs that needed to be completed that day, but if he pushed, he might be able to get them done and be able to leave a few minutes early.
* * *
Michelle smiled across the desk in the Pride FM studio as she spoke into the microphone. “Welcome back, listeners, for another beautiful Melbourne Friday morning. For the last time this year, we have Jim Henderson and Paul Crowman here in the studio with us to discuss AFL football. One game left in the season to find out who will be this year’s premiers: the Hawks or the Swans.” She glanced at her co-host, Maria, signalling for her to continue.
“This time, we have an extra guest. Kevin Scanlan, from the Sydney Swans and Joe’s hero from the incident at the VFL grand final last weekend, has been gracious enough to join us again. Welcome, Kevin.” Maria winked as she gave the Sydney Swans apparel that Kevin was wearing a quick scan. “Do I need to guess who you think will win tomorrow?”
Kevin chuckled. With the grand final parade through the streets of Melbourne at lunchtime, he wasn’t the only one at the radio station sporting the apparel of either Sydney or Hawthorn, though in his case it was his player training gear rather than the more common supporter’s commercial clothing. “Thanks, Maria, Michelle. I don’t think it’s any surprise to say that I think the Swans will win. Hawthorn isn’t to be taken lightly, though.”
“Can you tell us about the Swans’ preparations for the big match?” Michelle asked.
“Sorry, no. That’s not because I’m not allowed to, but because I don’t know. The guys have been working hard and doing everything they can to get ready, but I’ve stayed away. I didn’t want to disrupt their routine; it’s already disrupted enough with all the grand-final-week hype. I’m looking forward to seeing the guys in the parade at lunchtime today, but I’m not going to try to get in to speak to them. They need to focus on tomorrow.”
“Fair enough,” Maria said. “I think we’re all anticipating a great match, though some of us may have a different opinion as to who will win. Jim, Paul, what are your thoughts?”
Paul glanced at Jim, who signalled that Paul could go first. “It’s a tough call. Sydney finished top of the ladder, but the Hawks are the reigning premiers. They’ll be fired up to make it two on the trot, and at this level, that little bit of additional incentive may be enough. Kevin could probably confirm it, but there’s a lot of emphasis in the AFL on the little things that can give a one or two percent improvement. The desire to win back-to-back premierships could make all the difference.”
Kevin grinned. “True, but our desire to win is an equal incentive. Don’t forget, we beat Hawthorn in the grand final two years ago. There’s no reason we can’t do it again.
“You mentioned the one and two percenters. We have an entire team dedicated to getting that last little bit out of the players. Our training programs are individually tailored to maximise the benefits, and we’re all tracked on our performance against the goals that are set. No one can hide behind anyone else, everyone is in the spotlight, and we’re constantly pushed to squeeze that extra little bit out of ourselves.” His grin broadened. “That’s why I’m looking for a win by the Swans. We know what we have to do, and everything is focused on this one game. That’s what the entire season has been aimed at, and that’s where we are.”
Michelle smiled and gave him a wink. “But Kevin, aren’t all the clubs doing the same? I know Collingwood have their own high-performance team, too.”
Kevin shrugged. “I can’t comment on the other clubs; I just know what we do. Hawthorn won’t be easy to defeat, but I have faith in our senior guys. They’ll repeat what they did in 2012 and win another premiership cup.”
Michelle turned to the currently silent member of the group. “Jim, what are your thoughts? Swans or Hawks for premiers?”
“It’s going to be close, but I’m going for the Swans.” Jim grimaced momentarily. “But it’s not going to be easy. I’ve never played against any of the Swans players, but Paul and I know firsthand how tough some of the Hawks can be. Ben McEvoy played against us in the VFL preliminary final two weeks ago, and now he’ll be playing in the AFL grand final. He gave us a lot of problems in that game, and I expect him to do the same to the Swans.”
Michelle and Maria exchanged glances before Maria spoke. “But you guys won your preliminary final. Are you saying that the Leopards are equal to one of the AFL grand-final teams?”
