The rewards from playing AFL football make the sacrifices worthwhile, or do they?
ON THE day he was drafted, his old man bought him a beer. Of course he did; this was something to celebrate. He might even have had two or three beers that day. But it would be a while before he had another.
He knew the rules well enough. At his elite junior club, and at the academy, and on overseas trips, the coaches couldn't stress them enough. He was in the system and it was cutthroat. For all he knew, the difference between getting drafted and not might be the beer he had that his roommate did not. It wasn't just what he drank, either, but what he ate and whose company he kept. It was all noted.
He didn't mind. He had a chance to play football for a living; he would make the sacrifices. But he couldn't help noticing that as his mates were leaving school, they were free to find their own limits, by the time-honoured method of trial and error; his already had been set for him, as if still at school.
Inwardly, he chafed a little. He had been given a privilege, but sometimes it felt like a handicap. They would go to the pub, and sometimes he would go with them, and might even have a couple of beers with them, and then immediately would feel guilty, and wonder if anyone had seen him, and so, after a while, he would stop going with them. When they went to the snow, he stayed home. So did his girlfriend. She said that was OK by her.
Getting drafted upped the ante. Pre-season training left him exhausted and most nights he didn't feel like going out, but when he did, he had to think about it. He knew the rules; the club couldn't stress them enough. The competition was internal now, but it was just as cutthroat. The law of averages said that only one or two of his intake were going to make it; whatever the price was, he would have to pay it. He didn't drink except on Sundays, but one of the other draftees, a Muslim, didn't drink at all.
He was getting paid to play now, well paid. His mates were proud, but also a little envious. Truth be told, he was envious of them sometimes.
He came from a big family and there was a birthday or a barbecue every other week, and they were always raucous, but now he was the one in the corner, sipping on a water, and when he was offered one of the left-over sausages, politely refusing. For as he could remember, a little indulgence had been part of these celebrations, but not for him now, not any more.
He remembered reading about Rod Marsh and his prodigious drinking feats, and how, when he was coach of the academy, he was asked what he told the kids about socialising now, and that he said that everyone had to make his own mind up about what he thought it took to play for Australia, and how far he could go. It was easy for him to say.
Sometimes, he would go out with his new mates at the football club, who were really his family now. He had played a few games, enough now to be recognisable in public. The attention of the girls was flattering, but the blokes could be annoying, and always in the back of his mind was the fear that one had had a few too many and would try to make himself into a hero.
He and his mates didn't drink; how could they? Someone would see, someone would tell. Regularly, they would be offered drugs, which was no surprise - it had happened even at school. Sometimes, he was tempted: a high, no hangover, no effect on his skinfolds, no other trace. A young man had to have some sort of release, did he not? And yet … he had never been drug-tested, but what if they came knocking tomorrow morning?
More and more, he stayed home at night, and got on Facebook and Twitter, connecting with the world that way. Mostly, his girlfriend stayed in with him; she still said she didn't mind.
As the finals approached, the leadership group made a decision: total abstinence from now on. He was living the life he had craved, that every boy had craved, but sometimes he wondered if it was the life. He read that Dane Swan was planning to retire sooner rather than later, because he wanted to have a social life while he was still young enough to lead one. He empathised.
Suddenly, the season was over. There was no Mad Monday, not since Mad-Monday-watching had become a media sport, and Brendan Fevola ruined it for everyone anyway. More precisely, Mad Monday was transplanted as far away as footballers' plentiful money could take them, to a place where no one would recognise them and none of the rules applied, and a young man could let out a year's worth of pent-up emotions …
And anything can happen.