“Nervous?” Gregory Talbert asked Charlie as the two sat opposite each other in the St. Kilda Football Club’s training facility in the bayside suburb of Seaford.
“Yes. Is it obvious?” Charlie gave the trainer an uneasy smile.
“A little, but I don’t think anyone in your shoes wouldn’t be nervous. Just relax and do your best.”
“What’s the schedule for today? I believe I’m going to be doing the same tests they do at the combines. Is that right?”
“At least, some of them. We’ll do the abbreviated set they use at the one-day combines and a few of the psychological and medical tests. It’ll be a long day, but you should be finished around four.”
“You’re putting in a lot of effort just for me.” Charlie forced a grin onto his face. “Should I be reading anything into that?”
Gregory chuckled. “We take the draft-selection process seriously. This does not mean you’re considered to be someone we should have here. All it means is that we thought you’re worth taking a more detailed look at, and when we did, we found that we didn’t have the information we wanted. We’re now spending some time to get that information.” He cocked his head. “Do you understand?”
Charlie nodded. “You’re investigating to see if you want to keep looking.”
“Exactly. One correction to your earlier statement, though. We’re not doing this just for you. There’s another two guys coming later. You asked for an early start, so we’re doing your medical tests now, but they’ll be joining you in an hour’s time for the core part of the testing.”
Charlie nodded again. He reminded himself that he couldn’t get his hopes up too high. Being drafted was still a long way away.
* * *
Neil lay in the bed watching Liam talking to Doug. His boyfriend had a faint frown on his face as the phone call ended. “How is he?” Neil hadn’t been surprised that Liam had wanted to ring his best friend soon after waking up. Liam had been disturbed by Doug’s behaviour at the party, and even though it hadn’t put a damper on the evening, Neil could tell that Liam had been slightly distracted all night.
Liam put his phone on the bedside table before lying back down. “He won’t tell me what he meant by his comment last night, but he seems in pretty good spirits. He told me he’s planning on going out tonight, but if we wanted to catch up during the day, he’s fine with that.”
Neil smiled as he reached out and stroked Liam’s bare chest. “If you want to go see him, that’s okay with me. I’ll use the time to do some studying.”
Liam grabbed Neil’s hand. “Stop it!” He grinned. “You know I can’t think when you’re doing that.” The grin faded. “Actually, he said you can come, too, if you want.”
While the offer wasn’t expected, Neil wasn’t surprised. “He’s changing. I won’t say he’s softening, because he’d kill me if he knew I said that, but he’s becoming more tolerant.” He snuggled up to Liam. “Do you want me to come?”
“Yeah, I do.” Liam slipped an arm around Neil and held him close. “I want you two to get along. You’re the two most important guys in my life.”
“I’m not sure if we’ll ever ‘get along’, but I’ll do whatever I can.”
Liam sighed as he stared up at the ceiling. “I just wish I knew what he meant when he said he didn’t get Ty’s medal back for me.”
“I think it’s obvious.” When Liam rolled his head to give Neil a quizzical look, Neil gave him a light kiss. “He didn’t do it for me, naturally. If he didn’t do it for you, there’s only one other realistic option: he did it for himself.”
“What do you mean?”
“Doug has always had his own sense of honour. Remember, even when he was bullying me, there were some things he wouldn’t do. One is that he never ever stole anything of importance. Even something as simple as my lunch box would appear in the lost-property box at school after he took it off me. For some reason he took offence at that guy taking the medal. He didn’t take offence on your behalf; he did it for himself.”
“But why did he leave the party after he returned the medal?”
“I don’t know, but maybe he was feeling guilty about what he’s done in the past? Maybe that guy reminded him too much of himself, and he didn’t like what he saw?” Neil shrugged. “I used to think that Doug was easy to understand, but ever since we started going out, I’m finding that he’s not as simple as I thought. I’ve decided I’m not going to try to analyse what’s going on. In his own way he’s supporting us, and that’s all that’s important to me.”
“So you’re happy to just hang out with Doug for a couple of hours this afternoon?”
“Yeah, sure. If he said it was okay for me to be there, I’ll come.”
Liam gave Neil a loving kiss. “Thank you.” He sighed. “Since we’re going out tonight and now this afternoon, I’m guessing we’ll be studying this morning.”
“Yep.” Neil smiled. “But before that...”
He slid a hand slowly down Liam’s naked body. Liam reacted by grabbing Neil and rolling on top. They grinned for a moment before starting a repeat of the previous night’s activities.
* * *
“G’day, Deon.” Ross held the front door open and stepped back to allow his visitors to enter.
“Hi, Roscoe. This is Marcus and my dad, Sam. Guys, this is Ross.”
Sam stepped forward and shook Ross’s hand. “G’day, Ross. Good luck with the draft. Deon thinks you’re a good chance to be picked.”
Ross suppressed a grimace. Almost everyone he now met was wishing him luck for the draft, and it was beginning to grate. “Thanks. Come in, and make yourselves at home.”
A few minutes later, Sam, Marcus, Deon, Ross, and Ross’s mother were all sitting in the lounge room. Each had a coffee, and there were a couple of trays of snacks for them to graze on. Deon had introduced Sam and Marcus to Ross’s mother, making it clear in the process that they were a couple.
Ross took a deep breath. “Did Deon tell you why he wanted me to meet you?”
“He said that you were a chance to be drafted by Greater Western Sydney, and he thought it would be good for us to meet so there would be someone you knew if you had to relocate.” Sam glanced at Deon. “But Marcus and I were wondering if there was more to it than that. Is there some sort of specific help we can give you?”
“Yeah, there is.” Ross grimaced. He was worried that too many people knew, and the argument that ‘one more safe person wouldn’t hurt’ didn’t make saying something any easier. He had to force himself to continue. “I’m...” The final word wouldn’t come out.
Sam gave him a soft smile. “We thought so. You don’t have to say anything. I know I wouldn’t have wanted to at your age.”