“No, definitely not!” Jim shuddered at the hubris of that thought. “Ben McEvoy is one AFL player, not a team. As our coach told everyone at the dinner after the VFL grand final, it’s teams that win games, not individuals. Individually, McEvoy may have been stronger than Zach, our ruckman, but as a team, we outplayed the Box Hill Hawks.
“The AFL grand finalists—both Hawthorn and Sydney—are teams of strong players. An old coach of mine back in my junior days told me that a champion team will always beat a team of champions. The Leopards proved last weekend that we’re a champion team. Tomorrow we have two champion teams of champion players playing. The grand final takes the game to a completely new level.”
The five continued to discuss the upcoming game, the significant players involved, and what they saw as the key matchups to watch. Kevin was careful to state that he had no idea of the Swans’ game plan and everything was just his view, but otherwise he tried his best to give honest opinions. He was almost disappointed when Joe signalled from the sound booth that it was time to wind up.
“Thank you, Jim, Paul, and Kevin, for all your comments.” Michelle smiled at the guys. “An extra big thanks to Jim and Paul for all your contributions throughout the season. All of us at Pride FM appreciate you coming in here each week to give your views of the upcoming AFL round. Joe. in particular, has appreciated your presence, especially yours, Paul.”
Paul chuckled. “Thanks, Michelle. It’s been fun all year, though I think this is the first time that Joe hasn’t tried to ask me out on a date.”
Joe flipped the switch on the microphone in the booth. “Sorry, Paul, but you played hard-to-get for too long. I’ve found myself someone else to date this weekend. You’re on your own.”
Paul laughed. “Is this date with the guy you met at our game last weekend?”
“It is, so I suppose in a roundabout way, you played a part in getting me a date. Jim, Paul, thanks for all your help, and hopefully we’ll see you both here again next year.”
Jim glanced at Paul before responding. “We hope so, too. It’s been great being here.”
A few minutes later, the three guys were outside of the studio. After shaking hands, Paul smiled. “Sorry, I’ve got to run. I’ll see you tomorrow, Jim. It’s been great meeting you, Kevin.”
Jim gave Kevin an apologetic look as Paul strode away. “Sorry, but I’ve got to go, too. They’ve got some station promos they want me to record. Do you need me to lead you out?”
“That’s fine.” Kevin realised that Jim was adroitly offering to escort him as a way of avoiding unwanted advances. “I’m a big boy. I can find my own way out of the building.”
“Okay. Deon told me that the two of you are going to the grand-final parade today. I’m hoping to get away from here to see it, too, so I may see you again at lunchtime.”
Kevin grinned. “That’ll be great if you can. We’ll text you when we find a spot, but we’ll almost certainly end up in Spring Street for the presentations at the end. See you there!”
After Jim left, Kevin headed towards the main entrance of the radio station. He smiled without saying anything to a couple of guys who made appreciative comments as he passed and grinned at the playful mocking comments from one obvious Hawthorn supporter. He was just passing reception when he heard a voice from behind him.
“Kevin, wait up!”
Kevin turned to see a young man, probably in his early twenties, decked out from head to toe in Sydney Swans gear. The guy was holding a magazine and a pen as he jogged up.
“Can I get your autograph before you go?” The young man puffed a bit and gave Kevin an apologetic smile. “Sorry. I wanted to catch you as you left the studio, but I got held up by my boss.”
Kevin smiled as he accepted the booklet and pen. “Sure thing. What’s your name?” He got ready to sign the front of what he recognised as the AFL Record magazine, known informally as the Footy Record.
“Warwick Sampson.” He glanced down and immediately held his hand over the cover. “Not there!” When Kevin frowned, Warwick grinned sheepishly. “Don’t you recognise it? That’s the Footy Record from your debut match. Do you think you can sign the team-list page?”
Kevin had a closer look. It was, as Warwick had said, the round-21 AFL Record and the one for the match against St.Kilda at the SCG in Sydney. Slightly shocked, he glanced up at Warwick and back at the magazine. “Sure, but how come you have this with you?”
