Thanks for the lift,” Ross said as the three guys left the car park in the Docklands suburb of Melbourne and headed towards Etihad Stadium.
Dave shrugged. “I didn’t want to take the train, and there was no reason to come in by myself.”
“Are you sure you don’t want me to pay something towards the petrol and parking?”
“I’m sure.” The look he gave Ross was one of slight amusement. “It didn’t cost me anything more to pick you up. All you needed to do was to be on time.”
Deon chuckled. “I don’t know about you guys, but I was ready to go at six.”
Ross grinned. “Five o’clock for me, but that’s when I usually go out for a run, anyway.”
“I just hope the early start doesn’t mean I fade at the end of the day.” Deon stared up at the stadium they were approaching. “I fucked up last year. I don’t want to fuck up again.”
“If you fuck up, you fuck up,” a familiar feminine voice said from behind them. The three turned to see Julie smiling. “I hope you guys are ready. It’s going to be a very full day.”
“What the hell are you doing here?” Deon blurted out. He blushed. “Sorry, I didn’t mean it like that, but why are you here? I was told no visitors.”
Julie grinned. “I’m not a visitor. I’m here as an official representative for the Leopards.” She held up the documents hanging from the lanyard around her neck. “Eric and Anne complained to the AFL Commission that because all the AFL clubs were getting to see the prospective draftees, those teams with a VFL affiliate got an unfair advantage when it comes to picking up guys not drafted, so they let us send some observers. We’re not allowed to interview any of the guys, but we can watch and make notes.”
“Is it just for today?” Deon asked.
Julie snorted. “No. Will and I have been here since Tuesday. It’s only me today, though, as Will has a family commitment. We discussed attending next weekend’s combines in Adelaide and Perth as well, but Anne vetoed sending anyone. We’re unlikely to recruit anyone from those states since they have their own state competitions, and anyone left after the draft is more likely to want to play locally than come to Melbourne to play. It was just too much money for not enough potential gain.”
“Yeah, you’re probably right.” Deon grinned. “Having you here should help us, though.” He grinned at Dave. “We’re not game to stuff up with you watching, or we’ll cop it when the pre-season starts.”
Julie laughed. “Just do your best, guys, and that includes you, Roscoe. A bad combine result isn’t the end of the world. There were guys on crutches here earlier this week because the clubs are looking for more than just test results.” She narrowed her eyes at Deon. “Good test results are helpful, and you should be trying as hard as you can, but don’t worry if something goes wrong. Got it?”
Deon grinned and threw a mock salute. “Sir, yes, sir!”
Julie gave him a snort of amusement. “Get going or I’ll have you doing so many pushups you won’t be able to pick up a football, let alone kick one.”
Deon smiled as they headed towards where the other combine invitees were congregating. “You know, for some reason having her around has actually made me more relaxed.” He glanced at Dave. “What about you?”
He shrugged. “It helps, but she told me she’d be here on Monday.”
“She did? Why?”
Dave gave him a cold stare but didn’t say anything. Deon stared back for a moment and then nodded. “Okay, gotcha.”
Ross’s eyes flicked between the two of them. “What you are talking about?”
Deon shook his head. “Sorry, Roscoe, but it’s private.”
Ross guessed that it had something to do with Dave, but the brooding midfielder still intimidated him. The expression on Dave’s face told him that it wasn’t the right time to ask questions.
Thirty minutes later, they were being handed numbered T-shirts to wear and being sorted into groups. Deon and Ross found themselves in the same group, along with a number of other potential forwards. Dave was separated from them; he joined a number of other midfielders and defenders.
Ross and Deon stared at each other. They both took a deep breath and then bumped fists. The combine was about to start.
* * *
Kevin stirred and then stretched. It hadn’t been the most comfortable night’s sleep, and the sudden realisation as to where he was didn’t help, either. He quickly checked under the blanket that had been thrown over him and realised that apart from a pair of briefs, he was naked.
“Morning!” Warwick called out as Kevin sat up, his head rising above the back of the couch on which he’d slept.
“Er...hi...” Kevin glanced around the small apartment before giving Warwick a nervous smile. “I don’t suppose you know where...”
Warwick chuckled. “Your clothes are at the side of the couch where you left them last night. If you want a shower before you get dressed, it’s just down the hallway and on the right.” He pointed in the appropriate direction before returning his attention to the food he was cooking.
Kevin started to wrap the blanket around himself and then stopped. There was no need to be modest. He picked up his clothes that had been neatly folded—something Kevin knew he had not done himself—and stood. “Something smells nice.”
“Bacon always smells nice. I’ve some scrambled eggs and toast ready to cook, too, unless there’s something else you’d like.” Warwick’s attention was on the food in front of him, and he didn’t lift his head.
“No, that’s fine. I’ll just send a quick text to Deon to wish him luck for the day, and then I’ll go clean up.”
Ten minutes later, the two were seated on one side of the small round table in the corner of the room. Kevin was motoring his way through his breakfast while Warwick watched on with amusement.
“Aren’t you hungry?” Kevin asked as he nodded his head at his companion’s still almost-full plate.
“I am, but I don’t usually see someone eat as fast as you do.” Warwick grinned. “I can cook some more if you really want. I’ve got no idea how much food an AFL footballer needs.”