Ivy Munroe reached over and patted Ross’s knee. “It’s okay, honey.”
“Sam and I were discussing something earlier that you might appreciate.” Marcus smiled. “The AFL—indeed, most of the major sporting competitions—is like their own mini-society, and that society is currently about thirty to forty years behind normal society.”
“What do you mean?”
“Back when Sam and I were growing up, gays were known, but most had to stay hidden. If they came out, they risked losing their jobs. Any that did come out would be hounded. To protect themselves, most lived a secret life where their friends and families didn’t know the truth.”
Ross frowned as Deon and his father exchanged glances. “I can see the parallel about risking their job—that’s the one that’s got me concerned—but no one’s hounding Jim.”
“Really?” Marcus turned to Sam. “How much abuse from the spectators did Jim get when we attended games?”
“Too much.” Sam made a face. “There’s a reason we stuck with the other Leopard supporters when we watched a match. It certainly wasn’t everyone, but it wasn’t everyone back when we were growing up, either. It’s just enough to intimidate a lot of people.”
“Jim always said he tunes out the crowd,” Deon said. “He’s experienced very little abuse on the field, but, yeah, I’ve heard the abuse the opposition supporters yell.” He gave his father a wry smile. “Some of it’s been directed at me, since I’m on the same team as Jim, but I’ve always followed his lead and ignored it.” He turned his attention back to Ross. “But they’re right. While the players may be professional and not generally homophobic, the spectators are a different story.”
Ross nodded slowly as he absorbed the point being made.
“So, what we’re saying is that, in a roundabout way, we understand what you...sorry...what a young gay footballer who wants to get into the AFL will be experiencing. The worries, the fears...we know what it’s like.” Marcus turned to Ross’s mother. “If you haven’t been through it, you won’t understand. Even young gay guys today won’t fully appreciate the fears. They can see the broader Australian community and how being gay is both professionally and socially acceptable. They’ve never been through the same level of rejection that we’ve been through.”
Sam winced. “Deon knows what happened with me. AFL players today are expected to be heterosexual, and that’s what I experienced as a closeted gay man in the late 80s. I was never told that I had to find a girl and get married, but the expectation was clear. I tried my best to fulfil that expectation...” He faded off, his eyes fixed on his son.
Deon moved over and put a hand on Sam’s shoulder. “It’s okay, Dad. I no longer hate you for leaving us. Mum told me that she understands why you did what you did.” With his hand still on his father’s shoulder, Deon caught Ross’s eye. “It’ll be tempting to find a girl and pretend to be straight, but don’t do it. It might be okay in the short term, but it’ll end in grief.” Deon’s expression was painful to see. “Trust me. You don’t want to do that.”
Ross looked away. Sam’s and Marcus’s comments had reinforced his view that he couldn’t be gay and in the AFL, but Deon had made it clear he shouldn’t pretend to be straight, either. Ross didn’t know what to do.
* * *
Doug sneered. “You’re going down, Neil. You’re going to get crushed like a little bug.”
Neil gulped as his hands on the game controller started to shake.
Liam’s eyes narrowed. “Stop intimidating my boyfriend, Doug, or I’ll take that controller and show you who’s going to crush who.”
Doug shrugged. “I wasn’t saying anything that wasn’t true. He’s going to get killed in so many different ways it’s not funny.”
“That’s only because he’s never played the game before. How about taking it easy on him?”
“Where’s the fun in that?” Doug gave Neil a crooked smile. “This way is better than what I used to do. Right, Neil?”
Neil’s head jerked up and down once before he made a point of staring at the television screen and not at Doug. “Ready when you are.”
Doug kept his amusement to himself. Neil was still on edge around him even though he had little to fear. It was only if Neil hurt Liam that Doug would intervene, and the longer the two were dating the more certain Doug was that he wouldn’t have to act. “Then prepare to die.”
Doug knew that sometime soon Liam and Neil would be moving to Sydney. Until then, he wanted to spend as much time as he could with his best friend, and that meant spending time with Neil. He could insist on time without Liam’s boyfriend—and he knew Liam would give him that time—but he would see more of Liam if Neil was also allowed to join them.
“Hey, what?” Doug stared in disbelief as his onscreen avatar died. He glanced to his side to see Liam and Neil sharing the controller. “That’s cheating!”
“I’m just giving him a little help.” Liam grinned. “And I thought there was no cheating when it came to this game.”
Doug scowled. “Okay, for that, you’re dead meat, too.”
After learning that Neil and Liam would not be living together, Doug had contemplated moving to Sydney and sharing a place with Liam. Cold reality dictated otherwise. Doug had no interest in going to university, and finding employment in the job market in Sydney would be difficult. His parents wouldn’t give him the financial support he’d need to take that risk, so he had to stay in Melbourne.
Instead, he was doing the next best thing and, in his own way, giving his blessing on Liam’s and Neil’s relationship. Since he wasn’t going to be there for Liam, he wanted to make sure Neil was. To make up for what he’d done in the past, he gave Neil a peace offering by returning the stolen premiership medal. Naturally, he couldn’t admit that was the reason, but he knew Liam would eventually realise his opinion of Neil had changed.
In a few short months, looking out for Liam was going to be Neil’s responsibility. At the start of the year, Doug would have vomited at the thought. As the year wound down, Doug had a different opinion. He knew that Neil was up to the job. Doug would have preferred to be there for his best friend, but Neil had become an acceptable alternative.
“Yes!” Doug grinned. “Take that, you pair of fuckers. You’re not going to win, so why don’t you just give up now?”
Liam snorted. “Fuck you. We’re still getting the hang of sharing the console. Once we do, you don’t stand a chance.”
Doug hid his smile. Working together was what he knew they would need to do when they were alone in Sydney.
* * *
The Leopards awards night had been going for almost thirty minutes. There was still another hour of socialising before everyone sat down for their meals, followed soon afterwards by the presentations. A video of the grand final was being projected on the rear wall, with several players reliving the event in a raucous manner while others mingled and chatted.
