*An excerpt from Sweet Dreams of Fanta
The sky starts to turn light pink as we run onto the main oval at Easton Park and Sam does the biggest bomb kick I’ve ever seen.
“Ya gonna catch it?”
I can’t even see it so high up in the sky! I shake my head to Sam and he starts laughing.
He bolts down the field like a flash. Woosh! He takes the catch and it doesn’t even make a thud against his chest. It’s quiet as a mouse. How did he do that? It was up in the air longer than a Greg Norman golf shot. As soon as he takes the catch he stops dead still on the spot and swings to pass the ball all the way to me on the other side of the oval! It’s still like a bullet from so far away. It lands straight in my chest.
Sam holds his arms up high above his head as a goal post.
“And Liam, before you boot it, you have to visualize it being the best, the biggest kick ever. Before you even kick it. You need to see it perfect in your mind’s eye first. You understand?”
I nod and take a deep breath.
“I think so, Sam.”
“Picture it just right in your head first. Then bloody boot it!!”
I take one more deep breath while I close my eyes for a second and do what Sam says. I picture the perfect kick. I can see it right there in the back of my eyelids. I open my eyes again and look down to Sam in the distance. I take a few steps and let rip. It’s a beauty. I’m kicking well today. It zooms straight off my foot just right. You always know it’s a ripper when it zooms like that. Sam doesn’t have to move a muscle. The ball lands smack bang in his arms just the way I pictured.
Sam yells out and sprints back to me for a high five then puts the ball on the ground. He’s the best coach ever.
“Ok, ok. That’s all the fun stuff outta the way. Now it’s training time. Ya ready?”
I don’t know why but I make fists with my hands and punch the air like I’ve just hit the winning shot at Wimbledon.
“You’re a good kick, Liam, but you’re too slow. You’ve gotta be faster if you’re going to be the best player you can be ok.”
My lip starts to shake. I know I’m too slow. I’m slower than Jeremy Pugston. That’s too slow to even be a ball boy let alone a real player in first grade.
“We’ll start with doing sprints. I’m gonna make you as fast as Garry Jack!”
“You wanna be faster than Garry do ya?”
“Umm…nah. Fast as Garry is fine with me.”
“Haha! Good boy. Now, you see the halfway line?”
“Sprint!! Let’s go! Sprint!”
Sam side steps behind me and pushes me forwards to start sprinting 50 metres to halfway.
“Come on! Sprint!”
I start running as fast as I can with Sam yelling in my ear.
“Sprint, Liam! Sprint! Come on! Sprint!”
He’s yelling so loud it makes me run faster than ever. The grass is all dewy and I can feel my Reeboks starting to get wet inside. My breaths are so loud through my mouth and Sam’s voice gets quieter as the halfway line gets closer.
I take a big, deep breath the moment I get to halfway and collapse my head towards the ground to take more. The first rays of sunshine are starting to hit the top of Centre Point Tower a long way in the distance.
“Stop your puffing! No more rest. Jog back to the try line.”
Sam lifts me up through the shoulders so I can stand up straight and stop taking quick breaths. We jog back.
“C’mon, Liam. Let’s go.”
I can hear my heart beating so fast through my eardrums and even feel it pulsing in my neck!
“The second we get back to the try line, you turn and race back to the 40 metre line, as fast as you bloody can. Got it?”
I can’t really say ‘yes’ so I just nod. My feet are soaking now in my Reeboks. I get to the try line and take another deep breath.
“Sprint, Liam! Sprint!”
I put my head down and my legs are so tired I start to thrash my arms too and hope they can pull me to the 40 metre line. With my arms going back and forth I can feel my flabby chest wobbling around and it makes me forget how much I’m out of breath and my legs feel stronger. I sprint the hardest I ever have but the 40 metre line looks so far away. Sam is just jogging sideways next to me and doesn’t have a drop of sweat on him.
“Good boy, Liam! Just keep sprinting, best ya can! Use your arms, good man.”
I feel like I could die any second but I like it. My hair’s all wet with sweat and my legs feel heavier than tree trunks but I know that I just have to do what Sam says and no way will I be a fatso if I train like this. No way. I get to the 40 metre line and collapse down with my hands to my knees, Sam won’t let me rest for even one second.
“Jog back to the try line! Come on, Liam. You wanna be a Balmain Tiger some day then you’ve gotta train like it’s always the grand final.”
I lift my face to the sky, blue now with the light pink all gone. Sam sort of carries me along with his arms around my shoulders and chest to get me jogging back to the try line while he jogs sideways. He still isn’t sweating. I think back to when I’ve seen him covered in sweat when he gets back to National Street after his jogs. Where must he run to for him to get so sweaty? He must run to Palm Beach and back.
“Now sprint to the 30 metre line. Go!!”
I turn at the try line to sprint again even though I can now feel my heart beating through my temples. I have to do what Sam says. I have to. I breathe out then turn to push off as hard as I can and sprint like Garry Jack but I fall flat on my face. Splat! I’m so tired I can’t even put my arms out to break the fall. Sam cracks up laughing and pats me on the back of the head.