“Don’t worry about it. I’m currently on holidays, and I don’t need to stick too closely to what the club dieticians tell me.” Kevin paused to think for a moment. “I can’t afford to go completely overboard, but cutting loose every so often—like getting drunk last night—is okay.”
Warwick dropped his head and pushed his food around his plate. “About last night...”
“I don’t regret anything,” Kevin said quickly. “I meant what I said before we started: I want to be friends and then see if anything else happens.”
“Do you remember what we did when we got back here...?”
Kevin chuckled. “How about you eat and I talk? Otherwise, you’re going to starve to death while worrying about things.” He waited until Warwick looked up, and then he nodded towards the food. “Eat.”
Once Warwick had started, Kevin smiled and leant back in his chair, a slice of toast in his hand. “Firstly, I remember everything. I may’ve been drunk, but I still know what I did. What we did. Just as importantly, I remember what we didn’t do. You were a gentleman, Warwick, and very careful to not take advantage of me while I was intoxicated. Thank you, I really appreciate it. It reinforces my view that you’re a great guy and someone I believe I can trust. Which is going to make things easier for me if I decided I want to...you know.”
Warwick paused with a forkful of food halfway to his mouth. “What about...?”
“The kiss?” Kevin took a chunk out of his toast, knowing he was deliberating breaking eye contact. “I remember.” He just wasn’t sure what it meant. “As I said before, I don’t regret anything we did, and that includes the kiss. The beers may have helped me do it, but I didn’t mind.” He smiled across at his friend. “In fact, I enjoyed it.”
Warwick’s smile started to return. “Not bad for your first kiss with another guy?”
“Well...” Kevin ran a hand through his hair as he gave Warwick a sheepish grin. “I’m not sure it counts as my first.”
“You’ve kissed a guy before?” Warwick stared for a moment before taking a bite of his own toast.
“How can it be ‘maybe’?” Warwick frowned. “You’ve either kissed a guy or you haven’t.”
“It’s a little complicated—and more than a little embarrassing.” Kevin gnawed on his lower lip for a moment before making the decision to continue. “It happened at the start of the year, not that long after I moved to Sydney. I was at a nightclub with some of the guys, chilling out and looking to pick up a girl for the night. To cut this part of the story short, I scored and headed back to the flat where this drop-dead gorgeous girl lived. She’d told me she worked as an exotic dancer, so I was looking forward to some exciting times.”
“That sounds like a line she spun to make sure she left with an AFL player.”
Kevin snorted. “No, it was all true. At least she certainly had the moves down pat. Once we were in private, she gave me my own private lap dance and then a slow and very sensual striptease.” He smiled wistfully. “She had the most beautiful pair of breasts I’ve ever seen. Not overly large, but just a nice size for me to fondle.”
“Hey, you know you’re talking to a gay guy, right? Mooning over a pair of girl’s breasts isn’t exactly my thing.” Warwick’s wink contradicted the mock-outraged tone. “Now, if it’d be a pair of nice firm pecs on a trim, taut, and terrific guy...”
Kevin chuckled. “Wait for it. The best part, for you at least, is still coming.”
“Let me guess, she had a boyfriend who demanded the loss of your virginity for playing with his girl?”
“Not even close!” Kevin picked up a piece of crispy bacon and popped it into his mouth. “This is perfect. You can cook breakfast for me any day.”
“Focus, Kevin, focus.” Warwick grinned. “Last I heard, you had your hands on a pair of those squishy, feminine-breast thingies.”
“Yeah...” Kevin knew his face was going red. “Anyway, we started kissing and my hands slipped down her body...and that’s when I found out that not only did she have great tits, but she also had a dick.”
Warwick’s jaw dropped. “What?”
“She was a guy...I think.” Kevin pulled a face. “I checked things out later, but I still get confused about transgender stuff. She thought of herself as a girl, but she was still part guy...” He shrugged. “So that’s why I’m not sure if you’re my first. Does she count or not?”
“I have a friend who considers herself to be a woman. It upsets her when people try to tell her otherwise.” Warwick smiled. “Let’s not worry about that and leave it as I’m the first guy who you knew was a guy that you kissed.”
“I can go with that.” Kevin smiled back.
“What happened with the girl?”
“Ah...” Kevin dropped his head, knowing that the difficult part to tell was coming up. “I didn’t handle things well. I was a horny eighteen-year-old, and a girl with a dick was completely outside my experience. I panicked. I...” He swallowed. “I pushed her off me and kicked her. More than once. While calling her names that she didn’t deserve.”
Kevin glanced across to see an expression of horror on Warwick’s face. “I know I was wrong, and I completely overreacted, but I...” He cringed. “I got to the door and then glanced back. All I could see was her lying on the floor, crying her eyes out. Some of that would’ve been from the pain, but I could tell that it was also because of how I reacted.”
“What did you do next?” Warwick’s tone was gentle.
“I went back and knelt down beside her, trying to apologise. She cringed and moved away from me, frightened because I wasn’t leaving. She told me to get the fuck out, but I didn’t. Instead, I rang Alastair and asked for his help.” Kevin couldn’t meet Warwick’s eyes.
