Isaac Long wiped his feet on the mat outside the front door. “Thanks again for the offer for dinner. You didn’t need to do that.”
Oliver shrugged as he waited for the Hawthorn recruiter to enter the Bronson Avenue house. “We’re all here at dinner time, and what’s a better way to talk about our teammates than over a good meal and a bottle of wine?”
“Usually, I’d still turn you down because of the imposition, but since I have to be out this way to visit a number of people and because you insisted, I couldn’t resist.”
Isaac stepped into the living room to be greeted by Paul and Todd. Isaac knew them both, but only from videos and reviews of the player records. After saying hello and thanking them for letting him visit, he stared past them to the last person in the room: a young man who looked familiar, though Isaac wasn’t sure from where.
“Isaac, this is Neil, the Leopards’ mascot for the season. Neil, come over here and say hello.” Oliver grinned at Isaac. “He’s been living here since May. You may’ve caught the TV show about how he ran away after he was hit by his father. Neil was quite famous for awhile.”
“Ollie!” Todd glowered for a moment before giving Isaac an apologetic smile. “Ollie’s mouth has a tendency to engage before his brain.”
Isaac chuckled. “Don’t worry about it.” He turned to Neil who was standing half behind Todd. “G’day, Neil. Now that Ollie’s reminded me, I know where I’ve seen you before.” He stuck out a hand. “Things have picked up since then, I hope?”
Neil’s lips twitched for a moment as they shook. “Yeah, they have. The guys have all been great, especially Todd and the brat.”
Isaac made a mental note to try to tease more information from Neil over dinner. That Ty Flanders was looking out for someone other than himself showed a marked change from his attitude the year before. It was the sort of evidence that Isaac was looking for.
“Okay, I need to get back to the kitchen or we’ll be having burnt offerings.” Oliver gave Todd and Paul a hard stare. “You guys are in charge of our guest for the next fifteen minutes.” He stabbed a finger in their direction. “And don’t offer him some of your cheap beer or wine. We’re having something decent to drink with dinner.”
Paul laughed. “We’ll be fine, Ollie. Go and finish cooking.” He turned to Isaac and waved a hand to the open chairs and couch. “Have a seat. Ollie told us that you’ve got other appointments tonight, so why don’t we get started? Ollie was a little vague on exactly why you’re here.”
“It’s not complicated,” Isaac said as he sat down. “The Leopards attracted a lot of interest with your successful finals series, not only with your win against our Box Hill Hawks in the preliminary final but also against Footscray in the grand final. You guys were mixing it up with some decent AFL players, and you came out on top. I think you’ll find a number of clubs are having a second look at your team.” He chuckled. “I’ve already been to see Roger McDowell, your captain, and after dinner I’m off to see Deon Bradshaw and the guys he’s living with. I still need to organise a trip to see Dave Islington and his housemates. There are a couple of others we want to chat with, too. As I said, you guys have forced us to have another look at everyone.”
“You want to talk to us about our football?” Paul asked from the edge of the chair on which he perched. “You think we’re ready to play in the AFL?”
“Not exactly.” Isaac paused to organise his words. “A good VFL player doesn’t necessarily make a good AFL player. There’s more to the game than just pure football skills. You guys have shown you can play great at the VFL level. We’re looking to see if any of your team can take it to the next level, and that means finding out more about who each person is. Does he have the drive and dedication to make it in the AFL? Is he the sort of person that will thrive in what is an extremely stressful environment? AFL players are constantly monitored, not only by the club, but also by the media and general public. Not everyone can cope with that. To find out more, we’re talking to the players who we’re interested in, as well as their teammates. It all helps us get a more rounded picture of who they are.”
“Can we ask who you’re thinking about?” Todd gave Isaac a lazy smile. “It’ll help us give you the information you’re looking for.”
Isaac grinned. “It’s no secret that Deon has had a fantastic year. Dave has also made a lot of people sit up and take notice, though I doubt anyone is seriously thinking of him for the main draft. He’s more likely to be picked up in the rookie draft—if he’s picked at all—as a backup in case a team has a player out due to a long-term injury. Skill-wise, he has the ability to challenge most AFL midfielders. It’s maintaining consistency, fronting up week after week, and dealing with the pressure that comes with being in the AFL that he’d have to learn.” He cocked his head. “But we’re not closing our eyes to anyone. It’s late in the process to be adding people to our prospects list, but you guys have made yourselves impossible to ignore. So, to answer your question, we’re looking at a number of people on your team. What I’d like to do tonight is simply learn more about the Leopards, how they act, and how they interact with others.”
Todd settled back on the couch that he was sharing with Neil. “Then the floor’s open. Ask away.”
Isaac stared at Todd and Paul before deciding to start from left field. “Neil, the Leopards have helped you a lot, right?” When Neil gave him an uncertain nod, Isaac continued. “Can you tell me a bit about who has helped and what they’ve done?”
