1 day after the AFL National Draft
Ross Munroe glanced at the stopwatch on his wrist as he turned into the side street where he and his mother lived. He grimaced for a moment and then pushed hard to sprint the last part of his run. He hit the stop button as he passed through the gates at his home.
Breathing deeply, he mentally sighed. Despite beating his previous best time he felt no sense of achievement. It was as if it didn’t matter. The previous night’s draft had helped drive him to work harder on his regular six-kilometre run, but he wasn’t sure why he cared. The AFL teams had made their opinion of him clear, and knowing how he had performed during the year, he couldn’t blame them.
As he expected, his mother was up and in the kitchen making breakfast when he entered the house just after 6:30. She was still working hard to support him, especially now that he had failed to be drafted and wasn’t going to be earning his own way.
“How did you do?” Ivy Munroe asked as Ross grabbed a glass and headed towards the refrigerator.
“A new PB, though only just. Two seconds better than my previous best.” Ross filled the glass with his usual sports drink and gulped it down fast.
“That’s good. It shows you’re still developing, still growing.”
Ross slammed the fridge door shut. “But why the hell should I bother?” He turned around to see his mother frowning at him. He was immediately contrite. “Sorry, Mum.”
“I understand that you’re disappointed, but Ty and Deon have shown you that missing out isn’t the end of the world. You’ve still got more chances to get into the AFL. And there’s the rookie draft next week, too.”
“I know.” Ross dropped his head. “But I’ll only get picked in the rookie draft if I just missed out in the national draft.” He looked up to see a sympathetic smile. “Brisbane warned me that I was a long way down their list and that they would pick players higher up if they were still available. That’s obviously what happened. What if there are more guys on their list still available? They’ll pick them in the rookie draft, not me. Richmond will be the same.”
“How many rounds will there be in this year’s rookie draft?”
“I’ll have to check, but most of the teams have usually filled their roster by the end of round four or five.” Ross gave a heavy sigh. “And they’ll want a few experienced players, too, so Brisbane and Richmond will probably only use one or two picks to select someone my age. I’m not going to get my hopes up.”
“Have you spoken to Alastair?”
Ross’s brow wrinkled. “He sent me a text and said he’d call me this morning. Do you think he can make a difference?”
“He might.” She moved over and gave him a hug. “I’m sorry, honey. Things haven’t worked out the way we would’ve liked, but there’s still hope. It might take another year of hard work, but you’re still young. You’ve got options.”
Ross straightened his spine and nodded firmly. “Another year. I stuffed up this one, but I won’t have school messing me up next year. I can do it.” He gave his mother a squeeze of thanks.
“What about university?” Ivy asked as she moved back to where she had turned to preparing a cut lunch to take with her to work.
Ross shrugged. “It can’t be as bad as Year 12 was. I can even try to keep the number of units I do down. That’s what Charlie did this year; he’s doing his degree part-time so he can keep his focus on his football.”
“You can do the same if you like.” His mother smiled. “Don’t give up, Ross. There’s always another chance.”
* * *
Ty turned away from the window where he had been observing Jim, Paul, Maria, and Michelle chatting as part of the Pride FM breakfast show. Jim and Paul were reviewing the results of the draft for the listeners. Ty stared at the familiar-looking stranger for a moment and then grinned. “Warwick!”
Warwick seemed surprised. “You remember me?”
“You’re named after a famous football player.” Ty shrugged. “That makes it easier to remember.”
“But we’ve only met a couple of times!”
“I’ll take your word on that.” Ty grinned. “I can only remember one, Kev’s going away party, but that one was memorable. Kev made a point of introducing you, saying you were a good friend of his.” Ty chuckled. “Despite that, you were with Roscoe for most of the night.” When Warwick stared back while gnawing at his lower lip, Ty winked. “Relax, I know what’s going on. Neil’s also put in a good word for you, so I know you’re one of the good guys.” He scowled. “Unlike that other bastard Roscoe was with last month.”
Warwick took a half-step forward. He started to stretch a hand towards Ty but quickly aborted that action. “You were at the party last night. How’s Roscoe?”
Ty hesitated as he tried to make sure he would say the right things. He could tell that Warwick was worried. “He was okay. Disappointed, naturally, but I’m sure he’ll bounce back.”
“I rang him, and he said he was fine, but he didn’t sound it.” Warwick made a face. “I don’t want to make things worse for him. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for the rookie draft, but I know he won’t want any news to get out too early. That’s why I’m trying to keep my distance.”
“Don’t.” Ty grimaced as he recalled how he felt the morning after the previous year’s draft. “Now is the time he needs his friends—people who will understand why he’s moody, people who will keep his spirits up.” Ty caught and held Warwick’s gaze. “Roscoe needs you. Don’t stay away.”
“He hasn’t answered my calls since that one from last night.” Warwick grimaced. “He hasn’t replied to my texts, either.”
“Then go see him.” Ty pulled out his phone. “Deon’s flying off to Sydney tomorrow, so we’ll probably have some sort of farewell for him tonight. I’ll make sure Roscoe comes.” He looked up for a moment. “Give me your phone number, and I’ll send you the details once they’re sorted out.”