“My agent. He’s saved my bacon a few times. This was one of them.” Kevin sighed as he stared at the remains of his breakfast. He was no longer hungry. “Luckily, he was in Sydney at the time. He’s actually based in Melbourne, but he was up to see some of the players he manages. He arrived an hour later. That was without a doubt the most awkward hour I’ve ever spent.” He looked at Warwick. “She didn’t want me there, but she was too scared to force me out. I couldn’t leave because I could see she was hurt, but she wouldn’t let me try to help her. Alastair convinced her to let him take her to the hospital. Once she was treated and taken back home, he ripped into me. He also made me tell the club, though we managed to keep that quiet so only a few people there know about it. I was fined and made to attend diversity and sensitivity training. Alastair also made me go back to see her a few days later to apologise.”
“How did that go?”
“She wouldn’t look at me.” Kevin closed his eyes at the memory. “She stood there, the door only open a small amount with a chain to stop me from forcing my way in. She listened to me and then told me to leave and never return.”
“I wanted to make it up to her, to show her that I know what I did was wrong. I’m not sure what I could do, but I didn’t want to leave her thinking I was a jerk.” Kevin looked at Warwick. “I know more now, and I wouldn’t panic like I did then, but there’s no way she’ll ever let me see her again.”
Warwick’s reply was soft and gentle. “Sometimes we have to accept there are times we stuff up and we can’t fix things. Learn from the experience and try to make sure you don’t do the same again.”
Kevin’s eyes became unfocused as he thought back to that time at the start of the year. “Alastair told me I was lucky. She could’ve gone to the police or the newspapers, either of which would have threatened my position at the club.” Kevin sighed. “They told all of us when we started with the clubs that they don’t want to see our names in headlines unless it’s for our football. What I did was exactly what they told us not to do. I almost destroyed my football career before it even started, and that’s without considering the hurt I did to her. I fucked up, and fucked up badly.”
He sat there, lost in his memories, until he felt a hand on top of his. His head snapped around, and he found Warwick smiling at him.
“It still upsets you. What you did, I mean.”
“It does. I was an arsehole.” Kevin gave him a weak smile. “Not exactly the sort of story I should be telling someone I’m trying to impress.”
“Hey, you’ve impressed me. You made a mistake, but I can tell that you regret it. You didn’t leave her when she was hurt, but you found her help instead.” Warwick cocked his head. “I’m still not sure why you told me, though. I had the impression you wanted that story to stay hidden”
Kevin grimaced. “Because I wanted you to know. If, and it’s still an if at this stage, something happens between us, I might snap again, but this time it’ll be you who I snap at. You need to know that when I freak out, I can be violent.”
Warwick’s hand was still on top of Kevin’s. He squeezed once as he smiled. “I don’t think so. I don’t think you’ll ever do something like that again. You wouldn’t want to put yourself through that much hurt.”
“But she was the one who was hurt!”
Warwick shook his head. “You were hurt, too. I can tell simply by looking at you. You’re still hurting.” After a few seconds of silence, Warwick let go and shuffled his chair so he was right next to Kevin. He then reached over and gently pulled Kevin into a one-arm embrace. “You won’t hurt me, Kevin. You won’t do that. I trust you.”
Kevin couldn’t bring himself to lean into Warwick, but he allowed himself to be held. It felt good, knowing that someone cared, that someone was concerned. That incident, even though it occurred months before, still had the capacity to upset him. It was different this time, though; the emotional upheaval was being muted. That was all due to the person he was with. Kevin sighed as he realised that his initial instincts were correct: Warwick was someone special.
* * *
Dave glanced dispassionately around the group he was assigned to. It was mainly young players, those that failed to be selected for the national combine, but with a scattering of older players from the VFL and, Dave assumed, from the equivalent Tasmanian league.
One of the VFL players that Dave recognised, though he couldn’t recall from where, approached him.
“You’re Islington, aren’t you?”
“That’s right.” Dave hesitated before forcing his atrophied social skills into action. “And you are...?”
The other guy ignored the question. “You play with that useless pillow-biter Flounders.”
“His name’s Flanders, and in case you weren’t watching, he won the Norm Goss medal two weeks ago.” Dave let his natural feelings flow out and sneered. “That doesn’t sound like useless to me.” He ignored the homosexual slur against Ty. A comment of that nature was still common enough that Dave treated it as a generic insult and not something personal.
“I played with him in the state game against South Australia. He was useless.”
Dave snapped his fingers as the memories surfaced. “I know you now. You’re the cockroach!”
The other man glared. “The name’s Craig Roach.”
Dave leant forward, encroaching on the other’s personal space. Roach was taller than he was, but Dave was clearly the more muscular of the two. Dave smiled as Roach leant back, apparently intimidated. “You’re a cockroach. The Leopards crushed you in the semifinal, and I’ll be more than happy to do the same again today. You might win a few battles here and there, but the war is already lost. We won the premiership; you didn’t. Ty Flanders was a major part of that premiership, so if you think he’s useless, then you’re delusional.”
Dave turned away, not wanting to waste any more time on a cretin, but he almost stumbled when he heard Roach’s parting strike.