Warwick ran a hand through his hair. “My parents and I are mad-keen Swans fans. We go to all their matches here in Melbourne, and I’ve been trying to get to as many matches in Sydney as I can. That included the two games you played. I was going to ask for your autograph on Tuesday when you were here, but I overheard that you’d be back today, so that’s when I had the idea of getting you to sign the Footy Record from your debut match. It makes it that much more special.”
“It certainly does!” Kevin grinned. “Thanks, Warwick. You’ve made my day. Say, can I ask...about your name...?”
Warwick chuckled. “As I said, my parents are Swans-crazy. Yes, I’m named after Warwick Capper,” naming a well-known Sydney player from the 80s. “They must’ve known something when I was born, because I grew up having crushes on good-looking, blond footballers in tight shorts.” He blushed and dropped his gaze. “I’ve still got a thing for football players.”
“Just as well I’m not blond, then, or I might be in trouble,” Kevin joked as he handed back the pen and signed magazine.
Warwick’s head snapped up. “No, I’d never...!”
“Relax, I’m only joking.” Kevin put a hand on Warwick’s shoulder to try to reassure the other guy, but dropped it when Warwick flinched. “If I knew of any players looking for boyfriends, I’d send them in your direction, but sorry, I don’t.”
“That’s okay. Thanks, though.” Warwick gnawed on his lower lip for a moment before reaching into his pants pocket and extracting a business card. “But if it’s okay with you...no pressure and I understand if you don’t want to...but could we...if you don’t mind...hang out sometime?” He held out the card. “This has my contact details, and I’ve put my personal phone number on the back.”
Kevin hesitated for a moment before accepting the card. “I can’t make any promises, but if I can, I’ll give you a call.” He smiled. “Between helping Deon get ready for next weekend’s AFL combine and this girl I’ve been seeing, I don’t have a lot of spare time, but I’ll see what I can do.”
Warwick’s grin of relief threatened to split his face. “Thanks. I understand if you can’t, but it’ll be really great if we can go out at some stage.” He glanced over his shoulder. “I’m sorry, but I’ve got to get back to work. I hope to hear from you soon!”
Kevin stood there for almost a minute as his mind churned. He slipped the business card into his wallet while trying to work out what he wanted. He was very tempted to throw away the card as soon as he was out of the building to avoid future complications.
Later that morning, he did exactly that. But only after he’d copied Warwick’s details into his phone.
* * *
Ross stared at the crowds outside the Flinders Street railway station. “We won’t see a thing with all these people in the way.”
Wu snorted. “Which is why I wanted to catch the earlier train, but no, you said we had plenty of time. Anyway, I don’t know what you’re complaining about. Being Mr. Beanpole, you can stare over the top of everyone else, while I get to look at everyone’s backs.”
Ross chuckled. “How about we try somewhere else? Did you check the route?”
“Of course, I did!” Wu rolled his eyes. “It starts outside the Arts Centre, along St. Kilda Road and across the Princes Bridge,” he said, waving his hand in the direction of the Yarra River to their right. “They go past here, down Swanston Street, right at Collins Street, and finish up outside the Old Treasury Building in Spring Street.”
Ross peered over the top of the crowd to both his left down Swanston Street and to the right down St. Kilda Road. “The crowd doesn’t look better in either direction, so how about we check out Collins Street?”
“Sounds like a plan. If all else fails, you can get on all fours and I can stand on your back.” Wu grinned when Ross scowled. “After all, the reason we don’t have a good possie is because you were late.”
“I wasn’t late; it’s still fifteen minutes ’til noon. You just wanted to be early.” Ross gave Wu a wry chuckle. “Probably rightly, too. Okay, it’s my fault, so let’s see if we can find a good place to watch the parade. Thinking about it, somewhere near the end is probably a good idea. The players are more likely to hang around there for longer.”
“I believe they’re presenting the teams at the end of the parade, so you could be right.”
