Deon glanced in amazement around the Etihad Stadium meeting area—there were over one-hundred, first-year players about to start a two-day induction camp run by the AFL Players’ Association—when he was attacked.
“Deon!” Ty grinned as he grabbed his old teammate in a bear hug. “It’s great to see you again!”
“You, too.” Deon chuckled as he returned the embrace. “I can see life at Carlton hasn’t changed you much.”
Ty shrugged. “A little older, maybe a little wiser.” He winked. “But I usually leave both of those to Dad.”
Jim rolled his eyes but otherwise elected to ignore Ty’s comment. The induction camp was due to start in twenty minutes, and there were a lot of mini-reunions going on around them. It was the first time that many of them had been together since being drafted. “How’s life in Sydney treating you, Deon?”
“Pretty good. Clarissa, Neil, and Liam arrived last week, so I’ve been spending my spare time helping them settle in.”
“Are you still living with your host family?” Jim asked.
“The Kennedys? For now.” Deon grinned. “Kev and I are still looking for places to rent, but it’s slow going. We’ve both got so many demands on our time that finding a chance to go apartment hunting is difficult.”
“Tell me about it.” Ty leant forward and continued in a mock-whisper. “I think Dad’s having second thoughts about sharing a place with me. He keeps finding reasons not to like the places I find.”
Jim gave him a long-suffering look. “I’d like to live somewhere that’s liveable and doesn’t require a two-hour commute to training.”
“It was only an hour-and-a-half by public transport—maybe an hour by car—and it was close to Karen’s place. What more could we want?”
Deon laughed. “No, you haven’t changed a bit.” He glanced around. “Have either of you caught up with Dave or Paul yet?”
“Not so far, but they should be around here somewhere…” Ty stretched up onto the tip of his toes and then grinned. “There they are!”
The three of them headed over to join the other two former Leopards. Dave and Paul had been talking quietly but stopped as their former teammates approached.
“Guys!” Ty bumped fists with first Paul, then Dave. “How was your Christmas and New Year?”
“Pretty good, actually.” Paul grinned. “Julie said to say that if you give any of us a hard time, she’ll contact Carlton and invite you back to Lilydale for a personal-training session.”
Ty gave a mock shudder. “Okay, I’ll be good.” His expression went serious. “Did she say how Roscoe’s doing? I’ve spoken to him on the phone, but I wouldn’t mind a second opinion.”
“You know she won’t mind if you call and ask her yourself, but he’s doing fine. She’s giving him a week off later this month.”
Ty frowned. “Why?”
Jim chuckled. “I told you the other day, but you weren’t listening. He’s been invited to spend a week with Richmond during their pre-season.”
“How do you know that?” Deon asked.
“Because he and I are still doing media work at Pride FM. We cross paths about once a week, but when the season starts again, it’ll be more often. He and I will be doing the weekly AFL previews this year.”
Deon made a face. “I’m so much out of the loop being in Sydney. I’m sure there are lots of things I’m not aware of.”
Ty grinned. “Don’t worry. Sit with us at lunch and we’ll bring you back up to speed. And just in case you haven’t heard, keep the night of Saturday June 13th free.”
Paul chuckled. “Okay, you haven’t heard then. Todd’s gone through the AFL schedules, and if you happen to make it into the senior team by then, you’ll be playing in Melbourne the next day. The rest of us have byes that week.”
“I expect you to have broken into the senior team by then so you can be here.” Ty grinned. “It’s that important.”
Deon frowned. “You’ve lost me.”
Jim smiled and took pity on him. “Assuming Becky gives him permission, that’s when Todd and Lorraine are going to get married. He’s trying to make sure that we’re all here for the ceremony. He didn’t want to wait until the end of the year, and Carlton, Hawthorn, and the Western Bulldogs all have a bye. GWS are the only one team among us that’ll be playing, and they’re playing on the Sunday. Neil’s already said he and Liam will fly down that weekend. You’re the only one we’re not sure about.”
“Neil didn’t mention anything to me. Neither did Clarissa.” Deon grinned. “But I’ll be there, even if I have to twist a few arms to do so.”
“They probably thought you already knew.” Ty shrugged. “You know now.”
Their conversation was cut short when they heard the announcement that the first session was about to commence. The players were expected to sit with their teammates for most of the day, but the former Leopards quickly agree to sit together for lunch.