“Yeah, well you’re the one who’d know about delusional.”
Dave swallowed, though he kept his back to Roach. He didn’t want the other guy to know that he’d been hit. Dave was afraid that Roach knew more about his mental-health problems than was safe.
* * *
“Well, this is it.” Phil Rosewood wiped his hands on his pants as he stared at Neil and Liam. “We’ve got a long drive ahead of us.”
The three of them, along with Neil’s mother, were standing outside the Rosewoods’ family home. The two boys had helped Neil’s parents pack the car in preparation for their move to New South Wales.
“Safe trip, Mum, Dad,” Neil said. He hesitated for a moment and then rushed forward to give his mother a hug. “I love you.”
“And we, you.” Mary Rosewood’s makeup was ruined for the second time that morning, but there was no longer time for her to repair it. “Take care of yourself, Neil, and remember we’ll always have a place for you to stay.”
Neil diplomatically stayed silent. His mother was making progress with accepting his homosexuality, but it was slow. Instead, he gave her another squeeze of affection and let her go. He then looked at his father who was releasing Liam from a similar embrace.
Neil didn’t hesitate. He stepped over and took the place that his boyfriend had just vacated. “I’m sorry, Dad.”
“Don’t be,” Phil whispered. “You’ve got nothing to be sorry about.”
After several seconds of the two just holding on, they released each other. Neil’s eyes were moist, and so were his father’s.
It took another ten minutes of goodbyes before the two boys followed the car down the driveway as it reversed into the street. Neil and Liam stood by the large ‛For Sale’ sign that the real-estate agent had placed in the front yard and watched as Neil’s parents disappeared.
“Your dad told me to look after you and to let him know if there are any problems,” Liam said.
Neil sniffed and wiped a hand across his face as he continued to stare in the direction of his vanished parents.
Liam put an arm around Neil and pulled him close. “Come on. Let’s go inside and settle down.”
Neil nodded and let Liam lead him back to the house. The two entered, but the sound of the front door closing broke what was left of Neil’s self control. “They’re gone!”
Neil felt himself being held against Liam’s chest as he cried and heard soothing sounds that weren’t quite words. The gentle caresses and the faint thumping of Liam’s heartbeat were a tonic for the hole that Neil felt now that his parents were no longer around. At one point earlier in the year, he would have been happy to have seen them disappear, but he had travelled too far on the road to reconciliation to feel anything but a painful ache.
It had been a long year for him, moving from hating and fearing his parents—his father, in particular—to slowly rebuilding a relationship with them. When the year started, he never thought that he would miss them, but now that they were heading interstate, the reality was sinking in.
It was sometime later, how long Neil didn’t know, that he pulled himself away from his boyfriend. He gave Liam a weak smile. “We’ve got the house to ourselves...”
Liam chuckled. “We do, but I think you should head home soon. We’ve got a date tonight, remember.”
Neil sighed. “I know.” He gave Liam a quick kiss that then turned into a longer kiss, which was broken this time by Liam stepping back.
Liam grinned as he wiped some saliva from his face. “You don’t fight fair. You’re supposed to be heading back to Lilydale to get ready for tonight, and you’re trying your best to stay here with me.”
“We don’t get many chances to have a house to ourselves...” Neil gave Liam what he hoped was a sexy smile, even if his heart wasn’t in it.
“Neil...” Liam grimaced and dropped his head. “I know what you’re doing. You’re trying to put your parents out of your mind, and–”
“Fuck you!” Neil screwed up his face before quickly continuing in a contrite tone. “Sorry, Liam, I didn’t mean that. I...” His shoulders slumped. “You’re right. After seeing them leave, I just don’t want to be alone.”
Liam quickly gathered him back into his arms. “You’re not alone, and if I have any say in the matter, you’re never going to be alone again.”
They held each other for another couple of minutes before Neil let out a deep sigh. “Time to go.”
Neil went around the house and made sure it was secure before they left. He would be returning again the next day and then a couple of times during the week after school. It had taken a lot of soul-searching as well as many discussions not only with Liam, but also with Clarissa, Todd, and Ty, but he had decided that it was going to be better for him to stay in Lilydale rather than accept his parents’ offer to return to his boyhood home. Oliver had told him that he was a fool, but that was because Oliver thought he should be taking advantage of living by himself and having Liam around for sex every day.
Liam and Neil had privately discussed that option, but both of them knew that it would be too tempting to skip studying for other pleasures. It was important to both of them that they do well in their final exams in November. Their own trips interstate next year to attend university in Sydney were dependent on those results.
* * *
The older man from the Greater Western Sydney Giants leant back in his chair. “If you saw your father, your girlfriend, and a little old lady being chased by a lion and you could only rescue one, which one would it be?”
Deon blinked. “Er...” He glanced around the small room that was being used for player interviews, hoping to find inspiration. The steely gaze of the currently silent GWS senior coach didn’t help, and neither did the presence of the other two men watching and taking notes.
“You only get to save one. Which one?”
“How would I be rescuing them?” Playing for time was a viable option when thrown a curve ball. It was one of the little interview-handling suggestions that Kevin and Ty had passed on.
The man shrugged. “Let’s say you’re on a motorbike. You can lift one up behind you, but that’s it. Otherwise, all of them will be eaten.”