Ty snorted. “Didn’t Kev tell you that’s not my name? I’m the brat.” He grinned and tilted his head towards the radio-station studio. “That’s what Dad called me, and so that’s my name.”
Warwick’s chuckle had a nervous edge. “He did, and I remember him calling you that at the party, but since you were here, I thought you’ve be going by your real name.”
Ty shrugged. “What makes it real? I answer to the brat; that makes it real in my opinion.” He grinned. “And since I’m the one who has to answer to it, I think my opinion’s the only one that matters.” He turned and stared through the glass at Jim. “Mine—and Dad’s.”
“You could probably go in there if you want. They’d love to have one of the draftees on the show.”
Ty sighed. “I thought about it, but after talking to Dad, I decided it wasn’t a good idea.” He glanced over his shoulder and gave Warwick a wry smile. “I’m an AFL footballer now, and I probably shouldn’t be making media appearances without the club’s approval.”
“Is there anyone you could call to ask if it’s okay?”
Ty was about to say no when a thought came to him. He glanced at the clock and had a quick mental debate. “It’s early, but there’s one person I could try.” Not giving himself time to second-guess his decision, he selected one of his contacts.
There was an answer within two rings. “Well, this is a pleasant surprise! For what do I owe this pleasure, young man?” Patrick O’Malley said with his rich Irish brogue.
“G’day, Paddy. I’m at Pride FM with Dad—he’s bringing me to the club after he finishes up here—and I’ve been asked if I want to go on the brekkie show. I don’t want to do that if it’s going to cause a problem at the club.” Ty had a sheepish smile on his face even though he knew Patrick wouldn’t be able to see it. “I don’t want to fuck things up this early in my career.”
“Go ahead. If anyone says anything, tell them to see me.” Patrick’s tone was one of amusement. “Just don’t say anything you might regret later.”
“Is Dad going to stick around after he brings you to the club?”
“I don’t know.” Ty glanced at Jim through the studio window. “I don’t think he has plans, so he probably can if you want.”
“Excellent! I’d like to meet up with both of you, say over lunch? Shane said he wouldn’t mind saying hello, too. There are a few things he wants to discuss with both of you, so why don’t you do that, and then we can go out for a bite to eat.”
“What does he want to talk about?” Ty asked.
Patrick chuckled. “Ask him when you see him. Go do your radio show, and then come to the club and say hello. We can talk then.”
“Okay, and thanks!” After Patrick said goodbye, Ty put away his phone and grinned at Warwick. “What do I need to do to join Dad and Paul on the show?”
Warwick grinned back. “Come with me…”
* * *
Alastair used the voice control on his phone to make a call while driving. It had been a busy morning for him, working with both clients who were ecstatic after being drafted, and clients who needed help with the disappointment of missing out. This next call, however, was special.
Alastair automatically took in and analysed the tone. The despondency was normal, but there was an edge of determination that met Alastair’s approval. “G’day, Roscoe. Sorry to take so long to call you, but I needed to get a few things out of the way first.”
“That’s fine.” Ross chuckled, though with little enthusiasm. “What did you want to talk about?”
“I need your permission for something. Bloody hell!” Alastair glared at the driver who had cut him off. “Sorry, Roscoe, but some bastard who doesn’t know how to drive almost sideswiped me.”
This time Ross’s chuckle was more natural. “What do you need my permission for?”
“I’m on my way to the Richmond Football Club. I’ve got a meeting with their president in twenty minutes, followed by their recruiting team.” Alastair glanced at his rear-view mirror before changing lanes. “I need to know if I can mention your name.”
“Why do you…?” There was a pause. “You’re going to tell them about me.”
“I’m going to tell Peggy O’Neal that I have a young player that they’ve shown an interest in who happens to be gay. I won’t mention your name without your permission. I’m going to play it by ear as to whether to tell the recruiting team.”
“Why now? I mean, what’s the urgency?”
“Because there’s a small chance it may influence their decisions for the rookie draft.” Alastair made a face. “Peggy may be the president of the board, but she will have very little influence, if any, on recruiting decisions. However, under the circumstances, she may be able to persuade their recruitment manager to have another look at you before next week’s rookie draft. I’ll be honest with you, Roscoe. This may make things worse if the operations side of the business thinks she’s interfering, but if she’s persuasive it might give you a second chance.”
“What do you think are the odds?”
“It’s a long shot, but it’s all I could do on short notice. I’m hoping I can convince them to get you to come in for a chat, but after that, it’ll be up to you.”
There was a long silence before Ross spoke. “You’re asking me to come out to one of the AFL clubs.”
“Not the club, just the president and maybe the head of recruiting. They’ll probably need to tell a couple of other people, but I’m confident they’ll keep the numbers down to a minimum.”
The pause this time was shorter. “I’m going to come out soon, anyway. Okay, if you think it’ll help, go ahead.”
Alastair grinned. “Thanks, Roscoe. Are you free this afternoon sometime?”