The two made their way through the crowd and headed north along Swanston Street. Not seeing any good vantage points, they headed east up the hill towards what was colloquially known as the Paris end of Collins Street; so called because of the upmarket and boutique shops in the area as well as the European style architecture that used to dominate.
The number of people waiting this early at the end of the parade route was considerably lower than at the start, though Ross noticed a lot of office workers taking an early lunch and getting in position. There were still a lot of people, though nowhere near the numbers waiting along the first half of the parade route.
“Somewhere around here?” Ross asked.
“Sounds good to me.” Wu looked around and then stared at a small crowd nearby whose attention wasn’t on the upcoming parade. Instead they were gathered around a young man wearing Sydney Swans apparel. “Hey, isn’t that the guy from the paper earlier this week? The Swans player who was in the fight at the VFL grand final? What’s his name?”
“Kevin Scanlan.” Ross glanced in that direction and then did a double-take. “And that’s Deon Bradshaw with him!”
Wu grabbed Ross by the arm. “Come on, let’s say hello.”
Ross was sufficiently surprised to allow his friend to drag him a few steps before he dug in his heels. “Wu, leave them alone.” He peered in the direction that Wu was taking them. “They’ve got enough people bothering them; they don’t need two more.”
“Okay.” Wu stared up at Ross for a moment and then grinned. “We’ll make it one more. I’ll get you an autograph.”
Before Ross could react, Wu was slipping his way through the crowd. “Wu!”
Muttering under his breath, Ross followed. He knew Wu was going to embarrass him, and there was the possibility, small though it might be, that one of those guys could be a teammate after the draft. He arrived soon after Wu, but his small Asian friend was already speaking.
“...so can I get your autograph for him?”
“Sure.” Kevin smiled. “Who’s your friend?”
Wu frowned. “Not you. Him.” He pointed at Deon. “Can I get your autograph?”
“Me?” Deon stared at Wu in disbelief.
Kevin chuckled. “Get used to it Deon. When you’re in the AFL, you have to be prepared for things like this.”
“But I’m not in the AFL. I’m only in the VFL.” Deon returned his attention to Wu. “Are you sure you’re not mistaking me for someone else?”
Wu grinned up over his shoulder at Ross. “My friend here spent hours on Monday watching and re-watching highlights of your game on Sunday. Roscoe seemed really impressed by your performance.”
Ross scowled. “That’s enough, Wu.” He gave Deon a wan smile. “Sorry to bother you. We’ll get going.”
Kevin glanced over from where he was using a marker pen to sign his name on a young woman’s arm. “Not before Deon gives you that autograph.” He finished up and then handed the pen over. “Use this.”
“We don’t have anything to sign.” Ross grabbed Wu by the arm. “Sorry, we won’t bother you again.”
“Until next Saturday when you two are at the draft camp.” Wu ignored Ross’s glare and raised an eyebrow at Deon. “That’s right, isn’t it? The two of you will be at the AFL testing day together?”
Deon grinned. “Well, I know I’ll be there.” He stuck out his hand. “I hope you do well. I’m Deon Bradshaw.”
“Yeah, I know.” Ross gave him a tentative smile as they shook. “Ross Munroe, though my friends call me Roscoe.”
Deon looked over at Kevin, who had returned to signing autographs. He was currently signing the shirts of some young kids while their mother stood nearby and beamed. Deon returned his attention to Ross. “Are you doing anything after the parade? A few of my teammates will hopefully be joining us and I can introduce you.”
“Sorry, no, that’s not—”
“We’d love to.” Wu elbowed Ross. “As I said, this guy spent hours watching your match. He’d be thrilled to meet more of the players. Isn’t that right, Roscoe?”
Ross gave in. “Yeah, sure. Thanks, Deon.” He mentally crossed his fingers that Jim Henderson wouldn’t be one of those players. He was afraid he’d give himself away if that happened.
“Great! I’ll let the guys know. Charlie and the brat will be here. Jim wasn’t sure if he’d make it, but he’s going to try his best.”