“Then why can’t I ride the motorbike into the lion at full speed and hopefully disable it? That will allow all three to escape.”
“Smart...though would you really sacrifice yourself?”
“For Dad and Clarissa? Definitely!” Deon hesitated and then smiled. “And my mum will be a little old lady eventually, so I’d want to save her, too.”
The sound of laughter told Deon that he had responded to the question successfully. That wasn’t the first time he had been thrown a weird question by a recruiter, but it was one of the odder ones. He knew there was no right or wrong answer; it was a test to see how well he could think on his feet and maybe also to get a hint into what sort of person he was.
“Where do you see yourself in five years’ time?”
“Playing football.” That was an easy question. “Preferably with an AFL club, but otherwise with the Leopards.”
“Do you care which AFL club you were playing for? You might end up a long way from family and friends.”
“No.” Deon shrugged. “I would prefer to stay close to my friends, but if I end up in Queensland, South Australia, or Western Australia, I think I’ll cope.”
The recruiter’s eyes narrowed at the absence of his own state from that list. “What about New South Wales?”
Deon smiled. “I’ve got friends and family in Sydney. My dad and Marcus and Kevin, my old friend from junior-football days. And, it looks like Neil—one of our runners this year—and his boyfriend are going to move to Sydney, too, so there will be plenty of people there I’ll know.”
The man’s eye flicked to the clock behind Deon. “We’ve got another two minutes. Do you have any questions?”
Deon pinched his lips as he thought quickly. “What would you be looking for from me if I was drafted? You’ve already got Tom Boyd, Jeremy Cameron, and Jonathan Patton, all forwards, all taller than me and not much older. Actually, Tom is the same age; we were both in last year’s draft. Tom and Jonathan were also the number-1 draft picks in their year. What role would you expect me to play?”
The recruiter’s eyebrows rose. “A good question. What role would you like to have?”
“I’m a forward. I’m not as tall as most, but I can hold my own. Maybe one of the forward flanks, but I think I can play in one of the key positions if needed.”
The man smiled. “I think so too, but it’ll be up to you to prove it regardless of which club you end up at.”
Deon swallowed. Unless he had misunderstood, the Greater Western Sydney recruiter seemed to expect that Deon would be drafted. It was only which club drafting him that was uncertain.
When their time was up, Deon stood and shook hands with each of the four men. That was his second lunchtime interview—with two more to go. Only then would he get a chance to eat something.
* * *
“How did you go with the goal-kicking?” one of Ross’s table companions asked.
Deon had told Ross not to wait for him, as his lunch break started with four back-to-back appointments. Ross had spoken to the Richmond coach at the start of lunch, and he was scheduled to speak to the group from Brisbane at the end of the break, but otherwise his time was his own.
Ross shrugged. “Okay, but I could’ve done better. I got a 20. I missed the left-foot snap and the kick on the run.”
“You’re in the group with Bradshaw, aren’t you? I heard he got a perfect score.”
“Deon?” Ross snorted with amusement. “The guy’s a freak. He made it look all so easy. Five kicks, five goals, even if the left-foot snap barely qualified. He’s not as strong on his left side as he is on his right, though he’s been working on that all week.”
“He told you that?”
“I saw it. One of his teammates invited me to train with Deon to help us both get ready for today.”
“Oh? Who was that?”
“Ty?” One of the other guys sitting with them rolled his eyes. “If you’re talking about freaks, Ty’s another one. I played as a sixteen-year-old in the same TAC Cup team as him last year, and I couldn’t believe how talented he was. He was like a football god at times.”
“I heard he was pretty arrogant, too,” another guy said.
“He was, but you can forgive a lot for someone with talent like that.” The first young man frowned. “He wasn’t drafted, though. I remember him bragging about which team he wanted to play for and to keep watch for when they picked him.”
Ross frowned. “That’s not the guy I know. He’s still got that talent, but for the last week, he’s been concentrating on getting Deon, Dave, and myself ready for today.”
Ross pointed to another table where a few older players were eating quietly. “Dave Islington, from the Lilydale Leopards.”
“Ah...the nut case.”
Ross stiffened. “What do you mean?”
“You haven’t heard? He’s pyscho. He sent a letter to the AFL to tell them he’s crazy and then still showed up today. There’s no way any of the clubs would consider drafting him.”
“Where did you hear that?”
The young man pointed to another table. “Craig Roach told me. He said he’s been asked by a couple of the clubs about Islington since he’s played against him in the VFL, and they both wanted to know about Islington’s mental state when he played. The clubs would never pick someone like him.”
“At least he’s not gay,” a guy further down the table said. “That would be a real killer to anyone’s chances.”
Ross stiffened and then forced himself to relax and concentrate on his lunch. He kept an ear out, though.
“What century do you live in?” another guy said with disgust. “One of the guys in my district team is gay, and it wasn’t a problem at all. He’s a good player—and a great mate.”
“Yeah, but don’t bend over in the showers.” That comment prompted a couple of grins and chuckles, but Ross noticed that most of the guys either scowled or didn’t react at all.