“Sure! I’m going to head off to Lilydale to join the Leopards for tonight’s training session, but otherwise I’ve got no commitments.”
“Great! How about we meet at your place at three? I’ll bring you up to speed on how things went with Richmond, and we can plan how to handle your big announcement. There’s no rush on that, but we can start working out the framework of what we’ll do.”
“Just doing my job.” Alastair grinned. “And in this case, it’s also a pleasure. I’ll see you at three.”
Alastair started to mentally prepare his strategy for how to approach Peggy O’Neal. Convincing her to get involved in an operational issue was going to require all his skills of persuasion. He was almost at the club when his phone rang. It was one of his other new clients.
“Alastair, this email I got from Adelaide’s not clear on what I need for tomorrow’s flight. How much in the way of clothes do I need to take?”
Alastair rolled his eyes. He was asked the same questions every year as it sank in to the young men he managed that their lives had just changed. In this case, the young man was about to move away from family and friends to a new home interstate. The eighteen-year-old was still working out what that meant.
“Okay, this is what you’ll need…”
* * *
Shane smiled at Jim and Ty as the three sat in the Carlton recruiting manager’s office. “We’re waiting on one more person before we start, but in the meantime how have things gone so far?”
Ty gave a snort of laughter. “I think I’m still in shock. I never expected this.” He cocked his head. “Why didn’t you guys talk to me beforehand?” He glanced at Jim before returning his attention to Shane. “You spoke to Dad. Why didn’t you speak to me?”
“That’s what we’ll be talking about.” Shane looked past Jim and Ty. “And the last person is here, so we can get straight into it.”
“Sorry I’m a bit late, but I don’t move as fast as I used to,” Patrick said as he shuffled into the room, closing the door as he did so.
“Paddy!” Ty grinned and leapt to his feet. He quickly moved a chair into position for the old Irishman and helped him be seated.
“Did I miss anything?” Patrick asked.
Shane shook his head. “We were just starting. Ty asked why we didn’t talk to him before the draft.”
“But we did!” Patrick chuckled. “What do you think our conversations were, young man, if you think we weren’t talking?”
“But that was…” Ty paused and his eyes went wide as he realised what had happened. “You were checking me out without telling me.” His brow wrinkled. “Why?”
“Because we didn’t want any of the other clubs to know.” Patrick lost his smile. “As far as we could tell, there were a lot of clubs interested in you, brat. Despite everyone, including us, bypassing you in the 2013 draft, your performance in the VFL couldn’t be ignored. What we all needed to know, though, was whether the problems that prevented you from being drafted were fixed.”
There was silence for a moment before Ty quietly asked the question that had bothered him for a long time. “Can you tell me why I wasn’t drafted last year?”
Patrick glanced at Shane, who already had Ty’s file up on his computer screen. “Here’s one scout’s comment: ‘Brilliant player, but if things go wrong, it never seems to be his fault. Everyone else makes mistakes, but not him. At least that’s what he seems to believe. He doesn’t trust his teammates to do their job and will mess up plays by trying to do too much. He usually successfully completes those plays, but he’s acting solo. Not a team player.’” Shane stared impassively across the desk at Ty. “There are a lot more like that. It didn’t help that you told some senior coaches at last year’s combine that if they didn’t draft you, they were obviously senile and past their use-by date—”
“—or that you told some clubs that it was up to you which club you would be playing for, and it wasn’t going to be them.”
“Why didn’t someone tell him that was the problem?” Jim asked.
Shane raised an eyebrow at Ty, silently asking him to answer the question. Ty grimaced and turned to Jim. “They did. I just didn’t pay any attention. My old man was the only person I listened to back then because he told me he was going to get me into the AFL. He gave me the expectation that an AFL spot was mine by right but that he was the only one who could make it happen. I was an arrogant and selfish idiot.” He gnawed at his lower lips for a moment. “You fixed that.”
Jim gave him a soft smile. “No, you fixed it. I simply pointed out what you were doing wrong.”
“And told me when I did something right.” Ty reached out put a hand on Jim’s shoulder for a moment. “Thanks for that.”
Patrick coughed to attract their attention. “There’s more. We knew you had an attitude problem. What we wanted to know was whether it was gone. At first glance, it didn’t seem so.”
Ty frowned. “What do you mean? Dad sorted me out, and I’ve been okay since then. Well…most of the time,” he admitted sheepishly.
“Shane, will you please ring Ty’s number?”
“Why? I’m right here.” Ty glanced at Jim, who shrugged to indicate he didn’t know what was going on, either.
Shane put his phone on speaker and dialled a number. A few seconds later, it was answered. “Robert Flanders.”
“Sorry, wrong number,” Shane said quickly and ended the call. He sighed as he stared across the desk at Ty. “I just dialled the phone number that’s from your draft-application form. That’s the only phone number most clubs will have for you. That’s the number we rang back in May when we wanted to talk to you.”
“But you never called me!” Ty knew what they were trying to tell him, but his mind didn’t want to acknowledge it.
“No, we didn’t. Your father told us—and we’re guessing he told every other club that tried to contact you—that you wouldn’t come to the phone, that you weren’t interested in an AFL career anymore.”