“Julie! Just the person I was hoping to catch.” Henry Aurian smiled at Julie before indicating the woman on his arm. “I’d like you to meet my wife. Deidre, this is Julie, one of the assistant coaches here at the Leopards.”
“It’s nice to meet you,” Deidre said as she held out a hand. “Henry’s said a lot of good things about you.”
Julie raised an eyebrow as they shook. “Really? I didn’t think he knew that much.” She grinned. “And since introductions are in order, I’d like you both to meet my boyfriend, Aaron. Aaron, Henry’s the other person on the shortlist for the senior coaching position.”
“Pleased to meet you. It’s nice to put a face to the name.” Aaron smiled as he greeted Henry.
Julie caught Henry’s eye. “I hope you’ve been mixing. This is your best chance to get a real feel for what makes the Leopards the club it is.”
“I’m already getting a strong sense of that.” Henry grinned. “You’ve got a lot of loyal supporters. Almost everyone has told me how much you’ve done for the club this year.”
“You seem rather relaxed about that.” Julie cocked her head. “You don’t see that as a problem?”
“Nope.” Henry shrugged. “If you get the job, it’s not going to make any difference. If I get the job, I believe you’ll support me, and that will bring everyone else into line.” He gave her a half-smile. “Am I right?”
She chuckled. “Probably, though it all depends on the brat. If you piss him off, he could set at least half the team against you.”
“Ty Flanders?” Henry turned to look in the direction where the player in question was talking with Jim and Tony. Karen was on Ty’s arm. “He’s got that much influence?”
“He does, but if you want to bring him into line, use Jim. Ty will always listen to Dad. Those two are an odd pairing, but there’s none stronger. That goes on the field, too. Peter told me once that they have an almost sixth sense as to what the other one will be doing, and they take full advantage of that when they’re playing.”
“Thanks, I’ll keep that in mind.” Henry turned to his wife. “Do you mind looking after yourself for a few minutes? I’d like to talk work with Julie.”
Deidre smiled and gave Henry a peck on the cheek. “I’ll be over with the wives of the board members. Come and rescue me when you can.”
Henry chuckled as she left. Aaron smiled at Julie and then headed off after a quick goodbye to where Jim and Ty were talking. When Henry raised an eyebrow, Julie shrugged. “He understands that this is a working night. He’d prefer to talk football with the guys, anyway.” She smiled. “What did you want to talk about?”
“I wanted to get your thoughts on who we might be losing in the draft. I don’t care if it’s wrong, but I want to be prepared as I can if I get the nod, and that means having an understanding of who we’ll need to replace.”
Julie nodded, mildly pleased how Henry was already thinking of himself as part of the Leopards. “I’ve had various AFL teams speak to me about six of the players. I don’t know how much interest each of them has, but I’m assuming that they’re the most likely players we’ll lose.
“First up is, naturally, Deon. I’ve had eight different teams ask for information about him, and a couple of them have contacted me more than once. I think he’s almost certain to be drafted.”
“I agree.” Henry turned his head to watch where Deon had an arm around Clarissa’s shoulders while he talked with Peter and a number of supporters. As the senior coach, he has been invited to the awards night and was expected to participate as his final act in that role. “I think you’d get long odds if you wanted to bet against Deon going.”
“The rest are not as clear cut. I know Jim’s been approached by both Carlton and Port Adelaide, and Carlton had him at that training session back in June, but I don’t get a good feel on how seriously either club is looking. There was another club who asked about him, but it was clear to me that they had reservations.”
“What sort of reservations?” Henry asked.
“They tried to imply that they were concerned about his age, but I had the impression that they were uncomfortable with the idea of drafting someone who’s gay.” Julie frowned. “Jim’s age is a legitimate concern, but I think he’s shown he’s close to AFL standard already, and it won’t take him long before he’s ready to mix it with the big boys. Being older isn’t going to stop him from potentially having a successful AFL career. He’s still young for a midfielder, with his best years still ahead of him.”
“I’ve been hearing Dave’s name speculated about more than Jim’s. Dave’s a couple of years older again. From my experience, I’d say he’s on the boundary of being too old, though Geelong showed a few years ago that they were willing to draft someone as old as twenty-eight. Any indication that his age is going to affect his chances?”
“No...” Julie made a face. “With him it’s...other issues.”
Henry didn’t ask. His contacts back at the Fremantle Football Club in Western Australia had filled him in on what they knew about Dave Islington’s mental-health problems. “Do you think they’ll make a difference?”
“I would’ve thought so, but Hawthorn have contacted me twice about him, and Geelong pretty much told me that they didn’t care. I don’t see him going in the main draft, but he’s a possibility for the rookie draft afterwards. How likely that is...?” Julie shrugged.
Henry nodded. “You said you’d been contacted about six of the players. Who are the other three?”
“Charlie, naturally, since he went to St. Kilda today for testing. I’ve been told that went pretty well, though there were two other VFL players there. Charlie tried to be modest, but the brat got the story out of him. He beat the other two in all of the speed and agility tests and did well in most of the other tests. He failed dismally—his words, but he’s known to be modest—at the goal-kicking and standing-jump tests. Personally, I didn’t think he’s quite ready for the AFL, but if the clubs are looking for potential and are willing to push him, he might be picked. Since he’s the same age as Deon, he’s an outside chance for the main draft. If he misses out there, I suspect he’ll also miss on the rookie draft. The clubs are more likely to let him stay here for another year or two and see if he’ll develop rather than putting in the effort themselves. Just my thoughts.”
“If a club sees the potential and doesn’t want to take the chance that another club will grab him when he improves, they may take him as a rookie.” Henry shrugged. “Just a possibility. Who else?”
“The other two are Todd and Paul. Pretty much any club that’s asked about one has asked about the other. The two are evenly matched as far as abilities are concerned, so either one could go. There’s also the possibility that if one is drafted, a different club may take the other.”