“What exactly are your afraid of? That a gay guy would hit on you...or that he wouldn’t?” The guy with the gay teammate gave the other guy a quick sardonic onceover. “In your case, I would think you’d be hoping he’d hit on you. At least that way, you’d get some action.”
That prompted a reaction. The insulted young man started to get to his feet, but was quickly pulled back into his seat by the guys sitting at either side of him. After a couple of glares across the table, the conversation splintered into smaller groups.
Ross made a mental note of the T-shirt number of the guy who talked about having a gay teammate. He’d look up his name later and hopefully find some contact details. Ross wasn’t intending to come out to him, but it was good to know someone whom he believed he could trust, if or when he came out.
* * *
Julie Crowman glanced over her shoulder and also took a note of the numbers on the T-shirts. She had been eavesdropping on the conversation from the table behind the guys. When she turned back, she noticed a couple of the AFL recruiters she was sitting with staring past her with narrowed eyes. It appeared she wasn’t the only one who had been listening to the discussion at the other table.
The homophobic young man wasn’t being vetoed in her opinion, but if he failed to be drafted in November and still wanted to play in the VFL, at least with the Leopards, he would play in the same team as Jim Henderson, and homophobic behaviour was unacceptable.
It was a similar situation for the other guy who had commented on Dave. That part of the conversation had disturbed Julie, though she was already aware that Craig Roach was in the same group as Dave. It was the fact that news of Dave’s mental-health condition was being spread that concerned her. There was nothing she could do, because the information was now out in the open, but she needed to tell Dave before the end of lunch so he could be prepared if anyone said anything.
Reacting to comments from Craig Roach had caused Ty to be suspended during the VFL season and therefore disqualify himself for the J.J. Liston Trophy, the VFL’s best-and-fairest award. Julie didn’t want Dave to also suffer because of that same guy.
* * *
Isaac Long spoke to Brendan Scholls while keeping his attention on the draft prospects doing their 20-metre sprints. “Anyone caught your eye so far?”
Brendan snorted. “Do you really think I’d mention someone you didn’t already know about?”
Isaac smiled. Even though the two worked for two different AFL clubs, they maintained a friendly relationship. That didn’t stop them from trying to get one step ahead of the other when it came to strong draft prospects.
“The North Ballarat youngsters are doing pretty well—Jesse Palmer and Oscar McDonald, in particular.”
“If you’re fishing for more information, sorry, but I wasn’t the one checking out the under-eighteens from that area.” Brendan turned and smiled at his rival recruiter. “I heard you made a trip out to Lilydale during the week.” He nodded to where Dave and three other guys—one older guy from the VFL and two eighteen-year-olds—were lining up for their turn at the sprint. “You must be happy with how Islington is doing.”
Isaac shrugged. “We already knew he’s a strong midfielder. So far, he’s showing he’s mid-range when compared to AFL requirements, so he’s not outstanding, but he’s still got a few tests to go. His main negative is his age. At twenty-three, almost twenty-four, he’s going to need to be at his peak almost immediately. No one is going to be able to afford the luxury of spending a couple of years to get him ready. That’s why I’m interested in his speed and endurance.”
Brendan lowered his voice. “His mental-health issues aren’t helping, either.”
Isaac frowned as he turned from the action for the first time. “If they don’t stop him from playing—and the doctors say it won’t be a problem—then that shouldn’t be a factor.”
“But we both know it will be.”
Isaac grimaced and then nodded his head. He returned his attention to the prospective draftees just as Dave and the other three finished their sprint. Isaac checked the times and then watched the guys. He liked to see how quickly the guys recovered before they headed back for another sprint. They had up to two minutes to get ready for the next run, and Isaac was interested in whether they needed all of that time.
“...and I’ve heard all about it,” the other VFL player said to Dave as they strolled past the recruiters.
“Fuck off.” Dave’s tone and expression was cold.
“But isn’t that what you like doing? I heard you enjoy it. Do you do that wimp Flounders, or do you let Henderson do you both?”
Dave spun on the spot and grabbed the guy’s T-shirt with both hands. “I said, fuck off!”
Isaac quickly checked his attendee list. The guy baiting Dave was Craig Roach, another VFL player.
“Why the hell should I listen to a faggot like you?” Roach sneered. “You probably offer your arse to your coach to get more game time.”
Isaac gasped. Given his suspicions regarding the cause of Dave Islington’s PTSD, he expected that comment to get a reaction. He wasn’t disappointed.
Dave lifted Roach up onto his toes, tearing his T-shirt in the process. His opponent retaliated by grabbing Dave’s head and trying to put him in a headlock. It wasn’t effective, as Dave responded by shoving Roach away, causing the other guy to stumble to his knees.
“Julie and the brat are right. You’re not worth wasting time on.” Dave turned his back and started his stroll back to the starting line for their next set of sprints.
The hatred on Craig Roach’s face as he scrambled to his feet was obvious to everyone watching.
Isaac followed up on his statement by stepping forward.
Roach turned his attention away from Dave’s back and snarled. “You saw that bastard. He attacked me!”
“After you violated more codes of conduct than I care to name. If you make one move towards Islington or say one more thing in my hearing, I’ll be asking for you to be kicked out. None of the AFL clubs will want a troublemaker like you.”