Ty felt a cold rage building. “The bastard! That fucking bastard! I’m going to kill him!”
He didn’t realise he was on his feet until Jim grabbed his arm and pointed back at the chair. “Sit!” Jim glared at him. “Don’t go off half-cocked, brat. I’m sure there’s more to the story so, sit the fuck down and listen.”
Ty dropped back into his chair and crossed his arms. He was scowling as he continued to fume over what his father had tried to do.
Jim turned to Shane. “Why didn’t you try to contact him directly? You could’ve come out to the club at any time.”
“At first, we didn’t see the point. His father had indicated that his attitude hadn’t changed, and therefore he wasn’t going to be able to fit into the culture of an AFL club.” Shane nodded towards Patrick. “Paddy’s the one who realised that Ty’s father was lying. That’s when he concocted a plan to get him here without anyone being the wiser so we could see for ourselves if he still had that attitude.”
Jim nodded slowly. “That’s when you invited me and asked me to bring one of my teammates to come and train with you guys.” He frowned. “But how did you know I would bring the brat?”
“We didn’t,” Patrick said, “but we thought it was likely, given how close you two are. If you brought someone else, it wasn’t a big loss; we’d just have to find another way to test him. But you did, and that’s when I told him to join in the training—but to make you look good. The old Ty wouldn’t’ve done that; he would’ve tried to hog the limelight.” He smiled at Ty. “The new Ty, the one we wanted to see, did exactly what we hoped; he acted as a team player and did his best to make you the centre of attention.”
Ty glared at the old Irishman. “So…you were using Dad. You fucking went and played with his hopes and fucked with his head, just to—”
“Brat, enough.” Jim glared back at him. “They gave me an opportunity that I would probably never have had otherwise. They gave me the incentive to work harder and some hints as to what I needed to do if I’m going to have a chance at an AFL career myself one day. Most importantly to me, they’re giving you a chance to show everyone, including your father, exactly how good a player you really are. I don’t have a problem with what they did, and you shouldn’t, either.”
“They used you!”
“And I don’t care!” Jim turned back to Shane. “What I’d like to know is why you didn’t tell Ty what his father was doing. The Bulldogs must know that Ty’s attitude had changed, but that’s only because Peter’s taken a job there. If you hadn’t taken the brat, they would’ve; Peter told me last night. But you couldn’t have known that early in the season. By not telling him, you were playing with his dreams. If you hadn’t picked him, no one would’ve known, and he would’ve been left in the VFL because of his father’s lies.”
To Ty’s surprise, Shane laughed. “You’re right, and that’s when Paddy blackmailed me.” He tilted his head towards the skeletal old man.
“Blackmail’s such an ugly word, Shane,” Patrick said calmly. “I prefer to say that I was just making sure you put the interests of the Carlton Football Club first.” He smiled at Ty. “I told him that unless he committed to drafting you—and this was back in June—I would tell all the clubs what your father was doing. That would’ve almost certainly meant you’d have gone somewhere else, because once everyone had a good look at you, I expect you would’ve been considered a top-five pick.” He winked. “I wanted you here, but if Shane wasn’t going to make a commitment, I wanted you in the AFL. It’s where you belong.”
“You’ve had the brat pencilled in since June?” Jim seemed surprised.
Shane snorted. “Not pencilled. Written in blood—my blood—because Paddy wouldn’t accept anything less.” His smile faded as he watched Ty. “The only things that would allow me to get out of that commitment were a return of your old attitude, a serious scandal, or a major injury.”
Ty flinched. “My knee.”
“Yes.” Shane nodded towards Patrick. “That’s why I had Paddy arrange for you to be checked by one of our club doctors.” He gave Patrick a mock scowl. “He wasn’t supposed to get you ready to play in the grand final, but he and the doctor made other plans.”
Patrick shrugged. “It wouldn’t have been fair to hold him back if he could be made fit in time.” He gave Ty a cheeky grin. “You did okay for someone with a dodgy knee. You also proved you have the commitment to play at the top level. You did whatever it took to be there for the team.”
“And you did whatever it took to get me here.” Ty scowled. “Including using Dad.”
“Brat…” Jim’s warning growl attracted Ty’s attention. “Leave it alone. If you want to discuss this further, we’ll do it tonight when we get home. There’s no point in talking about it now.”
“Ah…speaking of getting home, there’s another matter we wanted to discuss.” Patrick glanced at Shane, who waved a hand to indicate he should continue. “Your current residence, as I understand it, is intended for Leopard players. I expect sooner or later you’ll be asked to move out.”
“Yeah, I know.” Ty had been trying not to think about the subject. “I’m going to need to find a new place to stay.” An idea jumped into his mind. “Dad, how about Tony moves in with you, and I can take his room and share with Alex?”
Jim rolled his eyes. “Firstly, whether Tony moves in with me is something between the two of us. We’re not going to rush things. Secondly, I can’t think of anything worse than you moving in with Alex.” He gave Ty a wry smile. “You’re an AFL footballer now, brat. I don’t think Carlton will be impressed by the troubles you and Alex could get into if you lived together.”