Henry nodded slowly as he mentally ran through the names. “A forward, three midfielders, and two defenders. We’ll be unlucky to lose all of them, but there’s a reasonable chance we’ll lose two, maybe three.”
“True, but there’s something else.” Julie hesitated and then grimaced. “Peter now works for the Western Bulldogs. He could be pushing the case for some of the other players without us knowing about it. He knows them all backwards, and if there’s someone the Bulldogs want, they might not show their hand by approaching them. At least, that’s what I’m hoping, because no other explanation makes sense.”
“You obviously have someone in particular in mind.”
“You’re still officially with Fremantle, aren’t you?” When Henry nodded, Julie continued. “Can you find out why no one’s talking to Ty? It’s not making sense. At the age of nineteen, he’s our vice captain, the winner of the Norm Goss medal for best player at the grand final, and he has a good chance to be named as the club’s best-and-fairest tonight. Why aren’t any of the AFL clubs talking to him? There’s not a single club that’s approached him. No one I’ve spoken to understands why.”
“None of the clubs? Not one?” Henry frowned. “I’ve already asked about him because I was curious as to what the recruitment team thought. They said that while he’s a strong player, they didn’t think he’ll fit into the club culture. They didn’t say anything more than that, but I didn’t ask, either.”
“Club culture?” Julie scowled. “That’s an excuse that can be used to exclude anyone. Ty fits into the culture here fine. I can’t see why he wouldn’t fit into an AFL team’s culture just as well.”
Henry shrugged. “Sorry, but that’s what they told me. Is there anyone else you can think of that might be a surprise draft selection?”
Julie shrugged. “With Peter in the mix, the Bulldogs could pick anyone. Ollie, for example, is a solid player, and he’s got the potential to do more if he can be motivated. He currently doesn’t give his football the attention it deserves, but if he did, I think he could make heads turn. Don’t get me wrong,” she quickly added, “Ollie is a solid player and a core part of the team, but he doesn’t go that extra mile that’s needed if you want to push yourself to get even better. Peter knows this, and if a small forward is what they’re after and Peter thinks he can get Ollie to focus his energies on his skills, he could end up being drafted. I can’t think of anyone else who wouldn’t be a long shot, but Peter’s known most of these guys for years. Who knows what he’s telling the Bulldogs?”
* * *
“I heard you did well, Charlie.” Deon grinned. “I’ll keep my fingers crossed for you. St. Kilda must have been pretty interested to drag you down there today.”
Charlie blushed and lowered his gaze. “I did okay, but they told me that they’re not making any promises. They’ve only got four picks, and all of them are in the top fifty. There were also two other guys there today, and there’s no way they’ll pick all three of us.”
“Deon, can you answer something for me?” Stacey asked. “Charlie doesn’t want to talk about it, but how exactly does the draft work? He’s picked and he’s in the team, but if he’s not, that’s it?”
“It’s not that simple...”
Clarissa rolled her eyes. “I’ve already learnt that anything to do with the AFL isn’t simple.” She crossed her arms and stared up at Deon. “Okay, big guy, give us the details in words that any super-intelligent but sport-deficient female can understand.”
Deon chuckled as he pulled her close. “I’ll do my best, but I’m only a poor, dumb footballer.” He kissed the top of her head and then smiled at Stacey. “Firstly, being drafted means you’re on the list of players who are allowed to play in the AFL. Each club has a limit of 38 players on the list, and they pick their team each week from that set.”
Clarissa narrowed her eyes. “Even I know that there are only 18 players on the oval at any given time, plus a handful of interchange players, so am I right in guessing the others play in the VFL?”
“Close enough. They generally play in the second-tier competition somewhere, like the VFL here in Melbourne, the WAFL or SANFL in Western Australia or South Australia, or the NEAFL for Sydney and Brisbane. However, they could be called up to play in the senior team any week—all 38 players on that list are eligible.”
“So, if you’re drafted, you might still be playing in the VFL?” Stacey asked Charlie.
“Yes, but not for the Leopards. I’d be playing for whatever team is affiliated with that AFL club.” Charlie pulled a face. “That’ll be tough, playing against my former teammates.”
“Yeah...” Deon sighed. “Being in the AFL will make up for a lot, but I wouldn’t want to play against the other guys.”
“So it all comes down to the draft night? You’re either picked or you have to wait another year?” Clarissa asked.
“It’s not that simple...”
“Of course not.” Clarissa lifted her eyes to the ceiling as if praying for strength. “So, how about explaining it then?”
“In addition to the primary lists, there are the rookie lists.”
“Rookies, as in beginners?” Stacey asked.
“You’d think so, but no. You see, rookies generally aren’t eligible to play in the AFL so they play in the second-tier competition. But if someone on the primary list suffers a long-term injury or retires mid-season, the club is allowed to promote someone from the rookie list to replace him. That means anyone on the rookie list can end up playing in the AFL.
“Because there’s a good chance some rookies will end up replacing injured players from the primary list, the AFL clubs usually have a mixture of young and mature players on their rookie list. That’s where the older VFL players who are drafted usually end up.”
Clarissa frowned. “Wait a minute. Didn’t you indicate that being drafted puts you on the primary list?”
Deon grinned. “There are two drafts.”
Clarissa rolled her eyes. “Now he tells us.” She gave Deon a hard stare. “So there’s another draft? If someone misses out on the first one, they have a chance at the second?”
“That’s right.” Deon smiled. “About a week after the main draft, they have the rookie draft to fill out their rookie list. The clubs will use it to pick up any talented youngsters who weren’t picked in the main draft plus some more mature players they can use if someone on the primary list gets badly hurt. The idea is that the older players will require less work to get them up to AFL standards, so it’s easier for them to be slotted into the senior team, if needed.”
“But it’s better to be picked in the main draft because that means you’re available to play in the senior team as soon as you show you’re capable,” Clarissa stated more than asked.