Brendan stepped up next to Isaac. “That goes for me, too. Get back out there, keep your mouth shut, and try to learn what it means to be an AFL footballer. Otherwise, you’re history as far as we’re concerned.”
A few minutes later, the two recruiters watched the last of the 20-metre sprints by that set of draft prospects.
“Well, I think that incident answered one question,” Isaac remarked as he watched the next group prepare to start their sprints.
“What’s that?” Brendan asked.
“Islington’s condition isn’t going to affect his ability to play. He didn’t overreact to that level of provocation, so I doubt he’ll react to the lesser level he’s more likely to encounter. If an AFL player made those sorts of comment, we’d be looking for the tribunal to rub him out for weeks, if not months.”
“I agree, and we’d be asking his club to discipline him, too.” Brendan pulled a face. “I’ve still got doubts about Islington, but I’ll make sure I include this incident in my report.”
* * *
Ross collapsed on the floor next to Deon. He avoided throwing up, unlike what one of the other guys doing the beep test with them had already done, but it was close. Once he started feeling better, he smiled at Deon. “Beat you.”
Deon chuckled and then winced. He leveraged himself up into a sitting position. “You did.” He took a few deep breaths. “But that was my best score ever, thanks to you.”
Ross smiled but didn’t try to speak. The two had been competing against each other all day. The beep test was simply the latest one.
The beep test—also known as a multi-stage fitness test—was hated by almost all the players. It was a test of endurance that included a mental component as the players pushed themselves through the pain barrier to try for just one more successful run between the markers—and then another—all before the next beep sounded. The interval between the beeps decreased as time went on until the runner was unable to keep up, terminating the test.
Deon rose to his feet first and then held out his hand to help Ross up.
“We’re almost finished. Just one more test to go and we’re done.” Deon grinned. “Thanks, Ross. It’s been great having you in this group. It’s given me someone familiar to compete against, and that’s resulted in me doing a lot better than last year.”
“It’s been good for me, too.” Ross hesitated. “Do you think we can stay in touch after we finish?”
“Why wouldn’t we?”
Ross grimaced. “Ty...”
Deon stared for a moment, lips pinched. “The brat doesn’t decide who I can be friends with. He doesn’t like your attitude on one thing and one thing only. Unfortunately, that’s about Dad, so you’re a lost cause as far as he’s concerned. Outside of that one area, I think you’re a great guy, and yes, I wouldn’t mind staying in touch.” He grinned. “Hopefully, that will allow the two of us to celebrate together in November after the draft, but we’re going to have to wait and see on that one.”
Ross glanced at the nearest clock. “We’ve got twenty minutes to recover, and then the 3-kilometre time trial. Let’s find somewhere to sit down and relax.”
Deon snorted. “You’re looking forward to this one because it’s another test that you’re likely to beat me at.”
“After your perfect score in the goal-kicking, I have to find some way to salvage my pride.” Ross grinned. “You beat me at the jumping, too, so don’t complain that that’s only one event.”
Deon started to chuckle and then held his sides. “Please don’t make me laugh until I’ve recovered from that bloody beep test. You’re doing okay, too, Roscoe.”
Ross smiled, though his heart wasn’t in it. He knew that ‛doing okay’ wasn’t good enough to make the recruiters sit up and take notice. Deon had beaten him in every one of the key-football-skills tests. When it came to the pure athleticism tests, Ross had the height advantage that’s useful for a forward, but Deon’s superior jumping skills went partway to cancelling that out. Deon’s smaller size also meant that he did better on the agility test, where Ross’s long, lanky body proved more of a hindrance than a help. The only edge that Ross appeared to have was in endurance and running. Ross wasn’t sure that would be enough.
“Deon, have you got a few minutes?” a voice from behind them asked.
They turned and found a representative from the Adelaide Crows standing there.
“Sure, though I’m still recovering from that last test. Can we sit somewhere around here?”
Ross watched with more than a touch of envy as Deon disappeared for an informal chat with the South Australian AFL-team recruiter. He felt pleased for his friend, but it didn’t take a genius to realise that there was a lot more interest in Deon than himself.
* * *
Wu and Lauren were amongst the crowd waiting for the combine attendees outside Etihad Stadium. Ross had told them that he didn’t want anyone there, as he was going to be too exhausted after the long day of testing, but they had decided to surprise him. Wu spotted Jim Henderson and Ty Flanders in the crowd, standing with a handful of other people that he half-recognised from the previous Saturday. Ty had his arm around a girl that Wu belated recalled as Karen, while another Leopard was holding hands with a girl that Wu didn’t know.
Wu was about to approach them when Lauren poked him. “They’re starting to come out.” She grabbed Wu’s hand. “I hope it went well for him.”
“We’ll find out soon.” Wu grinned nervously. “He’s going to be really disappointed if things didn’t work out.”
Ross appeared near the end of a large group of people exiting the stadium. He was accompanied by Deon, a dour-faced guy in his early twenties, and a woman that Wu recognised as Julie Crowman. Ross and Deon were chatting, though Wu could detect traces of tension in the way Ross was acting.
“Roscoe!” Wu called out as he and Lauren stepped forward. “How do you think you went?”