Ty was going to argue, but he was interrupted by Patrick. “If I may…” Once he had both Jim’s and Ty’s attention, Patrick smiled. “The club has already arranged for temporary accommodations with one of our members, brat. It’ll only be short term, but that could be a couple of months if needed. It’s a wonderful little house that’s only a short walk from here. The only downside is that you’ll have to share it with a crotchety old Irishman. How does that sound?”
Ty blinked. “You? You’re asking me to move in with you?” Ty’s eyes flicked to Jim and then back to Patrick. His anger at their treatment of Jim had been sideswiped by the unexpected offer.
“Only for a couple of months until you can find a place of your own.” Patrick shrugged. “My children have all moved out, and my wife passed away six years ago. The house is a little empty with just me, so I thought I’d share it.”
Ty was torn. While he felt honoured that Patrick wanted to share his home, he was also still annoyed about the underhanded tricks Carlton had used to recruit him.
While he was thinking, Shane grinned. “What you don’t know is that while placing new players with members is normal, this is the first time Paddy has offered.” He chuckled. “He not only offered, but he ran roughshod over the top of everyone else on the list and insisted that he billets you.”
Ty stared at Patrick. The old man smiled back. “It’s almost lunchtime, brat. Why don’t you, Dad, and I go out for lunch? We can discuss it over a nice meal—and possibly a pint. What do you say?”
Ty glanced at Jim who smiled back. “Okay, but I’m not sure about the beer.” Ty gave him a wry smile. “I don’t think my new club will be impressed if I’m drinking at lunchtime.”
* * *
Deon stared at the two overflowing suitcases. “I still feel I’m forgetting something, but there’s no room for anything more.” He glanced at Clarissa. “Am I taking too much?”
“Probably.” Clarissa’s tone was dry. “You only really need clothes for a week because you can get the rest shipped up when you need them. You’ll also be back for Christmas, and you can take some more when you return.” She glanced at Liam and Neil who had joined her when she told them she was going to see Deon. “Finally, you’ve got three people driving up to Sydney in January. We can bring anything you’ve forgotten.” She grinned at Deon. “Of course, if you haven’t needed it by then, you probably don’t really need it at all.”
“If you’re not over the weight limit, maybe all you need is something bigger than what you’ve got.” Neil frowned as he thought. “I’m pretty sure my parents left a large suitcase for me. You can use that if you like.”
“Isn’t that for when you head north?” Deon asked.
Neil chuckled. “You said you’ll be back in a few weeks. You can bring it back then. I won’t need it until the start of January.” He glanced at Liam who stood up and pulled out the keys for his mother’s car. “We’ll be back in less than an hour.”
Liam grinned at Deon and Clarissa. “I’m sure you two can find some way to keep yourselves amused while we’re gone.”
Clarissa gave him a mock glare. “Thinking of new and interesting castration techniques might be just the thing.”
Liam laughed as he and Neil headed out the door. Clarissa turned to face Deon as he sat next to her on the bed. “It’ll all work out. It should only take a few days to courier you anything you’re missing.”
“There’s only going to be one thing I’ll miss.” Deon wrapped an arm around Clarissa’s waist and gave her a light peck on the cheek.
“I’m going to miss you, too.” She slipped a hand behind his head and pulled him in for a long kiss.
When they came up for air, a red-faced Deon grinned at her. “I still can’t believe you’re following me to Sydney.”
Clarissa sniffed. “I’m not following you anywhere. I just happen to have decided to go keep an eye on Liam and Neil.” She grinned. “Karen and I went to a lot of trouble to get those two hooked up, and I don’t want them to stuff it up because I wasn’t there to keep them on track.”
Deon laughed. “Right. And the fact that I’ll be around is just an annoyance you’ll have to live with.”
Clarissa snuggled up to him. “Something like that.” She rested her head against Deon’s warm body. “What time are you heading off to the airport tomorrow?”
“7:30.” Deon shrugged. “I know I’ll get there early, but this is one flight I don’t want to be late for.”
“Who’s taking you?”
“Jim.” Deon hesitated. “Would you like to come to see me off?”
“That’d be nice, though it depends on how late the party goes tonight.”
Deon twisted around so he could stare at her. “What party?”
Clarissa chuckled. “Your going-away party, of course. One guess as to who’s organising it.”
“The brat.” Deon’s tone was a mixture of annoyance and resignation. “I told them that I didn’t want anything. The celebration was last night.”
“And since when did Ty listen to anyone when he’s got his mind set on something?”
“He listens to Jim, but Jim won’t argue with him unless it’s important.” Deon chuckled. “By the way, how did you find out about this before me?”
“That’s easy. Ty gave me the job of telling you.” Clarissa climbed into Deon’s lap. That allowed her easier access to his lips. “Consider yourself told.”
Deon didn’t reply. She made sure he had other things on his mind.
* * *
Ty grinned when he saw the name that came up on his phone. “Peter!”
“G’day, brat. Will you have some time later today to meet up with me?”