“Exactly! It might be some time before they play in the AFL—it took Kevin most of the season before he played his first senior game for the Swans—but they’ve got an incentive to work hard every week, because that effort may mean being selected to play.” Deon glanced at Charlie before turning his attention to Stacey. “Charlie and I are young enough that we fit in with the eighteen- and nineteen-year-olds that are usually picked in the main draft. That’s what we’re aiming for, right, Charlie? If we miss out on that, we might get selected in the rookie draft, but probably not.”
Clarissa nodded. “Okay, I’ve got it...I think. It seems pretty straightforward. You get drafted, you work your arse off, you play in the AFL, and you get an ego boost big enough to make your head explode, with a pay packet that will keep your girlfriend in the lifestyle to which she has become accustomed.” She held a warning finger. “And don’t say that it’s not that simple!”
Deon chuckled as he pulled her in for a hug and a quick kiss.
* * *
Kevin glanced at his and Ross’s drinks and laughed. “We’re a real pair, aren’t we? Off on a night of fun, and we’re both having water.”
Ross shrugged. “Habit. I know some of the guys I used to play with in my junior club would get drunk most weekends, but when I was playing for Eastern Ranges in the TAC Cup, they drilled into us that we have to watch what we ate and drank. Beer was off the list.”
Kevin gave Ross a friendly slap on the back. “And it’s a good habit to get into. I still like a beer, but it’s no longer an automatic choice for me. It’s generally only when I’m with friends that I’ll drink alcohol.” Kevin caught Ross’s flinch. “And that’s only with friends who are also drinking. If a mate is drinking water,” Kevin waved towards the bottle in Ross’s hand, “then so do I.”
“I know I’m not a friend—”
“You’re a mate.” Kevin grinned to try to emphasise his words. “After a couple of weeks of training together, you couldn’t be anything else. Now, mate, this night is so we can get to know each other better. Deon’s got this idea in his head that you’ll be heading to Sydney next year, and he wants you to know people when you get there.”
“I think it’s a long shot. GWS haven’t spoken to me, not really. If they were thinking of drafting me, they would’ve.”
Kevin noticed that Ross was having trouble making eye contact. Remembering what it was like for him in the lead up to the draft the previous year, he realised he was going to have to work hard to keep Ross’s mind off the doubts and worries that would be plaguing him.
“They’re not going to contact you until after your exams. Everyone’s the same as far as that’s concerned, so don’t worry about it. Instead, I think we need to put our good habits behind us and spoil ourselves. We came here so we could both drink up, and that’s what we’re going to do.”
Ross smiled momentarily before a mild frown appeared. “I wonder how Charlie got on today.”
Kevin pulled out his phone. “I’ll ask Deon. They should all be at their club awards dinner so if he doesn’t know, he can ask.”
A few minutes later, during which the Kevin did most of the talking in response to questions Ross had about the Sydney Swans, Kevin’s phone beeped. “That’ll be Deon.” He pulled out his phone, and his eyes widened. “Okay, I was wrong.” After a quick scan of the text message, he frowned. “Umm...that was another friend of mine. His plans for tonight have fallen through, and he wanted to know if I was free.”
“I don’t mind if he joins us,” Ross said. “Unless you’d prefer it if I didn’t hang around. I could always go see a movie now that I’m here in the city.”
“Well...there’s something you need to know. Warwick’s gay.” Kevin watched carefully and wasn’t surprised when he saw the expected look of panic on Ross’s face. He’d seen it every time Tony, Liam, or Neil had shown up while they were training.
“Really?” Ross had stopped making eye contact again. “That’s nice.”
“Ross, let’s not beat around the bush. Warwick’s a good friend of mine. I know you’re uncomfortable around gay guys—I used to be, too—but Warwick isn’t going to try anything. You’ll be safe, and it might help you realise that gay guys are just guys. In Warwick’s case, he’s probably more of a football nut that both of us combined, even though he doesn’t play the game. I haven’t tested him, but I think he’s got the last twenty years of Swans’ players and most of their statistics memorised.” Kevin grinned. “He even has a copy of the Footy Record from my debut match in Sydney which he got me to sign when I was at the radio station where he works.”
“It’ll just be him? He’s not bringing anyone else?”
“Yes, just him. It’d be nice if he had a boyfriend to bring, too, but he doesn’t.” Kevin chuckled. “I’ve promised him that if any of my teammates comes out of the closet, I’ll introduce him. He’d make someone a good boyfriend, but he’s still looking for the right guy.”
While Ross sat in thought, Kevin sent Warwick a text to say he’s with a friend. He also asked what had happened to the night out with Geraldine.
“If you think it’s okay, I’m fine if he joins us,” Ross eventually said.
“Great! I think you’ll like him.” Kevin grinned. “I can just see that we’ll be talking football all night.” Kevin sent Warwick the details of where he and Ross were and then got a reply saying that Warwick would explain about Geraldine when he was with them.
It was twenty-five minutes later when Warwick showed up. Kevin was part way through his first beer, but Ross was already on his second. Kevin guessed that it was Dutch courage, though he had tried to reassure Ross that he had nothing to fear from Warwick, that Kevin trusted Warwick, and Ross could do so, too. To reinforce that point, Kevin gave Warwick a welcome hug rather than a simple handshake.
“It’s great to see you again, mate.” Kevin stepped back and waved a hand towards Ross. “This is Roscoe. He’s up for this year’s draft, and we’ve been training together. Roscoe, this is my good friend Warwick.”
“Hi.” Ross’s response was abrupt, though he did look Warwick in the eye and gave him a short smile before dropping his head.
“G’day. Good luck for next month.” Warwick grinned broadly. “Do you think you might get drafted by the Swans?”
Ross gave him a half-smile. “I don’t think so. They haven’t been talking to me so far. I’m not even sure what uncommitted picks they still have.”
“Picks 37, 57, and 79,” Warwick said without hesitation. “So, round 2, round 3, and round 5. Any idea which round you might be selected in?”