* * *
Jim grinned as he sat next to Paul. “How are you finding it so far?”
Paul chuckled. “I could’ve done with that session on financial planning this time last year. I mightn’t’ve gotten myself into trouble if I had.”
“Sorry.” Jim hadn’t intended to remind Paul of how his ex-girlfriend had left him with a significant debt after he signed on as a guarantor to a car loan.
“It’s okay. Peter told me that was one of the factors in the Bulldogs picking me over Todd. Apparently, he convinced them that I was trying to fix my own mess and wasn’t crying to others for help.” Paul grinned. “That seems to indicate something about my character.”
“It would’ve been nice for Todd to have been drafted, too. He and Lorraine deserve it.”
“They’ve got each other. Todd’s happy with how things worked out. He told me the other day that he’d been worried before the rookie draft, not because he was afraid of not being drafted, but afraid that he’d be drafted by one of the interstate teams. That would’ve made life difficult for him and Lorraine. Brisbane and West Coast were apparently both interested in him, at least according to Julie.”
Jim winced. “Becky would’ve taken him moving interstate as him abandoning her mum.”
“Maybe not—she’s a lot more comfortable with having Todd as her mum’s boyfriend now—but Todd didn’t want to risk it.”
“There you are!” Ty’s cheerful greeting brought a smile to both Jim’s and Paul’s lips. “I was beginning to think you were trying to hide from me.”
Jim grinned. “Not hide. Just getting a break from some annoying brat.”
“That’s alright, then.” Ty dropped into the seat next to Jim. “Have you seen Dave?”
“He’s fine,” Paul said. “I spoke to him a few minutes ago, and he wanted to get some fresh air. I think he’s been feeling a little crowded.”
Jim frowned. “Is he okay?”
“He’s fine.” Paul’s smile was reassuring. “Charlie told me last night that Dave’s getting stressed about the court case later this month, but the Hawks have been giving him all the support he needs. He’ll cope.”
Ty scowled. “I hope they lock up that bastard and throw away the key.”
“Me, too,” Jim said.
“Me, three,” Paul added. He cocked his head. “What’s this rumour I hear about you being asked to speak this afternoon?”
Ty grinned. “They’re going over a number of things in conjunction with the AFL’s vilification policy. They’re starting with sexism and racism, but they’re doing homophobia near the end of the day. They seem to think Dad knows something about it.”
“That’s enough, brat.” Jim sighed and turned back to Paul. “As the brat said, they want me to talk about what it’s like to be a gay footballer.” He grimaced. “I’ve always hated that phrase. I prefer what one of the Collingwood players called me at the start of the season.”
“What was that?” Ty glanced at Paul, who shrugged to indicate he didn’t know, either.
Jim grinned. “Not a gay footballer, but a bloody good footballer who happens to be gay.”
Ty laughed. “Well, you obviously had him fooled. On the footballer part, at least. I’ll have to ask Tony if the gay part is true.”
Jim rolled his eyes. “Brat…”
* * *
The presenter turned on the lights and stepped back to the microphone. “As you can see from that video, even unthinking homophobic comments can affect someone. The AFL anti-vilification policy covers not only sexist and racist remarks, but also homophobia. As Jason said in that video, homophobic comments are rife in football clubs. Most of the time it’s unthinking, just a generic insult, but everyone here needs to understand that it can still hurt, that they’re not harmless.” He smiled. “One of the comments in that video was how no one wants to be the first gay footballer. Well, that’s no longer a concern. We don’t normally get one of the attendees at these meetings to come up and address everyone, but Jim Henderson, if you wouldn’t mind…”
Jim stood up but was surprised when Ty also rose. “Brat, what are you doing?”
Ty grinned. “My job.” Not waiting for Jim, he strode to the front of the room, smiled at the presenter and then turned to grin at the crowd. “For those that don’t know me, I’m the one that this guy,” he jabbed a thumb in Jim’s direction, “calls the brat. In return, I call him Dad.”
“Brat, I think you should sit down.”
“In a moment,” Ty said out of the side of his mouth. He swept his gaze over the crowd. “Dad’s going to tell you what it’s been like for him, playing football while still in the closet. He’ll probably also tell you how things have been this year when he played with the Lilydale Leopards as an openly gay VFL player.” He leant towards the microphone to emphasise his words. “I’m here to give you my perspective on what that means.”