“I presume you’re at Visy Park at the moment. How about you let me know when you’re finishing up and I’ll drive over to see you?”
“Sounds good to me, though I can’t stay for too long. We’re organising a small party for Deon before he disappears tomorrow. Why don’t you come, too? We can chat there, if you like.”
“That’s not a good idea. I wouldn’t want to ruin the party.”
Ty felt an immediate chill. “What’s this about, Peter?”
“There’s something I need to tell you. I didn’t want to mess up your celebrations last night, but I need to let you know what your father’s been up to.”
Ty growled. “If you mean about he’s been telling all the clubs I didn’t want to play in the AFL, I found out about that this morning. Paddy told me.”
“I’m sorry, brat. I didn’t find out what he was doing until I took the job here at the Bulldogs. I convinced Jason to call you, and he got your father. That’s the first I knew what he was up to. I didn’t say anything to you because Jason was going to draft you with their next pick, but Carlton got in first.”
“Paddy told me they’ve known since May. I wasn’t happy. If Dad hadn’t been here to tell me to sit down, I probably would’ve been out the door on my way to punch my old man’s lights out.” Ty still felt like doing so, but he had promised Jim he wouldn’t do anything.
“At least you’re in the AFL, brat.” Peter chuckled. “Even if it’s with the wrong team.”
Ty resisted the temptation to tell Peter it was he who was with the wrong team. Ty still wasn’t happy with Carlton for how they’d played with Jim’s hopes.
* * *
After introducing Wu and Lauren, Ross perched on the end of his seat. “How did it go?”
Alastair smiled. The four of them were in Ross’s home, so he didn’t need to be guarded with what he said. “Pretty good for the long term. The only person I ended up telling you’re gay was the Richmond president, and she told me that she would keep it under her hat. Peggy also told me she wasn’t going to intervene in the draft process, but she was interested in knowing what your plans were for next year. When I told her that I was going to try to get you into the TAC Cup as a nineteen-year-old, she said that she would do what she could to assist.” His smile widened. “Reading between the lines, you might get an invitation to train with Richmond for a week in January when they take in a couple of academy players.”
“Academy players?” Wu asked.
“The Australian Institute of Sport and the AFL have an academy where they invite the top junior players around the country to join in and receive specialised coaching and training. That includes a week with an AFL club in January before school starts for the year.” Ross made a face. “Most of the top draftees come from the AIS-AFL academy.”
“But not all,” Alastair added quickly. “If Richmond do invite you, that will give me extra leverage to try to get you one of the spots for nineteen-year-olds in the TAC Cup. That will put you back in the spotlight for all the scouts.”
“And then it’s all on me to show them what I can do.” Ross grimaced. “I need to make sure I don’t stuff it up…again.” He caught Alastair’s eye. “So I shouldn’t get my hopes up for the rookie draft?”
“Based on my conversation with their recruiting team, no.” Alastair shrugged. “That doesn’t mean another club isn’t looking at you, but I sensed that Richmond are not likely to take you.” He gave Ross an apologetic look. “I’m not in a position to check out what Brisbane are planning. Sorry.”
Ross nodded has acceptance. “What should I do if the Leopards offer me a contract?”
Alastair smiled. “My advice would be to accept it. I’ve already spoken to Julie Crowman, and while she was noncommittal, I believe we can work with her to allow you to play in both the VFL and the TAC Cup.” He shrugged. “It’ll be a challenge for you on the weekends when you’re playing two games, but when I mentioned that to Julie she said you needed toughening up.”
“What happens when there’s a clash?”
“Then Julie and your TAC Cup coach will work out between them which game you play.” Alastair gave Ross a hard stare. “You stay out of it. If you need to, contact me and let me deal with it.”
Wu frowned. “Which is better, a rookie contract or a VFL contract?”
“Rookie contract,” Ross said with no hesitation.
Alastair could see that Wu and Lauren needed more explanation. “There are a few differences. While in both cases it means Ross will be playing in a second-tier competition—in the VFL if he’s drafted by one of the ten Victorian teams, or in a similar competition interstate if he’s drafted by one of the other eight clubs—with a rookie contract he’s a fully professional football player. With a VFL contract, he’s only semi-professional and will need an additional income to make ends meet.”
Alastair glanced at Ross to see if he wanted to interrupt and then continued when it was clear that Ross was happy for him to explain. “In addition, a rookie player can, under some circumstances, be temporarily elevated to the primary list and play in the AFL. That’s not an option if he’s on a VFL contract. Finally, rookies can be elevated to the primary list in the national draft simply by a club using one of their picks to do so. Other teams can’t grab them first.”
Lauren smiled. “It sounds like the clubs might grab a few players with potential and put them on their rookie list to stop anyone else from getting them.”
“Sorry, but that would only happen in exceptional circumstances,” Alastair said. “Rookie contracts are only for a year, and while that can be extended, the AFL rules means the clubs can only keep a player on their rookie list for a maximum of three years. After that, they have to either put them on their primary list or release them to the general draft.”
“So a rookie contract is better, but a VFL contract is still okay?” Wu asked.