“They gave me a place to stay—a place to be safe.” Neil dropped his head. “They gave me friends for the first time in years.” He looked up, and Isaac couldn’t help being moved by the emotions that were sweeping over the young man’s face. “I don’t know what would’ve happened if the Leopards, and Todd in particular, hadn’t stepped in, but all the Leopards have done something for me. Todd gave me a big brother I could turn to for help. He, Paul and Ollie gave me a place to live.” He smiled for a moment. “Ollie also taught me to cook, even if Paul still doesn’t think I’m good enough.”
“Hey, that was a joke!” Paul grinned. “You haven’t poisoned us yet, so you must be doing something right.”
“What about the other Leopards?” Isaac asked.
“The brat’s been great, encouraging me to be myself.” Neil chuckled. “That’s in between making me do things his way because he’s always right.”
“He’s always right?” Isaac echoed, concerned at the first indication that Ty Flanders’s old attitude problems weren’t completely gone.
Neil grinned. “It’s a standing joke between us. He claims to be always right even though everyone, including him, knows he’s not.” Neil’s expression changed to one much more serious. “He’s done a lot for me—almost as much as Todd.” His grin returned. “Including conspiring with some friends to get me a boyfriend.”
“That sounds like an interesting story.” Isaac winked, while mentally making a note of the anecdote. “But maybe we can talk about that another time. Who else has helped you?”
“Deon organised a place for me to stay in Sydney next year while I go to uni.” Neil sighed and looked down at the worn carpet again. “He also kept me hidden when the reporters were on the warpath just before that TV show aired.”
“Where did he hide you?”
“With his father. Sam was down from Sydney to watch Deon play. Deon took me with him when he picked up his dad from the airport. I stayed with Deon’s dad at a motel that night.”
“Was it just Sam, or was Marcus there, too?”
Neil stiffened and glanced at Todd.
“You know about Marcus?” Todd asked.
Isaac chuckled. “Any of the clubs interested in Deon will know about Sam and Marcus. Those that have a problem with Deon’s father being gay will have stopped looking. We haven’t.”
“Then you don’t have a problem with Jim, either?” Neil asked. “He’s helped me, too, though more indirectly. He’s shown me that it’s okay to be gay, that you can be gay and still liked.” Neil turned away and lifted a hand to wipe his eyes. “He’s the one who first started looking for a place for me to stay when I needed to leave home.”
“No, I don’t have a problem with Jim.” Isaac smiled. “I have a gay nephew who thinks the world of him. Josiah told me he would like Jim to be drafted. I wouldn’t mind it, either. It’d certainly shake things up a bit with the parts of the AFL that still struggle with the idea of a gay football player.”
“You might draft him?” Neil asked.
Isaac shrugged. “Not my call. I think he’s capable of playing in the AFL, but so are others with similar skill sets. Dave Islington, for example. Has he helped you in any way?” He paused and took in the tension that appeared in all three guys. It was most obvious in Neil, but Paul and Todd were also no longer as relaxed as they had been.
“I haven’t had a lot to do with Dave,” Neil said, not making eye contact.
Isaac grimaced, understanding why everyone had become defensive. “Guys, I know about his breakdown at Easter. I know he has Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. I can even make a guess as to why he has it, though I don’t want to know for sure.” Isaac shuddered. “That’s between him and his psychologist. Our head psychologist has said Dave should be capable of playing AFL despite the stress involved. Without giving away things you shouldn’t say, what can you tell me about him? Can he handle the pressure if he’s drafted? The last thing any of us want is for him to go through another breakdown.”
“Charlie’s the best one to talk to,” Paul said, “though you may have to struggle to get things out of him. Charlie’s very protective of Dave.”
“Charlie McDonald?” Isaac asked. When the others indicated he was right, he continued. “Why’s that?”
Todd and Paul exchanged glances. “It was back before the start of the season,” Todd said slowly, keeping his gaze on Paul. Isaac guessed that he was watching for a signal in case he started to say too much. “Dave accidentally injured Charlie in a training drill. Dave had been building a wall around himself, but after the accident he let Charlie—and only Charlie—in. Charlie ran interference for Dave until Dave’s breakdown, and he’s still the one Dave goes to if he needs to talk to someone in the club. Dave can talk to him when he can’t talk to anyone else.”
Isaac pinched his lips as he thought. “Does that mean that if we picked Dave in the rookie draft, we should pick Charlie, too? Is Dave dependent on Charlie?”
Paul’s jaw dropped. “You’d do that?”
Isaac gave him a wry smile. “I can’t do anything. I’m trying to find out what sort of person Dave is and whether we should consider drafting him. If he needs someone else to be with him, then that’s a factor we’ll have to consider before we make any selections. It doesn’t rule him out, but it’s definitely not something positive.”
Isaac was surprised when Neil was the one to respond. “Dave doesn’t need Charlie in that way. In all the games where I was a runner, Dave was completely professional. He wasn’t dependent on anyone. If Charlie’s his closest friend, then that’s what he’ll need. He won’t need him to be a teammate; he’ll need him as a confidant.” He glanced at Todd. “Just like Todd and the brat are there for me when I need them.” He grinned as Oliver’s head appeared in the door to the kitchen. “And like Ollie and Paul are here when I’ve got problems, too.”