Ross’s heart started pounding. Things were getting dangerous.
* * *
“Brat, I’d like you to meet someone.” Deon smiled as he led Ty back to the table in the small Melbourne cafe that he had been sitting at when Ty and Karen had arrived. Ty had taken the day off from work and had met up with Karen after the last of her morning classes. “Brat, this is Ross Munroe and Wu Tang. Ross is going to be at the combine next weekend with me. Guys, this is Ty, better known as the brat, and Karen. Ty’s the winner of the Norm Goss medal as the most valuable player in last weekend’s VFL grand final as well as our vice-captain. He was at the national combine last year, so he may be able to help you prepare, Ross.”
Ty grinned as he stuck out his hand. “Good luck, Ross, but if you’ve got any questions about what’s going to happen, you’re better off asking Deon. He did it last year, too, so he knows the drill. He did the same one-day evaluation that you’ll be doing, which I didn’t attend. I did the four-day camp, which included a lot of things that you guys won’t be doing. I just don’t know which ones they’ll be. Sorry.”
“Thanks, Ty.” Ross glanced at Deon while shaking hands. “If you don’t mind...?”
“Of course not! I’ll give you my number. Maybe we can train together this week?” Deon chuckled. “The brat and Kev have conspired to make sure I’m at peak fitness. They’ve got a schedule for me for every day. Dave, another one of our teammates who’ll be at the combine, has been joining in, so another would be more than welcome.”
“We haven’t got you training every day. We’re giving you tomorrow off.” Ty winked at Ross and Wu. “Apparently, some friends of Kev’s are in a footy match tomorrow, and he and Deon want to go see them play.”
Wu laughed. “I’m sure Roscoe would be there, too, if he could afford it and could get tickets.” He turned to his friend. “How about it? Training with someone could make all the difference.”
“I don’t know...”
“Where do you live?” Ty asked, wondering at Ross’s reluctance. When he was getting ready for the draft, everyone he knew would jump at the chance to train with more senior players.
“Boronia.” Ross grimaced. “I supposed I could take the train to Ringwood and then change to the Lilydale line.”
“Excellent!” Ty said as he pulled out his phone. “Give me your number and we’ll get it organised tonight and start on Sunday.”
A few minutes later, Deon was explaining to Ross what he’d gone through the previous year at the Victorian draft combine. Leaving them alone, Ty turned to Kevin and grinned. “I’ve heard you’ve had a busy week.”
Kevin chuckled. “It’s been eventful. I’m trying to keep a low profile, but Alastair keeps arranging things for me, telling me it’ll be good for me.”
“Low profile?” Ty snorted. “How does having your picture in the paper, doing radio interviews, and giving out autographs in the street constitute a low profile?” He grinned when Kevin’s eyes went wide at the last point. “Deon sent me a text about you and your new fans before the parade. He mentioned that some of them were as old as ten.”
“And a few girls older than that, too.” Kevin grinned. “I had a few phone numbers stuck in my pocket. If I wasn’t seeing Evelyn at the moment, I might’ve been tempted to take them up on the offer, but I only need one girl at a time.” He turned to the young woman at Ty’s side. “Karen, sorry, I’ve been ignoring you. How have you been? It’s good to see you again.” He leant forward and gave her a peck on the cheek.
“Things are getting busy with schoolwork, but so far everything’s under control.” Karen smiled. “So I can tell Clarissa that you’re still seeing Evelyn? She told me she wasn’t sure, as Evelyn had stopped replying to her texts.”
“We are for now, though we both know this is only short term. If she wants details, Clarissa can ask me herself tomorrow at the game.” Kevin nudged Deon. “She’s still coming to the grand final?”
“Of course! She told me she’s looking forward to it.”
Wu, who had been splitting his attention between the two conversations, broke in. “You’re all going to the game?”