Alastair nodded. “While most draftees come from the TAC Cup competition, almost all the rest come from the VFL and the interstate equivalents. It’s the best alternative available. That’s why I think Ross has a good chance of being offered a contract by the Leopards. One of their primary forwards has just been drafted and he’ll need to be replaced. They already know Roscoe since he’s been training with them for a few weeks now, so he’s an obvious choice.”
Ross dropped his head. “Julie’s told me a few times she’s not sure I’m good enough.”
Alastair held up a hand to forestall an outburst from Wu. “Roscoe, Julie was never going to do anything before the draft. I suspect she’s waiting until after the rookie draft before she says anything more. She did tell me that you can continue to train with the Leopards.” He chuckled. “She told me that with Deon gone, her defenders need a new forward to beat up and you’ll do for now. I think you need to show her you’re not that easy.”
Ross looked up. He stared for a moment and then laughed. “Okay, we’ll see who beats up who tonight.” He smiled. “Thanks, Alastair.”
Alastair smiled back. “Just doing my job, Roscoe.”
* * *
Jim was getting ready for training when his phone rang. He saw the caller ID reported a private number and, after a short mental debate, accepted the call. “Jim Henderson.”
“Jim, it’s Shane from Carlton. We met earlier today.”
“Hi, Shane. How can I help you?” Jim’s immediate worry was that Ty had done something wrong even though he’d been with the AFL club for less than a day.
“Paddy and I have been talking and we’ve realised that Ty was right this morning. We used you to get to him.”
Jim chuckled. “And I told him I didn’t mind. As Paddy said, the brat’s where he belongs.”
“Be that as it may, we’d like to do something for you, too. Would you be available sometime next week to come in and talk about some of the things we’ve thought of?”
“You don’t need to do that. I’m happy with how things have worked out, and that’s good enough for me.”
“You haven’t heard our ideas yet,” Shane said in a cheerful tone. “Brock McLean has been doing something with the MidSumma festival for the last couple of years. For next year’s festival, we’re thinking Carlton can do something official rather than just having one of our players participate. We’d like to talk over some options with you. How does that sound?”
“That sounds great!” Jim knew that Brock had been cut from the team after the trade period ended, but it seemed that Carlton were still keen to support Melbourne’s premier gay-and-lesbian festival. “When’s a good time for me to come in?”
They talked for a few minutes before settling on mid-morning the following Wednesday. The phone call put Jim in a good mood as he finished getting his gear ready for training. Shane had said that they would talk to Ty to see if he would also be interested in participating. Jim could see a lot of good coming from Carlton’s participation in the 2015 MidSumma festival, and he was looking forward to helping that happen.
* * *
“Okay, guys, that’s enough. Head inside and get cleaned up.” Julie’s gaze swept over the group. “Roscoe, I’d like to see you when you’ve finished. I’ll be in my office.”
Paul slapped Ross on the back as they headed to the change room. “Congratulations. I don’t think you stuffed up, so she’s probably going to offer you a contract.”
“Did she tell you that?” Oliver asked.
Paul rolled his eyes. “Julie’s told me to keep my nose out of her business. No, she’s not said anything, but why else would she ask to see him?”
Todd grinned at Ross. “What Paul’s not saying is that Julie told the two of us that if we didn’t work you hard, we’d be running laps for the rest of the night, with an option to continue for all of next season.”
“That sounds promising,” Jim said. “I was expecting tonight to be more endurance work, so the practise match was a welcome surprise. She must’ve wanted to see how Roscoe stood up to you guys.”
“And he did a pretty good job.” Roger smiled at Ross. “And, no, just because I’m the captain, I don’t know anything more than Paul and the other guys. I did put in a good word for you, though.”
“Thanks, guys.” Ross felt a nervous flutter in his stomach. “She’s told me previously that I need to do more. She wasn’t sure I was good enough for the Leopards.”
“Julie’s got high standards.” Roger grinned and gave a nod of approval. “You did well. One on one, you didn’t let either of these guys shut you out,” he said, waving a hand towards Paul and Todd.
“I didn’t do that well, either.” Ross gave the two guys a wry smile. “They spoilt my marks way too many times.”
Todd shrugged. “You’ll learn. One of Deon’s strengths was timing. He knew just how long to hold off the defender before stepping away to take a mark. He didn’t have your height, but if you can learn to do the same, you’ll be great.”
Ross wasn’t sure he liked being compared to someone who had just been drafted, but he knew the advice was well-intended.
The conversation drifted onto other topics, but the other players always tried to give Ross a chance to join in. When, during their showers, Oliver asked who was going to the party that had been organised for Deon’s farewell, Ross tried to stay in the background. Oliver didn’t let him.
“Roscoe, you haven’t said if you’re coming,” Oliver asked while washing his armpits.
“This is more for you guys. He’s your teammate, I’m just a friend.” Ross half-turned away as he reached over to one of the dispensers for more liquid soap.
Oliver frowned as he crossed his arms and stared, naked, at Ross. “What the hell are you talking about? You’re his buddy who helped him out at the combine! He’ll want you there.”