Ty glanced over his shoulder to see Jim frowning but otherwise not making any move to interfere. Ty gave him a quick grin before returning his attention to the other first-year players attending the induction camp. “As Dad once famously misstated, what we do in the bedroom isn’t what got us into the AFL.”
A smattering of chuckles swept the room.
“None of us slept our way into the AFL. At least I hope none of us did. I don’t want to be told otherwise. How your club decides who to draft is something between you and them.”
The laughs were stronger this time.
“As we were told in the session before this one, what we believe also doesn’t matter to the AFL. It doesn’t matter if you’re a Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Jedi, or atheist, or even if you’re a pastafarian and worship the great flying spaghetti monster—long may He fly—you’re all welcome in the AFL community.”
Ty paused to make sure everyone was still paying attention. Many of the guys in the room were grinning broadly while chuckling quietly. “Also earlier today we were warned about sexist remarks. One of these days there’s going to be a woman with the skills and talents necessary to become an AFL footballer. Yes,” he added over the general murmuring from the audience, “one day there will be a female player.” He grinned. “Looking at some of you, that day may even be today.”
He spoke over the laughter that followed. “And that’s okay! You don’t have to hide who you are. It doesn’t matter if we’re gay, straight, bisexual, or any of the other categories that I can’t remember. It doesn’t matter if we’re guys, girls, or whatever other options there may be.”
The chuckles from the crowd increased in volume. Ty leant forward to make sure his words would carry over the noise. “It doesn’t matter what the colour of your skin is. It doesn’t matter where you’re from. It doesn’t matter who your parents are…or aren’t. None of this matters, because we’re only here because of one thing. There’s only one requirement to be an AFL footballer, and that’s to be bloody great at our sport. We’re AFL footballers because we’re the best. That’s it. That’s all that’s needed. There’s nothing more. The rest of that stuff I’ve mentioned is irrelevant.”
A handful of players stood up and applauded. More followed, and soon everyone was on their feet, clapping madly.
Ty waited for them to stop and sit back down. “Back at the start of the year, Dad told me he never wanted to be a gay footballer. Well, I’m here to tell him his wish has been granted. As one of our opponents once said, he’s not a gay footballer; he’s a bloody good footballer who happens to be gay. Ladies—if any of you want to admit to the truth—and gentlemen, I’d like to introduce my good friend and mentor, Jim Henderson, better known as Dad.”
Ty stepped back and started clapping. The players in the crowd started another round of applause as Jim stepped up to the microphone.
Once the noise died down, Jim grinned at the crowd. “Now you know why I call him the brat.”
AUTHOR’S NOTE: Jason Ball is an Australian Rules football player who formed one of the major inspirations for this story. He plays district-level football (the level below the VFL), but he was the first football player to come out at that level. At the time of writing, there are still no openly gay football players above the district level.
The video that was shown to the new AFL footballers was about Jason and his story of how his football club supported him when he came out. Jason sent me a link to the video used by the AFL Players’ Association but the video is no longer online. However, here’s a similar video that’s still available on YouTube.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank Jason Ball for the assistance he provided at the start of this series, and to Brock McLean and Jason Tuazon-McCheyne for their guest appearances in the series. I wouldn’t have been able to write what I have without their help.
I would also like to thank the team that has assisted me with the series. Firstly, Robert (trebs) who passed away during the writing of Leopard Skin Cover, and Ken, who passed away during the writing of this book. Both are deeply missed. C James has been a valuable member of the team with his eye for inconsistencies and feedback on fine detail and has contributed greatly to the quality of the storytelling. MikeL has been great as my second beta-reader, and I couldn’t do without rec (aka vwl) for his fantastic editing, and Ricky for his final review of each chapter. Without their efforts, the quality of the writing would be that much less.
I would also like to thank Myr (from Gay Authors) and Mike (from AwesomeDude) for providing sites where I could post this series and make it freely available to all who wish to read it.
Will there be a fourth book in the series? There won’t be a direct continuation of the series, but, when I get a chance, I would like to do some spin-off stories. Whether these are short stories, novellas, or novels remains to be seen.
Again, thank you to everyone who has contributed to the series. When I started it, I didn’t expect it to go for as long as it has. It’s now been three years since I commenced this project, but I have enjoyed it thoroughly.
I hope my readers have enjoyed this little taste of a uniquely Australian sport and the people who play it.