“And you’re here when I have a problem,” Oliver grinned back. “Which I have right now. I need someone to come in and help me eat all this food I’ve cooked. Dinner is served.”
Isaac clambered out of his chair. The visit had already been worthwhile, but the aroma wafting in from the kitchen informed him that there were still more good things to come, even if they weren’t all football related.
* * *
“How was training today?” Ivy Munroe asked her son as they ate dinner.
“Good.” Ross chuckled. “We didn’t do another endurance run like we did on Tuesday, something that I’m eternally grateful for. That was tough.”
Ivy laughed. “You certainly complained enough that night. I had the impression you were thinking of dropping out of the training.”
“No!” Ross paused with a forkful of spaghetti halfway to his mouth. “I never thought that. I might’ve been a bit depressed when I found out how much further I’ve got to go, but I never considered quitting. I know this is helping me, though it’s too late to have a lot of benefit before Saturday. But the best part is training with Kevin. He’s constantly telling Deon, Dave and me what it’s like in the AFL and how hard I’ll have to train if I make it there. This week is worthwhile just for that.”
“From what you’ve been saying, things will be even tougher in the AFL. Is that what you really want?”
Ross took in his mother’s gentle tone and bit back on the automatic ‛Hell, yes!’ response. “Playing in the AFL has been my goal for a long time. I knew it wasn’t going to be easy, and I knew that I would have to work hard to make it. It hasn’t really sunk in before, but Kevin’s made me realise that it’s going to be even harder work to stay in the AFL. But I love the game, and I’ll do whatever I can to be able to run out onto the oval with an AFL team.” He mentally added that included hiding the fact that he’s gay. He had to be straight to play in the AFL.
“I hope you don’t end up too disappointed if you don’t make it.” Ivy smiled gently across the table.
“I’ll make it.” Ross’s expression settled into one of determination. “That’s why I’m training this week—to give myself the best chance to get into the AFL.”
“Not everyone makes it,” Ross’s mother said. “I want you to be drafted, but it’s not in our control. We need to face up to the possibility that it doesn’t happen.”
Ross dropped his head. “I know. Ty and Deon didn’t get drafted last year, and I’ve seen how Ty reacts when he’s reminded of the fact.” He looked up. “But Deon’s a good chance again this year, and Dave’s a possibility even at the age of twenty-three. Missing out this year—which I don’t want to happen—isn’t the end of the world. Deon and Dave have shown me that I’ll still have chances if no one picks me.”
Ivy smiled. “It’s good to have a backup plan, but I hope everything goes well on Saturday. Are you sure you don’t want me there?”
“No, I’ll be fine. I’ll take the train in so I can spend the time focusing.” Ross grinned. “You need your Saturday morning sleep-in.”
“What are you saying, young man?” Ivy asked in mock outrage.
Ross chuckled. “That you’re the best Mum in the world, and you shouldn’t have to get up early on a Saturday morning to take me places.”
“Nice save.” She grinned as she poked her fork in Ross’s direction. “And for that, don’t worry about what time you get back from your post-combine celebrations with your friends, either. You’ll have all day Sunday to recover before school starts up again on Monday.”
Ross shuddered. “Don’t remind me.”
It wasn’t just the restart of school that made him shudder. It was also the plans for Saturday night. His mother thought that he was going out with Wu and some other friends from school. She didn’t know that he was going to be spending the time with Stuart.
Ross was apprehensive as to what was going to happen. Stuart was going to pick him up from the train station and then take him out to dinner and a nightclub. It hadn’t been explicitly stated, but Ross knew he would also be expected to spend at least part of the night, if not the whole night, at Stuart’s house.
Ross had already decided that Stuart wasn’t going to make him a good boyfriend, and he was striving to think of a way to break things off before he got in too deep, but he was afraid it might already be too late. Stuart knew too much about him that Ross couldn’t allow to become widely known. Saturday night had the possibility of being a major turning point in Ross’s life. He would either end up with a boyfriend that he probably wouldn’t like, or he would be outed and his dreams left in tatters. Ross was desperately praying for some other result.
* * *
Isaac smiled at the four guys he had come next to visit. After thirty minutes of chatting with them on various topics, only a few football-related, he was fascinated by the different attitudes displayed. Deon was eager, reminding him of a lot of the youngsters he interviewed as part of his job as a Hawthorn recruiter, though with a slightly more reserved edge. Isaac wasn’t surprised; Deon was only a year older than most of the kids he spoke to and had a part-time job. Isaac was usually speaking to guys in their last year of school, and while Deon still had that youthful enthusiasm, it had been tempered with a growing maturity that came from having to fend for himself after missing out in the 2013 draft.
Ryan was merely interested. He clearly didn’t think that Isaac was there for him, which was true. Ryan was a reliable VFL midfielder, but he would have to do a lot more if he was going to make the AFL clubs sit up and take notice of him.
It was the last two that had Isaac intrigued, though he made an effort not to show it. Jim Henderson presented a congenial front, but there was a level of reserve that Isaac had immediately sensed. Jim was holding back, keeping his true self hidden and showing only a public face. Isaac wondered how much of that was habit from the days when he had to hide that he’s gay.