“Ollie, leave him alone.” Jim glared across the shower area. “I understand why he mightn’t want to go.”
Oliver glared back. “I know he didn’t get drafted, but neither did the rest of us. We’re still going to support a mate. If he wants to become a Leopard, he needs to learn that we’re here for each other regardless of what else is going on.” He changed his focus to Ross. “Well?”
“You don’t have to if you don’t want to,” Jim said. “Don’t let Ollie force you into going.”
Ross hesitated. He appreciated the support from Jim, but he also understood the lesson Oliver was trying to teach him. Hopefully, the guys who he was showering with would be his teammates the next year and that Oliver was telling him that he needed to show he would be their teammate, too. “Okay, I’ll be there.” He smiled at Jim. “As he said, mates stick up for each other.”
“Excellent!” Oliver grinned as he resumed washing off the dirt and sweat accumulated during their training session. “We’ll see you there.”
Ross’s nerves about his upcoming meeting resurfaced as everyone finished their showers, dressed, and headed out the door. While the guys repeated their earlier comments about the likelihood of Julie offering him a contract, he couldn’t help worry that she was going to tell him that his days of training with the Leopards were over.
It was another five minutes before he knocked on the door to Julie’s office. The door was open, but Ross could see her typing at her computer. She glanced up, her expression neutral. “Come in and take a seat. Close the door behind you.”
Ross did what he was told and then waited quietly for the Leopards head coach to finish. He sat stiffly, too nervous to relax into the chair. It was only about twenty seconds later that Julie moved her keyboard to one side and focused her attention on Ross, but it felt a lot longer to him.
Julie relaxed in her swivel-chair and gave him a small smile that made him feel like he was about to be put through the wringer. “Okay, Roscoe, how do you think you went tonight?”
Ross sensed he had just started a job interview. “I’ve still got a lot to learn. Todd and Paul were tough opponents.”
Julie nodded. “I’ve had several AFL teams ask about them, so you can consider them to be at the upper end of VFL-standard and the lower end of AFL-standard. Given that information, where do you think you fit in?”
Ross’s reply was tentative. “The lower end of VFL-standard?”
Julie smiled, this time in a more reassuring way. “That seems about right.” She leant forward. “I have my own opinions, but given how you performed against Paul and Todd, what do you think you need to work on?”
Ross knew that gaining a position with the current VFL premiers was dependent on his answer. “Standing my ground is the first. I let them push me out of the way too often. I tried pushing back, but they’re stronger than me.”
“They’re also five-to-six years older than you. With some hard work in the gym, it won’t be long before they can’t shove you out of the way.” Julie’s eyes narrowed. “What else?”
Ross tried to make himself relax, though he didn’t think he was very successful. “Next, I’d say my timing. Todd mentioned that was one of Deon’s strengths. What I need to do is…”
* * *
Ross grinned as he walked up to the front door. He could hear the noise of the party as he approached, though it was by no means as loud as most parties he’d been to. He wasn’t surprised. He didn’t expect many people to get drunk since the guest of honour was unlikely to be drinking much alcohol given his flight to Sydney the next morning. The front door was ajar, so he let himself in and headed to the lounge room. He stopped dead in surprise soon after entering the room. “Warwick?”
Warwick grinned. “G’day, Roscoe.” He started to reach for Ross but stopped.
Ross felt a nudge from behind him. He turned to see Oliver and Helena grinning at him. “Go on,” Oliver said. “You know you want to hug him.”
“Did you…?” Ross looked at Warwick and then back at Oliver. “Is this why you wanted me to be here?”
“The brat invited him.” Oliver’s grin faded away. “It was only two years ago that I was in your shoes, Roscoe. Last year it was Deon, the brat, Charlie, and Jarrod. We all know what it’s like to miss out.”
Helena stepped forward and gave Ross a hug. “I’m glad you’re here.” She stepped back and tilted her head towards Warwick. She winked. “Go on. I’ve shown you how to do it.”
Ross glanced around. The only people he could see were Leopards and their friends. Knowing it wasn’t going to be long before he came out publicly, he smiled, took the step required, and pulled Warwick into a tight embrace. “I’m glad you’re here.”
When he let go, he kept one arm around Warwick’s back. He wasn’t going to hide.
“Okay, now that that’s out of the way, spill the beans.” Oliver grinned. “Did Julie give you a contract to sign?”
“No?” Oliver scowled. “Why the hell not?”
Ross chuckled. “She emailed it to Alastair and told him to start sorting out the changes he’s talked about so I can also play in the TAC Cup, if that comes off. She wants it ready for me to sign by the end of next week.”
Oliver pumped his fist. “Yes!” He turned to the others in the room and raised his voice. “Listen up, guys. Roscoe’s going to be a Leopard!”Ross found himself being pulled away from Warwick as everyone in the room congratulated him. He glanced back to see his boyfriend grinning. He grinned back as most of the residual disappointment from missing out on the draft was washed away. If he couldn’t be an AFL player, a Leopard—especially a Leopard where the rest of the team knew and accepted that he’s gay—was a good alternative.