“Don’t ask him that,” Kevin said quickly. “None of us know, and trying to speculate isn’t healthy. It doesn’t matter which round you get picked in as long as you get picked. I was a late-third-round selection, and I was shitting bricks waiting for my name to be called. Don’t put that sort of pressure on Roscoe by asking when he’ll get selected.”
Warwick cringed. “Sorry, Roscoe.”
“That’s okay.” Ross gave him the first relaxed smile he’d shown since Warwick arrived. “I know myself well enough that I expect I’ll go in rounds 4 or 5. Round 3, if I’m lucky.” He grimaced and dropped his head. “But round 5 is usually when the clubs are elevating their rookies to the main list, so if it got that late, I’ll probably miss out.”
“If that happened, maybe they’ll pick you in the rookie draft the following week.” Warwick grinned. “I know you’d prefer to be in the senior team, but being on the rookie list isn’t that bad. You still get a couple of years to show what you can do, and each year you’re a chance to be elevated to the senior list.”
“But I don’t even know if I’m a candidate for the rookie draft, either. A lot of the clubs use that to pick up more mature players.” Ross sighed. “It’d be nice if I knew what the clubs really thought of me, but...”
Kevin draped an arm across Ross’s shoulders. “I know, but there’s nothing we can do. We just have to wait.” He caught Warwick’s eye. “A change of subject is in order. What happened to your plans for tonight? I thought you were going out to try to keep Geraldine’s spirits up.”
Warwick snorted. “She found herself a new man last night. She’s giving him the job of cheering her up. Apparently, he did a reasonable job last night, so that’s a positive. I just wish she wouldn’t go through so many guys.”
“He was okay with...you know?” Kevin waved his hand in an attempt to convey his meaning without saying something in front of Ross.
“It seems so. Most guys aren’t, so he’s already streaks ahead of most of her previous partners.”
“I suppose it takes someone special...” Kevin made a face. “If she wasn’t so crude and so needy and if she lived in Sydney, I could see myself dating her.” He chuckled at Warwick’s look of surprise. “Don’t look at me like that. I enjoyed the night I had with her. It’s really only her personality that puts me off. Physically, everything was fine, at least as far as I was concerned.”
Warwick’s brow wrinkled as he stared at Kevin. He seemed about to say something when both he and Kevin noticed Ross’s perplexed expression. “Sorry, Geraldine is a friend of mine who’s been going through a bad patch recently. As Kevin indicated, when she’s like this she gets a bit...needy.”
“She’s a nice girl, though. Just not one who would appeal to most guys.” Kevin grinned at Ross. “Speaking of girls, is there anyone you’ve got an eye on?”
Ross stiffened, and then, to Kevin’s bewilderment, he laughed. “No, no one special. What about you?”
Kevin shrugged. “There’s currently no one in Sydney, and there’s not much point trying to find someone here in Melbourne when I have to head back in a few weeks. I’m not even looking at the moment, though I’ll admit that I’m a little jealous of Deon and Clarissa. I’m at the stage where I wouldn’t mind a girlfriend, but it would have to be someone who likes me for who I am, not what I do for a living.”
Ross flinched, which confused Kevin even more. Before he could ask why, Ross turned to Warwick. “Since we’re talking about partners, what about you?”
“I’m in the same boat as the rest of you. Still looking. There’s one guy I like a lot, but he’s unavailable.”
Kevin had caught Warwick’s glance in his direction. “Warwick’s a good friend of mine, Ross. He deserves someone special, and I’ll be thrilled when he finds that person.” He grinned. “There’s a rumour going around where he works that he’s currently dating a blond footballer, but unfortunately it’s not true. Warwick and I are just friends.”
“It’s okay, Warwick.” Kevin smiled and reached over to rest his hand momentarily on top of Warwick’s. “It’s only a rumour, and it doesn’t bother me. Neil told me about it earlier in the week. I didn’t say anything before now because it wasn’t important.”
“Are you two...” Ross’s wide-eyed gaze was flicking between Warwick and Kevin.
“No.” Kevin pulled his hand back while pondering what to say. “Warwick’s someone I trust, and if I ever wanted a boyfriend, I’d choose him in a shot. But I prefer girls...” Kevin caught Warwick’s wince, “...and that’s that. If I liked guys, Warwick’s someone I’d want as a boyfriend, but unfortunately, that’s not happening.”
Warwick dropped his head. “Even if you did like guys, you live in Sydney and I live in Melbourne.”
Kevin caught the edge to Warwick’s tone. “Warwick, I’m sorry. I never meant to hurt you.” When Ross stiffened in his seat, Kevin pulled a face. He realised he’d said too much. “Roscoe, please keep this to yourself, but I...was curious. Nothing happened, but in the process I led Warwick on and implied things that weren’t...” He shrugged, not sure how to continue.
“Kevin’s a great mate,” Warwick said to Ross, though his attention was on Kevin. “I’d take him as a boyfriend in a shot if it was possible, but it’s not. Instead, we’re both trying to make sure we stay as good friends.”
“And that leaves Warwick single,” Kevin said. “I really hope he finds a boyfriend soon, because he deserves to be treated right. He’s shown me that he’s caring, considerate, and a true gentleman.” He grinned. “Even when we were both drunk and ended up back at his place, he didn’t take advantage of me. He’s going to make someone a great boyfriend someday, and I hope that lucky guy is someone who will appreciate him properly.”
There was silence around the table for a couple of seconds.
“Is it difficult for a gay guy to find a boyfriend?” Ross asked. “I know there are some good guys out there because I’ve been training with Jim Henderson and I’ve met his boyfriend, but I’ve heard that a lot of gays can be sleazebags.”
Warwick’s lips curled up in a half-smile. “Gay guys are human. There are good ones, and there are bad ones. I used to work with Jim’s boyfriend, and he’s one of the good ones. And yes, there are a lot of sleazy guys, too. Just like with a lot of guys around our age, some are only after sex, but there are those who want more than that. I like sex, but I don’t like one-night stands. I want a proper relationship and someone I can spend time with.” He turned to Kevin, his expression more serious. “Someone with compassion. Someone with a big heart. Someone I can be with long term.”