The last guy, Ty, was the one Isaac was most interested in, though again he had to try to keep that quiet. Like Jim, Ty was outwardly open and friendly, but Isaac had already caught the times when a flicker of a different emotion had made its way to the surface. Isaac wasn’t sure what it was, but it wasn’t positive. He suspected envy, since all four of the guys assumed it was Deon that Isaac was there to see.
“...and that’s about all I’m comfortable saying.” Jim glanced at the other guys before returning his attention to Isaac. “We all know about Paul’s financial problems, but we don’t talk about them. I’ll admit that I’m surprised you went so far as to do a credit check on him, otherwise I wouldn’t be saying anything at all. It’s his life, not ours, and he’s managing it himself. He hasn’t sought out any help from us because he knows it was his mistake and something he has to fix himself. Now that it looks like he’s moving forward with his life again, we’re all happy for him.”
Ty grinned. “Including Deon, even if it is his sister that Paul’s starting to date.”
“Hey, Paul’s a great guy and Teresa likes him.” Deon shrugged. “I’m not going to tell her what she should or shouldn’t do, not that she would listen to me anyway.”
Isaac chuckled. “Spoken like a true younger brother. Been there, done that. My big sister was the same.”
“Yeah, Deon’s definitely the baby brother in the family,” Ty said with a cheeky grin.
Isaac was surprised when Ty’s expression was wiped out by a short sharp, “Brat!” from Jim. The look that Ty gave Jim and then Deon could only describe as apologetic. It was apparent that Ty had done something wrong and that Jim had called him on it, but Isaac was in the dark as to why. Regardless, the interaction between the guys added to Isaac’s collection of improvements he had seen in Ty. Previously, he would never let anyone other than his father tell him off.
“Changing the subject, there’s someone else that I’d like to talk about.” Isaac paused as all four guys’ attention snapped back to him. “Neil Rosewood.”
“Neil?” Ty’s jaw dropped. “You know he doesn’t play football, don’t you?”
Isaac chuckled. “Yeah, I do, but from what I know, he’s a significant part of the Leopards and had his own role to play in your finals campaign.” Isaac caught Ty’s eye. “I found out over dinner tonight that he wore your jumper for the preliminary final against my Hawks. I remember seeing him, but at the time I didn’t know who he was. Since he took your place, so to speak, why don’t you tell me about him?”
“He’s a nice guy.” Ty shrugged. “It took me a little time to warm to him, but Todd asked me to help, and so I did. Once I got to know him, Neil became someone I care about a lot.” Ty turned to Jim, his face serious. “Dad taught me that being gay doesn’t change you, that it’s only a part of what makes up a person. Neil taught me that being gay means growing up different, growing up scared to be who you really are.” He turned back to Isaac. “Neil taught me that I’m not the only one who has a shit father. Neil’s dad has come around and now supports him, but at the time when everything hit the fan, I saw parts of myself in Neil. I’m proud of how I’ve helped Neil become the person he is now.”
Isaac caught Ty’s eyes flicking to look at Jim and Jim’s smile of approval. Not wanting to comment on that or on Ty’s comment about his own father, Isaac turned to Jim. “I presume you had a lot to do with helping Neil, too.”
“Because I’m gay?” Jim grinned. “Sorry, no. It was mainly Todd and the brat, with support from the rest of us. Tony had more to do with Neil than I did, and that’s because the two used to work out together in the gym while we were training out on the oval. I did a few things early on to help, but that was all.”
“It wouldn’t’ve been a good idea for Dad to have too much to do with Neil initially, because Neil had a massive crush on Dad.” Ty smirked at his older housemate. “I don’t see it myself. Dad is obnoxious, heavy-handed, and an all-round bastard, but there’s no accounting for taste. Tony seems to like him, so I suppose it’s possible that he has some redeeming features.”
“Brat...” This time Jim’s growl was said with affection, which Isaac found interesting.
“I take it that Neil no longer has a crush on you?” Isaac asked.
“No, and it wasn’t serious in the first place.” Jim pulled a face. “He needed someone to get him out of his home. His parents were homophobic, and he was scared as to what was going to happen when they found out he’s gay. He thought he needed a boyfriend and picked me, when in reality all he needed was someone to help him and show that they cared, and that was Todd and the brat.”
“And now he has a boyfriend.” Isaac turned back to Ty. “He told me you had a part to play in that.”
“Me?” Ty snorted. “Not really. It was more a conspiracy between Clarissa and my girlfriend. I was just there to help out.” Ty grinned again. “Neil and Liam are great together . Deon and Clarissa are going on a double date with them on Saturday night after the combine is finished.”
Isaac raised an eyebrow at Deon.
“I’m going to need to unwind, and going on a date sounded like a good idea.” Deon shrugged. “Clarissa is the one who suggested making it a double date. She goes to school with both Neil and Liam.”
“Are things still going well there?” Isaac asked. “She was certainly very supportive of you when I spoke to her at one of your games.”
Deon screwed up his face. “Everything’s on hold until after the draft. She doesn’t want to get too involved only to find out I have to move if one of the interstate clubs drafts me.”
