Finding his feet: Carlton's Zack Tuohy.

Finding his feet: Carlton's Zack Tuohy. Photo: Paul Rovere

SOMETIMES, when he's sitting at home or driving to or from the ground — it's even happened during a game, if only for a fleeting moment — Zach Tuohy finds himself checking reality. “It's like, 'This just can't be happening'. Every so often it hits me what I'm doing. It does seem surreal.”

He knows the alternative is a grim one, that his life would be oh-so different if the phone call hadn't come that delivered a dream he'd never actually had. Ireland is doing it hard (“things are not flash at the minute,” he says, head shaking, “terrible”), which only fortifies his considerable resolve to make this mad adventure last.

“If ever there was a doubt in my mind about being out here, it would be wiped away by knowing what I'd be going back to. The far more intellectually gifted than me are struggling for work back home, so I think I'd be in a spot of bother. So I'm just going to try and bleed this for as long as I can.”

Zach Tuohy with his parents Noel and Marie.

Zach Tuohy with his parents Noel and Marie. Photo: Alex Lavelle

Tuohy is selling himself short; he presents as a resourceful young man who would make a go of things no matter what. Gerard Sholly, who made that phone call after spotting him in a losing under-18 Gaelic football semi-final, was taken by a respectfulness and devotion to family and, although he was just 17 at the time, by the sense that he possesses an uncommon strength that runs deeper than the physical.

He has needed it.

Carlton first brought Tuohy to Princes Park for a few weeks in 2008. He returned home to Portlaoise (pronounced Port-leash), and soon after an old school friend took his own life. He stayed for another year, came to Melbourne and learnt his new trade with Northern Bullants in 2010, then flew home again. While he was there, another contemporary who was neighbour, teammate and friend committed suicide.

“I had no idea [he was in a bad place], it was a massive shock,” Tuohy says. “It shook the county, everyone. He was a very good footballer .?.?. it was devastating for everybody involved.”

The two human losses have put everything — not least sporting disappointment — in perspective. “I would much rather never play football again than have to deal with some of the things they've dealt with. It is only football, it is only a job, there's much bigger things in the world.”

The experience has sharpened Tuohy's spiritual self, although he says he's “a bit choosy about what I take out of it”. His mother used to slip a card of St Michael into his pencil case when he was sitting exams, and he likes the notion of an other-worldly being watching over us; his upper left arm was recently tattooed with the image of a guardian angel above the words “Mam” and “Dad”.

Inside that bicep is a verse from 16th century poet Edward Dyer, “My mind to me a kingdom is.” After his second mate's death, Tuohy sought out writing that spoke of mental wellbeing. “I thought it would be nice to have something about being in a good place, a happy place. It's a bit cheesy.”

Before each game, he writes the initials “PM” (for Peter McNulty) on the strapping on each of his wrists. As he lined up for a first-quarter goal in last Friday's rout of Collingwood, Tuohy tapped the letters to ask for his lost mate's help, then coolly hit the target from 50 metres.

“I'm probably a bit of a hypocrite — I love the positive aspects of religion, the idea of a guardian angel looking over people, but some of it I don't necessarily buy into. If I didn't think Peter was helping me I wouldn't put his name on my wrist.”

Whatever his source of succour, it's working.

Even in a game whose tales grow at pace with its borders, Zachary Martin Nathan Tuohy is a hell of a story. It's one thing to be playing good football for the premiership favourite, barely two years after you first played the game. To already be rated a better kick of the ball than three-quarters of your teammates is something else.

Tuohy is the youngest of four children, and none of Naomi, Noel John or Hannah, or their parents Noel and Marie — or any uncles or aunts on either side that he can think of, for that matter — showed any aptitude for sport. Yet it's all he's ever wanted to do.

He played hurling, Gaelic football and soccer, often in multiple age groups concurrently, which could amount to running out in seven or eight different teams over two or three sports at the same time. “All of a sudden your week's gone.”

Soccer was his love (Noel took him to see Liverpool when he was young; “that gives you the fever like”), but while convalescing with a broken foot aged 15, he realised a coveted professional career wasn't going to happen. Fit again, he threw himself into Gaelic footy, a wise move, “because I don't think I'd be here if I'd picked either of the other two”.