Ty smiled as he shook his head. “Just these two,” he said as he indicated Deon and Kevin, “Deon’s girlfriend, Clarissa, and Kev’s old man. The rest of us will be at the club in Lilydale as a combined celebration of our win last weekend and a grand-final-day party.” He cocked his head. “Why don’t you and Roscoe join us? It’s a big day to thank all our supporters. While you’re there, I’ll see what I can do about getting Roscoe access to our gym for the week.” Ty winked. “I’ll tell them that we need him as a training partner for Deon.”
“Fantastic! We’ll be there.” Wu grinned at Ross. “You’ll be able to use some decent equipment for a change.”
“Hey, what I’ve got at home isn’t crap, I just don’t have a lot of stuff.” Ross had a faint frown on his face as he turned to Ty. “How big’s your gym?”
The discussion continued for the next couple of minutes, only to be interrupted when Charlie and Stacey arrived, followed shortly afterwards by Jim and a small mixed group of Sydney and Hawthorn fans: nine guys ranging in ages from the early twenties to mid forties, and two women. Two of the Hawthorn supporters were holding hands, as were the two women.
“Sorry to be a bit late, guys,” Jim said as he stood by the table. “I didn’t realise that there was going to be a contingent from Pride FM coming to the parade.” He turned to the group that came in with him. “I’ll let you introduce yourselves, but these are my friends.” He quickly introduced Deon, Ty, Charlie, Karen, and Stacey. He gave Ross and Wu a quizzical look before waving a hand at Kevin. “Most of you have seen him around at the station, but in case you haven’t, this is Kevin, Joe’s hero of the week.”
Joe, one of the guys decked out in Swans gear, blushed. “Hero of the year.” He grinned at Kevin. “How’s it going?”
Kevin grinned back. “Good. Have fun on your date with Alan tomorrow.” He raised an eyebrow at one of the other guys. “G’day, Warwick. I didn’t expect to see you again so soon.”
Warwick chuckled. “I didn’t, either.”
Ty was about to ask how the two of them knew each other when he caught sight of the look of fear on Ross’s face as his eyes darted nervously over the gathered group.
“Are you all gay?” Wu asked the newcomers.
Jim smiled. “We are,” he said, only to be contradicted by the two women who said they’re lesbians.
Ross immediately stood up. “I’ve got to go.” Not waiting for a response, he pushed past the group, bumping one of the guys on his way out the door.
“Roscoe!” Wu sat stunned for a moment before clambering to his feet. “Sorry, everyone. I don’t know what’s gotten into him.” He smiled apologetically to the gathered group. “It’s been great meeting you.” Before anyone could say anything, he headed out of the cafe.
“What the fuck was all that about?” Ty asked as he glared in the direction Ross and Wu had gone.
“He’s obviously homophobic,” one of the guys in Hawthorn gear said, disgust clear in his voice. “We’re better off without him. Who was he, anyway?”
Deon was frowning in the same direction as Ty. “One of the guys who’ll be at the AFL draft camp next weekend. I was going to start training with him next week, but now...I don’t know.”
Ty’s fists were clenched. “I’m tempted to go out there and beat some sense into him.”
“Let it go, brat.” Jim sighed as he waved a hand at some empty tables. “Let’s sit down. We’ve only got a short time before we’re due back at the radio station, and I don’t want to waste it on useless crap.”
* * *
Wu scowled at Ross as the two waited at the train station. “I thought I knew you, Roscoe, but that has to be the most revolting thing I’ve ever seen you do. You insulted a whole bunch of people for no good reason.”
Ross glared back. “Leave me alone. You can’t tell me what to do.”
“I never would.” Wu pinched his lips for a moment. “But it looks to me like you’ve just blown your chance to get some good solid training in before the combine. Are you deliberately trying to mess things up?”
“I...” Ross ran a hand through his hair as he turned away. “I can train by myself. I don’t need them.”
Wu stared at his friend’s back and then pulled out his phone. He needed to tell Lauren what had happened and warn her that there might be fireworks at the party on Saturday night if she tried to push Ross and Stuart together. He had trouble believing that Ross was homophobic, but the evidence from the cafe was damning.