Isaac cocked his head. “I don’t make the final decision, but you wouldn’t mind being drafted by Hawthorn, then?”
Isaac took in the reactions. Deon’s jaw dropped, Jim and Ryan smiled at their young housemate, while Ty winced and turned away. For Isaac, it was confirmation of Ty’s desires, not that he really needed any more evidence. Ty’s father had lied.
As far as Isaac was concerned, both Ty and Deon were high on his list of potential draftees. It was now up to him to convince the other members of the Hawthorn recruiting team.
* * *
Michelle waited for the signal that they were back on air and then smiled across the table. “Welcome back, listeners. Now we all know that the AFL season is over and we no longer need to have our Friday-morning-round reviews, but there was a mini-revolt amongst the Pride FM male staff members when they realised that Jim and Paul weren’t going to be around for them to perve on. In the interests of having a happy workplace, we’ve got them back in to talk to us about what else has been happening in AFL-land. Welcome back, guys.”
Paul glanced across at the sound booth, where the Pride FM morning show producer, Joe, was grinning. “Thanks, Michelle. Before we start, though, I wanted to check how Joe’s date went last weekend. Do I need to be concerned?”
Maria laughed. “It went well, so you’re safe...at least from him. There is, however, a waiting list of guys ready to take you out on a date. I expect you’ll have a gauntlet to run when you leave.”
“So now would be an appropriate time to say that I have a girlfriend?” Paul smiled shyly. “Sorry, guys.”
Maria winked. “You probably didn’t hear it, listeners, but there was a massive sigh and slumping of shoulders from the crowd outside the studio. Another hot guy is no longer available.”
Jim stared pointedly at the empty corridor visible from the studio window and then back at Maria who shrugged in response.
“Now, while we’d like to find out more about this girl who snared some of the hottest property to grace the Pride FM radio station, we’re here to talk footy.” Michelle nodded to Jim. “This week has been the national AFL combine, and there have been some interesting results. We also know that two Leopards will be attending their own AFL testing day on Saturday and that Jim has been helping them get ready, so we don’t want to keep him too long. But before we start, Jim, can you fill the listeners in on the background first?”
“Thanks, Michelle. Each year, the AFL holds a number of draft camps that they call combines. There’s a national combine that goes for four days, to which the top young footballers from around the country are invited. Most of the guys attending will be eighteen and in their last year of school, though there may be a few who are a little older. That’s what’s finishing today. Then, starting tomorrow, there’s a second round of one-day combines for those that didn’t make it to the national one. The first of those is here in Melbourne for the Victorian and Tasmanian players, followed by next weekend in, first, Adelaide and then Perth.”
“How does a player get invited to these events?” Maria asked.
“Each of the AFL clubs was asked to submit a list of names that they’d like to see at the national combine. From those, the AFL selected just under a hundred footballers, including four from overseas: two from America and two from Ireland.
“After the list for the national combine was released, the AFL clubs were asked to nominate a second list for those that they still wanted to see tested. That resulted in almost another hundred guys across the three state combines being invited for one day of testing and interviews.”
Michelle nodded. “That’s almost two hundred football players trying out for the AFL. How many are likely to be drafted?”
“Probably less than a hundred, of which most will end up in their club’s seconds team and will need to work hard to break into the senior squad. The AFL teams have limits on the number of players they can have on their lists, so spots open up only if a player retires, is traded to another club, or is cut. The trading period and list finalisations happen over the next couple of weeks, so it won’t be until later in October before the picture becomes clearer as to what is going on.” Jim glanced at Paul.
“And that’s the simple view,” Paul said. “A team may not fill their list, because they’re also constrained by the salary cap. They may prefer to have a shorter list with higher-paid players rather than filling the list with lower-paid but inexperienced newcomers. In addition, the clubs don’t have to pick someone who was at a combine. It takes two interested clubs, at a minimum, to get an invite to a combine, but it only takes one club who wants you to be drafted.”
“There are also multiple lists,” Jim added. “Besides the main list, there’s the rookie list of players who can only play in the AFL if someone on the main list is unavailable long term for medical reasons. And even there, there are different categories of rookies, such as the international rookies who are treated differently when it comes to the limits imposed by the AFL. It gets very complicated.”
Maria held up her hands in surrender. “Enough, guys! Rather than going into the detail, fill us in on what’s been happening this week.”
“Before we start, I need to state up front that neither Paul nor I have been attending the combine, and that what we’re going to say is coming from the AFL website,” Jim said. “While we’d love to be there watching the guys go through their paces, we’re not allowed.”
“That’s not quite true,” Paul said with a grin. “I know someone attending and have a little inside gossip, too. Not a lot, but a bit.”
Maria pounced. “You know one of the invitees? Which one?”
Paul shook his head. “Sorry, I can’t say, and they weren’t able to tell me too much, anyway.”
Michelle eyed him for a moment and then nodded. “Okay, how about telling our listeners what’s been going on so far?”
Paul checked his notes. “Well, the first day of the combine, Tuesday, was the introduction and medical day. That’s when all the guys were given numbered shirts to allow easy identification, and then they went through an exhaustive set of medical and psychological tests...”