In his youth, Portlaoise was a city of around 15,000 known mostly for its maximum security prison, where Noel Tuohy worked as a warder for 30?years. “It's full of terroristy types,” his son says. “That sounds like a fearful term.”

He remembers visiting as a child, thinking a man would do well to find his way out. “Growing up, I probably didn't appreciate just how dangerous what dad was doing was — he was in there with some pretty dodgy people,” he says of a facility that houses the most dangerous incarcerated members of the Irish Republican Army.

Zach was very pro-Irish growing up, without really understanding what that meant in political terms. His father was surrounded by men who had “bombed schools, killed kids, done the most horrendous things you can think of”; it educated him in his land and in life. “I have a reasonable grasp on it now.”

Noel Tuohy recently retired, and is writing his memoirs in a study that used to be Zach's bedroom. “It was good to see they were mourning me leaving — it took him about a week to move in!” But he is looking forward to the end product. “He certainly has some stories to tell.”

A mad sports fan if not a player, father joined son as they threw themselves into all things AFL after the Blues said they would give him a go, but told a salivating Tuohy they would come back for him in a year. Zach “kicked the leather off” the Sherrin that the club left him, while he and Noel studied every list, every player, every skerrick of footage they could find.

Colm Begley also hails from county Laois, and Tuohy'd seen a documentary on Setanta O'hAilpin, so had some grasp of what he was in for. When he spotted Chris Judd on arriving at the club, he felt “like a schoolgirl .?.?. 'Jeez, I can't believe that's him!'?” He soon got over it, taken by his captain's normalcy. “He just became Juddy.”

Core values were quickly implanted. “I knew from day one I didn't like Collingwood, and I really wasn't sure why. I had nothing against them at the time, but I knew I didn't like them.”

For months, he took part in drills thinking, “What am I doing? Where do I go? How do I get the footy?” He was comforted by Heath Scotland, “who's been playing AFL for 36 years”, telling him how much the game has changed. He has made friends he hopes to have forever, even if hearing every second sentence spoken in a bad Irish accent “gets really old really quick”.

If the dynamics puzzled him, football's most fundamental skill never has. Tuohy credits good development coaches who kicked with him for hours, but the foundations were surely innate. “It never felt forced, I just always felt comfortable with the ball in hand.”

At the Bullants, he actively sought the responsibility of taking kick-ins, and now he does so in the seniors; coach Brett Ratten this week rated him among the Blues' 10 best kicks. “It's a great way of getting involved if the ball's not coming to you on the ground, of getting your confidence up, even if it's just a 20-metre dink.”

Restarting play never disconcerts him, even if stumped for options and with 85,000 voices offering advice. “Then I just whack it as long as I can, and it's someone else's problem!”

He is tough as well as strong, a formidable combination. He reckons he had “a full-body cramp” in his first game, adjusting to the jump from Gaelic contests of 60 to 70 minutes duration to two hours of “the most aerobic, toughest ball sport in the world”.

Taking big sister Naomi to lunch in the Yarra Valley last Saturday, he struggled to climb out of the car, but it was a good kind of hurt. “I like that feeling,” he said.

Naomi has since flown home, a place he misses at times. His brother plays music in a couple of bands, and he cherishes being back for Christmas now, when everyone is up and about, excited, having fun. “Winter in an Irish pub is a beautiful thing — a hot whiskey and a pint of Guinness.” If a love of life is something of an Irish stereotype, it's one Tuohy says his family happily does nothing to confound.

He regrets never meeting Jim Stynes, having quickly realised what his countryman had done, the lives he had changed. “He made you proud to be Irish, proud to have the same heritage as him, but it's almost irrelevant where he was from. He was just an incredible person, an incredible story.”

Now 22, with his assurance growing, he wants to add layers to his game. “It's very hard to make it if you're one-dimensional.” His short-term goal is simply to be consistent and bed down a place in a team he knows is going places. But his horizon holds a new nirvana.

“My dream now is to win a premiership with Carlton, that would be very nice.”