“Have a rest there, champ. You’ve earned it. Just don’t fall asleep.”
I try to laugh too but I have a mouth full of wet grass. My chest is rising up and down so fast against the ground. I’m covered in mud with my hands tingling and my throat dry from so much air flowing back and forth so quickly and I’m smiling with my face in the dirt because I feel like a Balmain Tiger. I want to feel like this forever. I know right now for sure I’m not going to be the fatty boom bar much longer. This hard training is more fun than anything. I love it.
I hop up and rub the sweat off my face and can feel the blades of grass stuck on my cheeks. Sam smiles down and doesn’t need to say anything. I know I have to sprint. That 30 metre line isn’t so far away. I race as fast as I can. Sam is the best trainer ever and I’m going to make him proud.
After we do the 20 metre and the 10 metre sprints it’s time to do more kicks and passing and we jog laps back and forth up and down the oval doing chip and chases, grubbers and kicks for touch and more sprints.
The sky’s blue, the sun is shining and I know my face is bright red and dripping with sweat. We stop at the try line furthest away from the corner closest to Victoria Road where we first got here.
“100 metre sprint to finish your first session, mate. You ready?”
I take a deep breath and nod over to Sam.
“I’ll give you a 50 metre head start. You better not let me catch ya!”
Sam scruffs up my sweaty hair.
I take off! Come on! I know now to push extra hard through the balls of my feet with each step and to swing my arms in time with the opposite leg to run your fastest. That’s the trick. And you have to keep your head up no matter how tired you are, and always keep looking at the finish line. That’s how you run your best. I get to the halfway line and hear Sam yell out.
“Don’t let me bloody catch ya!”
I push harder. I wish I had Donna here to run for me but I can do it. Come on! I’m taking quick breaths through my mouth and can hear the thud of my steps on the soft grass. Come on! Sam is getting closer. I know he is.
“Don’t let me catch ya! Faster! Sprint faster!”
I cross the 20 metre line and I’m so close. I want to drop my head down to the ground but I keep it high. Come on!
Sam is right behind me. Come on!
We’re at the 5 metre line. I take one more step and then dive for the try line like Garry Jack! I slide along the grass. Sam dives too! I don’t have the footy in my arms but I imagine scoring the winning try in the grand final just the same as Sam says to visualize your kicks being perfect.
I shut my eyes and stay lying on the ground with my head in the dirt once more and wet blades of grass filling my mouth. Sam is laughing so hard. He hops up first and picks me up to throw me all the way in the air.
“Bloody top first session, little legend!”
I really feel like a Balmain Tiger now. It feels so good.
“You’re the best coach, Sam!”
“Thanks, mate. Now, you right to jog home by yourself? I’ll have to do some more training on my own ok.”
I nod. I’d rather jog home with Sam but I can go by myself. It’s ok. Sam pats me on the shoulder and then kneels down on one knee to look me in the eye.
“Liam, you did so well, mate. We’ll do this every morning hey? Until you’re in first grade?”
“You mean it?”
“Yeah. What ya reckon? Deal? Train just this hard or harder every morning until you’re a Balmain Tiger?”
“Yeaahhh! For sure!”
Sam reaches out his right hand to shake hands. I take a deep breath, look him in the eyes the way Pop says you have to when you shake hands and reach out.
Sam smiles and after we shake hands he gives me a high five as well but then his smile disappears and he looks all serious and points his finger into my chest.
“Remember, you can always control if you try your best and do the hard work. Only you. No one can force you. I’ll try but it’s all up to you, Liam. You have control if you run as fast as you can and train as hard as possible. You. No one else, understand?”
Sam taps his finger on my chest one more time.
I’ve never seen Sam so serious. I’ve never seen anyone so serious. I feel like I’m Daniel Son with Mr Miyagi. I feel my hands by my sides turn to fists and know that the dots will be gone forever soon. Sam is going to train me to be the best I possibly can be and I have control. I’m going to do everything he tells me. He is the best footy player I know and all I want is to be just like Sam.
My lip is shaking like it does when I’m about to cry but I’m not going to cry, I feel stronger than I ever have before. I have control, no one else.
“Ok mate, off you go and I’ll see you at 5am tomorrow morning, champ.”
I nod and smile and as I turn to walk up towards Victoria Road I see Sam sprint off like an Olympic champion to do his own training without me to slow him down. That’s how a real Tiger does it. I can’t imagine Ricci could have ever been any faster than that. I want to be just the same.
I’m so tired and most of me wants to walk home but there’s the little voice that tells me to run. That’s the voice that I have to make sure always has control from now on. I’m more tired and sore than ever but it still feels better to run than walk.
The lights at Victoria Road are green and I sprint straight through and keep heading up towards National Street. I don’t ever want to stop.
Grab a copy of Sweet Dreams of Fanta and find out more about little Li Li's journey in 1988 to shed the flab and unearth his knuckles.
Artwork by Marty Schneider