* * *
“Fuck!” Kevin scowled at the news article on his phone. He, Deon, Ty, and Ross were in the change room at the Leopards stadium in Lilydale after completing their last training session. It hadn’t been strenuous, as they all knew that those attending the next day’s combine would need to have all their energy.
“What’s wrong, mate?” Deon asked.
“Bad news. Sorry, Deon.” Kevin ground his teeth as he put his phone back in his bag and grabbed a towel. “The Swans announced who they were nominating from their academy ahead of the draft.”
Deon nodded his head. “Isaac Heeney.”
“Yeah, and there’s talk that Melbourne are planning to use the number-2 pick for him, so the Swans will probably have to match with their own first-round pick to get him.” Kevin grinned for a moment. “It’s not a bad deal for the Swans; using the second-last pick of the round to get someone who another club thinks is number 2 in the draft.”
“So?” Ty asked.
“Well, I was hoping that Deon would make it through to the second round so the Swans could pick him—sorry, Deon, I know being drafted in the first round would be great, but it doesn’t really matter which round you get drafted in, getting drafted is all that’s important—but I’ve found out that the Swans have also nominated two other academy players: Abe Davis and Jack Hiscox.”
Ross nodded slowly. “That means three of the Swans’ five picks are committed. If any of the other clubs also like those guys, that could mean the Swans have their three early picks already allocated to those academy players, and they won’t have a free pick until round four.” Ross pulled a face. “I’ve been listening to Eddie McGuire on the radio complaining about how it’s not fair that the Swans are getting Heeney so cheaply.”
Kevin snorted. “The Collingwood president isn’t exactly unbiased. If it doesn’t help his beloved Magpies, he’s likely to be against it.”
“He’s got a point.” Ross was riled by the comment about his favourite team. “The worst clubs, not the best ones, should get the first picks, so the league can get more competitive. Just because the best clubs invest in these academies doesn’t mean they should get such an edge on the other clubs.”
“Yeah, well that’s the arrangement that was made a few years back, and the Swans aren’t doing anything wrong by sticking to the rules. I certainly don’t hear Eddie complaining about how Collingwood is getting priority access to Darcy Moore under then the father-son rule. It’s only when the rules help another club that he complains.” Kevin sighed as he calmed down and turned back to Deon. “I really wanted you with me at the Swans, Deon, but I’m beginning to think that’s unlikely. I think you’re good enough that the chance of you dropping all the way to round four is...well...” He grimaced.
“Hey, maybe the Swans will trade for some extra picks?” Ty said.
Kevin brightened. “True, they could.” He then grimaced. “But that will mean trading away one or more of my teammates. They’ll have to trade someone decent, too, if they want a higher-round draft pick in return.”
“Maybe someone will want to go,” Deon said. “If they do, it’ll be a win for everyone.”
Kevin made a face. “I haven’t heard any rumours of anyone wanting to go, but maybe there’s someone.”
Ty smiled at Deon. “Well, if Sydney is off the list, that increases the odds that you’ll stay in Melbourne and you can continue to date Clarissa. None of the other interstate clubs have spoken to you, have they?”
“I’ve heard from West Coast, Western Sydney, Brisbane and Gold Coast, but only once. None of them has contacted me since the initial chat.”
“If they don’t call you back, they’re not interested.” Ty frowned. “But they might be after Saturday, especially if you do well. We’ll have to wait and see.”
There was a short silence as the four prepared for a shower. Ross was the first one ready, but instead of heading to the tiled area at the other end of the change room, he stared at the other three.
“I just wanted to say thanks, guys. This has been a great week for me, and I hope it has been for Deon and Dave, too. If I don’t do well tomorrow, it won’t be because you guys haven’t tried your best to get me ready. So...thanks.”
Deon smiled. “It’s been great for me, too. You’ve shown up a few weak spots in my skills, so now I know what I have to work harder on.” He raised an eyebrow. “We’ll meet up tomorrow morning as planned?”
“Yeah, sure. Good luck, in case I’m too nervous then to remember to say it.” Ross turned away and took two steps towards the showers before he was stopped.
“Roscoe, wait.” Ty gave the young player a hard look. “There are two other people you have to thank. We can catch up with Dave as we leave, but Dad will still be in the gym.”
Ross stared back and then grimaced as he dropped his head. “Yeah...okay.” He didn’t say anything more as he disappeared into the shower area.
Ty scowled. “I’m so close to kicking him into next week. If it wasn’t for the fact that it was good for you, Deon, I wouldn’t have let him train with us.”
“He’s not that bad, brat.” Deon contemplated Ty for a moment and then smirked. “I think you and I were worse than him at his age.”
“Give him a break, guys,” Kevin said. “He’s only a year younger than we are, but he’s obviously led a very sheltered life.” He chuckled. “So have I. It’s only been the last couple of weeks that I’ve had much to do with someone I knew was gay. It still does my head in at times, but I’m getting there. Ease up on him, Ty.”