Kevin knew he was blushing. “I’ve always heard about how shallow gay guys are. Living in Sydney and hearing stories about what happens in the gay area around Oxford Street, I didn’t know any better. After getting to know Warwick, I’ve realised that I’ve been a shallower straight guy than he has as a gay man. I’ve had a number of one-night stands, but I’ve not been in a relationship since I was sixteen. Until recently, I didn’t know what it was that I was missing. Warwick’s been one of the guys who taught me that.”
“You two...” Ross paused and stared at them before focusing on Kevin. “If you don’t mind me asking a personal question...?”
“Go ahead” Kevin smiled. “I think you already know most of my secrets.”
“If you could, would you turn gay for Warwick?”
Kevin blinked. It was a question that he had never considered. “I...”
“That’s not fair, Roscoe,” Warwick said before Kevin could work out what to say. “While I’d love it if Kevin were gay, I wouldn’t wish that on him. He’s who he is. I don’t want that to change, and becoming gay would change him. You don’t understand what it means to be gay. Neither of you do.”
Ross flinched at the rebuke. Kevin sighed. “No, I don’t understand, though I’m trying. But to answer Roscoe’s question, I’d give it a lot of consideration. I like you, Warwick, I really do. If we were sexually compatible, I’d date you in an instant.” He grinned. “Did you ever consider getting a sex change?”
“No!” Warwick’s expression morphed through various degrees of shock and horror before finally settling on a grin. “I wouldn’t ask the same of you. I’m happy with you the way you are.”
Kevin laughed. “Yeah, but that’s because you prefer guys.” His smile faded. “As you can see, Roscoe, Warwick is someone I care about. I want him to be happy, but I know I’m not going to be the one who does that. Instead, I’m going to try to help find that person for him.”
Both Ross and Warwick looked surprised. “How?” Ross asked.
“He loves football, so I’m hoping to find him a boyfriend in the AFL. Unfortunately, I don’t know where to start looking. I’m not even sure if there are any gay players.”
“Oh, there are,” Warwick said. When Ross and Kevin stared at him, he grinned. “Beside simple mathematics—with several hundred AFL players, there has to be a few that are gay—I heard a radio interview earlier this year with the ex-boyfriend of an AFL player.”
“Who?” Ross said before Kevin could ask the same question.
“I don’t know.” Warwick shrugged. “It was back in April when there was that big announcement about trying to eliminate homophobia in the major sports in Australia. One of the Melbourne talk-back radio programs had an anonymous caller who claimed to be the former boyfriend of an AFL player.”
“He claimed...” Kevin let his scepticism show.
“Well, it certainly sounded real. He talked about the hiding and sneaking, how he couldn’t attend family events at the club, and how it all got too much for him.” Warwick sighed as he caught Kevin’s eye. “I thought it rang true. So, while you’re looking for an AFL boyfriend for me, don’t try too hard. I’m not sure I could go through what this guy said he did. I’m out and have been for a few years now. I don’t really want to go back in the closet.”
“But for the right guy?” Ross asked.
Warwick stared at Ross who immediately dropped his head. “For the right guy,” Warwick said slowly, “I’d give it a go.”
* * *
“Everyone give another hand to Deon, Dave, and Todd. Our winners for best forward, best midfielder, and best defender!” Peter stepped back from the microphone and followed his own advice by applauding the three guys standing next to him on the stage.
Once the noise had died down, Peter addressed the crowd again. “Now it’s time for our final award of the night: the 2014 Leopards Player of the Year Award. For all the newcomers in the room tonight, after each game the coaches assign points from one to ten to each player based on how we perceived their performance for that match. This is different from the way we determined the position-based awards won by these three guys,” Peter waved a hand at Deon, Dave, and Todd, “because we have a number of guys who play in more than one position. There are also subjective characteristics taken into account, such as the way the players inspire others. So, for the last time, I’m proud to report the results for this year’s award.
“In third place...Jim Henderson!” As the applause ended, Peter grinned as Jim stepped up onto the stage to accept the small trophy. “Dad, if there was an award for going over and beyond the call of duty, you would have gotten it simply for dealing with the brat all year. However, we don’t have such an award, so you’ll have to make do with third place. Sorry.”
Peter cut short the laughs. “In second place...Dave Islington!” Peter wasn’t surprised to see Dave’s shock. He spoke over the cheers from the crowd. “Dave, there is not the slightest doubt in anyone’s mind that you’ve had a sterling year. It was easily the best football you’ve ever played. It’s been a real honour to have coached you this year, and I wish you all the best for the future. You’ve had your ups and downs, but I hope you remember this night as one of the highlights because you thoroughly deserve this award. Well done!”
Peter handed over the runner-up trophy while the players and supporters in the crowd yelled and cheered. Jim, Deon and Todd congratulated Dave before all four turned and looked expectantly at Peter.
A hush fell across the room as everyone waited to see whose name would be called next.
Peter did his best to keep a straight face. “I’m sorry to say that the person who won this year isn’t here tonight.” Peter grinned at the murmurs of confusion that ran through the room since all the players were present.
“So, in his absence, I’d like the brat to come up and accept the Leopards Player of the Year Award on behalf of Ty Flanders.”
Ty sat in his chair, clearly stunned. It was only after Karen nudged him did he rise to his feet, an embarrassed grin on his face.
Peter continued to speak over the growing applause from the crowd as Ty approached. “Ty, better known around the club as the brat—mainly because he refuses to respond to the name Ty anymore—has had an outstanding year. Apart from when he was given a few weeks off by the tribunal—for something he’s promised is never going to happen again—he’s played a major part in all our games, not only in fulfilling any role on the ground his coaches gave him, but also as our vice-captain. He’s inspired everyone, especially during the finals when he went overboard with an aggressive rehabilitation program to ensure he’d be ready to play in the grand final. Brat, no one deserves this award more than you. Congratulations, and I’m looking forward to see many more great seasons from you.”
