I plucked a few blades of grass to throw in the air, the opposition team looked over in disgust. The rich scent of the earth wafted through my nostrils and rejuvenated my mind; the opinions and mockery that stained me washed away.
‘Go fuck off over into that bush, where you belong.’
There he stood, adjacent to the goal posts, a finger pointed at my chest. I watched as he retrieved his hand to form a fist.
Community members, young and old, congregated around this oval and it brought them so much joy. I felt alive, I felt like a part of it, but was overcome by taint in my thoughts and then in my spirit. On this oval was where I felt completely myself. I’d walk around it three times before heading out to the warm up each weekend. Today I walked an extra lap, my eyes focusing on the change room that my teammates were flocking to, a jolt heaving inside my stomach. I couldn’t let my team down, I had to approach the change rooms.
His demonic eyes pierced through me, stopping me from going in. He pointed his finger at the ground and that was where I sat to slip on my socks.
I’d once seen that same look in my father’s eyes, when I was a kid, and I’d felt the bruises left in spots that my clothes would conveniently cover. But the pain was always there, reverberating around my body and leaving echoes of dark thoughts in my head. My lips would purse whenever Mum pulled me in for a hug after school; tears would form in shiny coats on my eyelashes, so as to be undetectable.
‘Take the ball off my son again and you won’t wake up tomorrow,’ he said as he passed me. His words felt tattooed onto my skin. His fist was just within striking distance, veins popping from his forearms, then his eyes suddenly shifted towards my coach, who walked out of the change rooms after wrapping up match prep. Coach saw me and turned his back from me, my breath thinned. I didn’t want to be here anymore.
‘Bench for the first half, champ,’ coach muttered from over his shoulder. Being dumped off the starting line-up was worse than a punch. The same reverberating thoughts began to cloud my mind.
Every position I’d played and how long I’d played for was dictated by others and yet, I still turned up – every weekend. I’d shove my body into the opposition to win the ball, felt my muscles strain, and often stayed back to do extras after training.
If the quarter time breaks were excruciating enough, this man thought he’d won. But he didn’t realise a game could be won in two quarters – when you worked as a team. The deep inner strength I had developed over these seasons – because of my team – was what brought me to my feet.
I had half a game to prove him wrong.
I ran out towards the field with the others. Their families booed, but I continued. I ran onto the pristine grass, where the footsteps of my ancestors rested. I felt their energy with me as I sprinted out for final warm ups. It absorbed up through my boots, up my legs and into my heart.
I thought about Mum, who was never here to watch me play. Her baby had been put through so much, but he was still here.
‘Come on, man! Hop in the huddle,’ the captain called. The collective chuckle from the team startled me. I ran over and they wrapped their arms around me with smiles on their faces.
We talked footy. There was no bullshit about what their parents had put me through. Our focus was on the importance of what we were playing for – the jumper all of us wore. Gone were the shackles of debate about whether I was just a misfit black kid. Regardless of my colour, they saw me as another human.
The wind whistled against my cheeks, my eyes focused on the goal posts. My strides slowed as I composed myself, footy steady with hand gripped on its side. I sucked in one final breath.
The leather footy slapped against my worn shoes and the ball was sent flying in a perfect arc. It soared between the middle posts—putting my team twelve points up, in the final quarter.
My teammates bounded towards me. The hair on my head was tugged, my lungs squashed of oxygen; just your regular goal-scoring celebration. They had believed in me right from the start: they were a team who, after I’d rocked up at every training session without a pair of footy boots, pitched in to buy me a pair of my own.
It was the only real freedom I’d ever felt. Here on a footy ground, where the people I connected with most accepted me.
It was three colours that connected us, not two.