“Yeah, I know, but I still wish...” Ty’s scowl changed to a grin as he looked at Deon. “At least he’s not a big baby.”
* * *
Ross rested his head against the tiles of the shower-area wall. The overheard conversation was almost enough to make him break and tell them. Almost. He’d had a good week and had gotten to know all of the guys pretty well. He had been impressed by the level of professionalism all of them had shown. While Ross had been reserved with Jim, and Dave had been cold with Ross—in fact, with all the guys when it came to social chitchat—both men had worked hard, often helping Ross out with little tips and suggestions. Ross had found himself several times on the verge of blurting out the truth.
He turned on the shower and started to wash himself down. Maybe after the combine, he’d tell them...or maybe after the draft.
As the other guys joined him, he nodded to himself. After the draft. He didn’t want to take any risks that would diminish the chances of him making it to the AFL.
* * *
That night, Charlie’s eyes were flicking between his laptop and the textbook next to him. His upcoming final exams would be based on what was in the book, but some of the concepts weren’t clearly explained, and he was trying to find additional information online that would help clarify things in his mind.
As a first-year university student, Charlie was looking forward to the end of lectures in a couple of weeks’ time, though the exams that followed had him nervous. He was only doing a part-time degree, but he knew that his parents’ support for his football was dependent on him continuing his studies. That was the compromise they had agreed on after he wasn’t drafted at the end of the previous year. They would support him while he continued his football dream with the Leopards, but only as long as he worked towards his Applied Science degree at RMIT.
Charlie was ready for a break when he heard a knock on his door. “Come in.” He wasn’t surprised when Dave hesitantly entered.
“How’s it going?” Dave asked as he closed the door behind him.
“Not too bad. I’m confident I’ll pass my exams, but as for how well I do...?” Charlie shrugged.
Dave sat on the edge of Charlie’s bed. “Have you got a few minutes?”
“Sure!” Charlie swivelled around to face his friend. “Is this about tomorrow?”
“Yeah...” Dave’s gaze was on the faded carpet.
“You’ll do great! You’ve been training for two weeks now for the combine. You’re as ready as you can be, so there’s no need to stress.”
“That’s not what I’m worried about.” Dave looked up. “What if someone says something? You know, about...” Dave waved a hand as if that would complete his sentence.
Charlie knew what was bothering his housemate. It was an open secret amongst the Leopards, but no one said anything. The danger was that someone outside of the club would also know about Dave’s childhood rape by his coach but wouldn’t share the Leopards’ compassion and support.
“No one there should know, and even if they do, only an absolute bastard would say something. We’ve talked about this, and you’ve discussed it with your doctor. Simply refuse to answer any questions unless they’re from a qualified medical practitioner and it’s in private.”
“I know, but what if...?”
“Ignore them or refuse to talk about it. Don’t confirm or deny anything. Treat any questions as if they weren’t asked.” Charlie moved over and sat next to Dave. He cautiously put an arm across Dave’s shoulders. “Yes, it’s tough, and yes, we all wish it had never happened, but you’re moving on, Dave. Don’t let what happened all those years ago stop you from striving for your dreams. You want to play in the AFL, and tomorrow is a step on that path. Give it your best shot and don’t let any bastards distract you.” Charlie pasted a grin on his face. “And, worst case, show them why you’re the most feared midfielder in the VFL.”
Dave gave Charlie one of his rare smiles. “Thanks, mate. I’m probably worried about nothing, but the doc won’t let me hide away from things. He’s making me face up to what happened...and sometimes that means facing up to what might happen.”
Charlie was used to Dave’s vagueness when it came to discussing his mental-health issue. They both knew what he was talking about. “You’ll be fine.”
Dave took a deep breath and stood. “Thanks,” he repeated. He nodded towards Charlie’s desk where the laptop and textbook waited. “Good luck with your exams.”
Charlie kept a smile on his face until Dave had left the room and shut the door. He then closed his eyes for a moment. There was another matter that had arisen that week that had him worried. He didn’t know how it would affect Dave, and so his instinctive reaction had been to keep quiet.
On Thursday, a representative from the St. Kilda Football Club was going to meet him at the university for a coffee and a chat.
* * *
Kevin glanced around. “So this is a gay bar. If I ignore the pictures of half-naked men on the walls, it’s not that different to other pubs I’ve been in.”
Warwick grinned and pointed across the room where two guys had their arms around each other and their cheeks touching as they talked to another guy. “What about that?”
“Hey, I’ve seen drunk guys do that, too.” He blinked when the couple started kissing. “Though that’s new.”
Warwick laughed before taking a sip of his beer. “Are you sure you still want to be here?”
“Yeah, why not? I’m here to have a few drinks with a new mate, that’s all.” Kevin winked. “If anyone tries to hit on me, I’ll tell them I’m with you. That should be enough to make most of them leave me alone.”
Warwick hesitated, a strange expression on his face. “You’re more relaxed than I would’ve expected from someone who’s not been in a gay bar before.”
“I’ve spent all of this week training with Jim Henderson. Tony, his boyfriend, was around a fair amount; and Liam and Neil—they’re gay—dropped in a couple of times.” Kevin shrugged as he raised his glass and drank some beer. “I got used to the idea that gays are just guys, the same as the rest of us.”