Peter handed over the trophy and stepped away, clapping furiously as he did so. He was careful to avoid any signal that he hoped those future great seasons would be with the Bulldogs and not the Leopards.
* * *
“Sorry you didn’t get an award, but I can tell you it was close,” Julie said to her brother as the two stood at the side of the room.
Paul chuckled. “It’s always been close. Todd and I have been sharing the Defender of the Year between us ever since we joined the club. I won it last year, so it was his turn.”
“Still, this would’ve been a good year to have won it.” Julie gave Paul a wry smile. “With the AFL attention on the club, an award may be that little bit of extra incentive for one of the clubs to consider you in the draft.”
Paul shook his head. “I’m not a chance. There are a lot of other defenders out there with my level of skill or better. I don’t see anyone taking me.”
“Haven’t some of the AFL clubs spoken to you?”
“A couple, but I don’t think it’s serious. It’s more just making sure they’ve checked all the prospects. There are a lot of good defenders out there. Defenders with my level of skill or better. Look at Nic Newman from Frankston; he won the Fothergill-Round medal for the VFL most-promising young player. That’s usually an indicator of someone who’s going to get drafted, and he’s another defender. He, and lots of others around the country, will be ahead of me in any lists the AFL teams make as to who to draft.”
Julie snorted. “There are eighteen AFL clubs, Paul. Only one of them can draft Nic. That leaves seventeen other clubs that could be interested in you, even ignoring the possibility that a club will want to draft two defenders.”
“Yeah, right,” Paul scoffed. “With the limited number of rookies a club is allowed to have, they’re not going to pick two mature-aged defenders.”
“Stranger things have happened in the AFL.” Julie shrugged. “Anyway, I’d like to see you drafted, so best of luck.”
“Thanks, but I’m not holding my breath. Good luck to you for Tuesday, too. Any idea on how the vote is going to go?”
Julie made a face. “I think it’s going to go against me. I knew going in that there were some board members who will never vote for a female head coach, so I had to convince more than half of the rest. I’m confident I did a decent job, but Henry’s resume is impressive, and now that they’re getting to know him, I think his experience as an assistant coach in the AFL is going to win him the job. It might be close, but I sense he’s got the edge.”
“It’s not too late for me to swing the players in behind you,” Paul said. “I know you didn’t want me to do that, but I could.”
Julie shook her head. “Don’t. If he wins anyway, that’ll create a lot of bad blood that will ruin next season. I don’t want that.” She gave her brother a self-effacing smile. “And, to be honest, I won’t mind if he gets the job. I know I don’t have a lot of experience, but I’m only twenty-seven. After all, the AFL picked their first female coach this year when Petra Searle was appointed as development coach at St. Kilda, and she’s forty. I’ve got plenty of time. Henry even told me that if I don’t get this job, he thinks in a few years time I’ll be poached by one of the AFL clubs. I just have to be patient.”
“Okay, Sis.” Paul gave her a hug. “I still hope you’re going to be our new head coach, but I won’t be too disappointed if you’re not.”
* * *
Kevin grinned across at Ross. The two mildly drunk guys were slumped across a couple of seats in the near-empty train carriage. “Did you have a good night?”
“Yeah, I did. Warwick was good value.” Ross had enjoyed both Kevin’s and Warwick’s company. Most of the time they had talked football, but they also covered a lot of other subjects, too.
“Extremely good value. Just because he’s gay, that doesn’t mean he can’t be a great friend.” Kevin chuckled. “You already know that I asked him about gay sex, and he shot me down. He values our friendship more than that. He had a crush on me at one point, but I think he’s over it. He didn’t show any signs of it tonight.”
Ross smiled but didn’t answer. He had decided after the first couple of beers that he wasn’t going to try to overanalyse things and just enjoy the night, but now that the night out was ending, he couldn’t help reviewing some of the things that had occurred. He was contemplating one such event when Kevin interrupted his train of thought.
“What do you think about the three of us catching up again sometime soon?” Kevin asked. “I had a blast tonight, and I’d like to do it again before I head back to Sydney.”
“How much longer have you got?”
“Just over three weeks unless something crops up that requires me to go back early.” Kevin cocked his head. “I need to keep up my training or I’ll be dead during the pre-season. I’m going to ask Deon, but would you like to train with us, too?”
“Yeah, that would be great, but only for the next couple of weeks. After that, I’ll have my exams, and while I might be able to make a session or two, most of my focus is going to be on studying.”
“Okay. You’ve got my number, so keep me informed. If you give me enough notice, I’ll try to coordinate my training for when you’re available.”
Kevin frowned. “Did you say yes to catching up with Warwick and me again? I can’t remember.” He grinned. “I’ve got the memory of a goldfish when I’m drunk.”
Ross chuckled. “I didn’t say, but if I can, I will. I just don’t know if I can spare the time, not with my studies and everything.”
Kevin shrugged. “If you can, you can. One or two nights out won’t hurt you, and the break might be just what you need.”
Ross couldn’t mention that during one of the times Kevin had disappeared for a toilet break, Warwick had asked him out. Ross had been shocked and frightened and had almost run away. Somehow, Warwick had figured him out. Things were tense when Kevin had returned, but when nothing happened, Ross had slowly relaxed. The next time the two had a chance to speak privately, Warwick hadn’t said anything on the subject. It was the time after that, and two beers later, when Ross had said yes to a date.
Ross was afraid of Warwick being another Stuart, but Kevin’s expressions of trust in his friend had reduced that fear enough that the desire for a boyfriend had taken over. Ross was still terrified, but he was slowly coming to terms with it being only a matter of time before his secret was out. When that happened, he didn’t want to be alone.
Ross wanted a boyfriend at his side when it was his turn to face the public spotlight as a gay footballer just like how Tony had supported Jim when he came out. He didn’t know if that would be Warwick, but it was worth investigating.