“Wu? Lauren? I thought I said I didn’t want anyone here.”
Wu grinned. “Since when did I ever listen to anything you told me to do? We thought we’d surprise you.”
“He did great,” Deon said as they were joined by Ty, Jim, Tony, Charlie, Karen, and Stacey. “He beat me in the sprints, beep test, and the 3-K run.”
“And you beat me in all the rest.” Ross smiled at Deon before turning to Wu and shrugging. “I think I did okay. I certainly didn’t stuff up anything too badly.”
“And how did this guy go?” Ty asked Ross, flicking a thumb in Deon’s direction.
“He aced the goal-kicking and did great at the clean hands and general kicking.” Ross snorted. “We both did okay at the agility test, but I still can’t believe he beat me at the standing and running jump.”
“What about you, Dave?” Charlie asked. “How did you do?”
Dave shrugged. “Okay, I guess. Like the rest, I’m going to have to wait to see if it impressed anyone.” He frowned at Ty for a moment and then grinned. “The cockroach needed a new T-shirt after lunch.” When Ty looked puzzled, he continued. “Craig Roach was mouthing off. I took care of it.”
“You didn’t do anything to get into trouble, did you?” Ty asked. “He’s not worth it.”
Julie laughed, reminding the others that she was there, too. “He didn’t get into trouble. Roach was threatened with being kicked out. A couple of the recruiters made a point of letting me know afterwards.” She smiled at Dave. “You impressed them both with your self-control. Brendan, the North Melbourne recruiter, said that personally he would’ve thumped the guy.”
Dave shrugged and looked away. The others stared for a moment before returning their attention to Deon and Ross.
“Any speed dating?” Ty asked.
“I had four at lunchtime and another couple of informal chats during breaks.” Deon shrugged. “I don’t think I stuffed them up, but I don’t know if I impressed them, either.”
“Speed dating?” Wu asked as his eyes went from Deon to Ross.
Ross smiled. “Interviews with AFL clubs. They’re generally limited to ten minutes, hence the name.”
“How many did you have?” Jim asked Ross.
“Two.” Ross turned back to Wu and Lauren after that abrupt answer. “I didn’t want you here. I wanted to calm down after the combine without any pressure to relive it by telling you guys what happened. I thought we were going to catch up tomorrow afternoon.”
“Give them some space, guys,” Julie said. “All three of them are exhausted. At least they should be; they’ve worked very hard today.” She contemplated Deon, Dave, and Ross. “They almost did enough to satisfy me that they were trying their best.”
“Hey, I’m sure that Roscoe did—”
Wu was cut off when Jim smiled and put a hand on his arm. “From Julie, that’s high praise.” He frowned at her. “What were you doing in there, anyway?”
Julie chuckled. “Keeping an eye on these three as well as scouting out some potential replacements if we lose any players to the AFL when the draft comes around.”
“Anyone good enough?” Ty asked.
Julie stared down her nose at him. “Lots. Most of whom will get drafted and not be available. Brat, there’s no point talking about anyone until December, as you should’ve realised.”
The conversation splintered after that as the group headed away from the stadium. Charlie and Stacey talked with Dave and Julie, while Jim, Ty, and Karen chatted with Deon. Wu drew Ross off to the side for his own chat.
“Lauren and I were thinking that we should all go out and celebrate tonight. It sounds like it all went well, so now you can relax and concentrate on other things, for now.”
“Er...not tonight.” Ross was staring at the ground as they strolled along.
“Why not? You should be going out and enjoying yourself, not stuck at home like you said you wanted to be.” Wu gave him a light punch to the ribs. “Come on, mate. How about it?”
“I...er...have other plans.”
Wu sensed that something wasn’t right. “What plans? You didn’t have any plans yesterday when we talked about it.”
“It’s personal, okay. I don’t want to talk about it.”
Wu tried his best to keep a frown from his face. “We talk about lots of personal stuff, Roscoe. If you don’t want to go out with us, that’s fine, but what’s all the secrecy about?”
Ross screwed up his face and then sighed. “I’ve got a date.”
“A date?” Wu grinned at Lauren before returning his attention back to Ross. “That’s fantastic! Who is it with?”
“None of your fucking business!” When Wu rocked back at the unexpected venom, Ross gritted his teeth and then made an obvious attempt to calm down. “I didn’t want you getting involved, especially if things don’t work out. If things go further than one or two dates, then maybe...”
Wu realised that Ross was embarrassed. As far as Wu knew, it was the first time Ross was going on a date without him and Lauren. Wu suspected that Ross was concerned about that fact and that he might be thinking that Wu was going to be offended.
“Well, have a great time, Ross.” Wu winked. “Tonight would be a good night to get lucky.”Wu didn’t understand why Ross flinched at that comment, but he decided not to ask. It was obvious to him that Ross was already stressing out about his date and wouldn’t appreciate any more questions.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: Here is a link to the tests used at the AFL combines, along with the current record holders for most of the tests. And for those interested, here are the top scores for the 2014 AFL national combine. Sorry, I don’t have the results for the Victorian combine, but I’m sure the guys were all very competitive.
This chapter is dedicated to the memory of ken84050 who passed away in May 2016. He will be sorely missed.