“I know Tony and Neil, and I’ve heard Joe talk about Liam.” Warwick smiled. “Tony used to be employed in the sales and marketing department at the station, and Neil works there part-time now as a general helper. Tony’s good value, and Neil’s cute. He blushes a lot.”
Kevin chuckled. “I’ll agree about Tony, but can I pass on Neil? I’m not sure I’m ready to call another guy ‛cute’. I’m still on my learner’s when it comes to dealing with gay guys.”
“What will you do if someone feels you up when you go to the loo?”
“I’ll probably freak out.” Kevin grinned. “Let’s see how long I can hold on before I have to find out.”
The two took another swig of beer before Warwick stared across the small table. “Can I ask a personal question?”
Kevin thought Warwick looked nervous. He smiled to try to set his new friend at ease. “Sure!”
“Why me? Why, out of all the people you could go out with on a Friday night, did you ask me?”
Kevin paused as he gave the question some serious thought. He realised that Warwick was wondering if there was more to it than just a couple of mates having a few drinks. Kevin’s earlier comment about telling others that he was with Warwick may have caused some confusion. Kevin’s problem was that he wasn’t sure himself. He decided to be honest, at least as honest as he could be.
“I really don’t know. You made a good impression on me the couple of times we’ve spoken, and we’ve got footy in common. I didn’t want tonight to be a pick-up night. I want it to be a time to relax. I wanted someone I could relate to, someone who might appreciate that I don’t want to deal with any pressure. I wanted to do something different, without too much stress.” He cocked his head. “Does that make sense?”
“Sort of.” Warwick stared for a moment and then dropped his eyes to the beer in front of him. “Just two mates, nothing more.”
Kevin caught the hint of disappointment in Warwick’s tone. “Just two mates,” he echoed. “Nothing more...for now.”
Warwick’s head snapped up, and he stared at Kevin with wide eyes.
Kevin grimaced, and it was his turn to avoid eye contact. “Tonight, I just want a mate to drink and talk footy with. A new friend to get to know. And maybe someone who can tell me about some other things that I’m curious about...”
When Warwick didn’t say anything more, Kevin looked up to find a serious expression on his drinking companion’s face.
“Kevin, don’t fuck me around. You’re a good-looking guy, and I could easily fall for you. I don’t want to get involved if you’re just going to play with me. What do you want?”
“Honestly, I don’t know.” Kevin closed his eyes for a moment and then opened them again in the hope that Warwick would see that he was sincere. “Just friendship tonight. After that...” He shrugged. “I’ve never given gays much thought before this year. There was something that happened at the start of the year that had me confused. When Jim Henderson made the headlines as a gay footballer, I didn’t know what to think. After that, I learnt that Deon not only plays for the same club, but also lives with Jim. I started to wonder...then I met Jim, Tony, Neil, and Liam...and that’s where I am today.”
“Who else have you discussed this with?”
“No one.” Kevin started to reach across the table but then pulled back. “Just you. I thought you were someone I could talk to about this; I don’t know why. But I have to be upfront; nothing may happen. It might just be that I’m curious, and once that curiosity is satisfied I’ll be back chasing girls. I can’t promise anything, Warwick.”
“But why me?”
“Because I think I can trust you.” Kevin grinned nervously. “At least for as long as I’m a Swans player. You’re loyal to the club, and I think that means you won’t take advantage of the situation.” He raised an eyebrow. “Right?”
“Right.” Warwick stared, his expression unreadable before smiling and lifting his beer. “Tonight, then, is about getting to know each other.”Kevin smiled back and lifted his own beer. They tapped glasses. “That sounds good to me.” He didn’t know where things were going to end up, but that was part of what had him interested in the first place.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: Regarding the NSW Academy and the Swans nominating three players, here’s the link to when those nominations were announced. Under the father-son rule, clubs have priority access to the sons of ex-players if those ex-players had played more than a threshold number of games. Similarly, the northern states—where rugby, not Australian Rules, is the dominant version of football—have priority access to the players from the academies that the AFL runs as part of the drive to increase the presence of the sport amongst the youngsters in those states.FOR NORTH AMERICAN READERS: The AFL draft differs in a few respects from the National Football League draft in the United States. First, drafted players almost always become members of the reserve teams, or in some cases, the senior teams, whereas in the NFL, the drafted players simply go to a team’s training camp where a further weeding process is done. Michael Sam is one who was drafted but went no further in the St. Louis Rams organization. Second, the extensive trading of draft picks and players that occurs during the NFL draft has no counterpart in the AFL. The AFL has a trading period of approximately two weeks leading up to the draft, but there is no trading during the draft itself. Because there are no last-minute manoeuvres, the AFL draft moves along quickly. Finally, the ability to select players from the “academies” ahead of the AFL draft has no counterpart in the NFL. Theoretically, if the Swans’ academy had three of the best potential players, they could select them ahead of every other team even though the Swans were near last in each draft round. Giving up three low picks in exchange for three top players is a rich reward for sponsoring some academies.