“Whoa, this is hectic,” says one of the kids as he enters the Hawthorn players’ locker room.
Wide eyes are drawn to the locker numbers, the names and the shiny little gold cups that signify Hawks who have played in a premiership.
There seem to be clusters of cups on almost every locker, which should probably come as no surprise given Hawthorn has 21 premiership players on its 2016 list and dozens more in retirement, but it still adds up to a lot of bling.
Five young Hawks who are yet to reach those lofty heights – Tim O’Brien, Kaiden Brand, Zac Webster, Kurt Heatherley and Kade Stewart – are acting as our guides on a tour of the club’s Waverley.
They are standing in the locker room, surrounded by about 15 young people who take part in the Ladder Program at Glen Waverley, and are talking about how important it is to have respect for your teammates when 40-odd footballers are milling around in such a relatively tight space.
“I think they enjoyed that bit, with all the names and numbers and all the lockers in there,” O’Brien said later on, adding that not many people get such an intimate look at the inner sanctum.
Many footballers have a connection with Ladder, the youth homelessness organisation that receives a $25 donation from each AFL player’s weekly match payment, but Hawthorn is pioneering an involvement between Ladder and the club.
The Hawks’ first-to-four year players regularly visit the Education First Foyer at Glen Waverley, where Ladder runs a health and wellbeing program.
Full-back Brand, 22, said he had run a few personal training sessions at the foyer and helped cook some food, but “I just hung out with them really, played some eight ball”.
“Hopefully the Ladder guys will get some small lessons in terms of discipline and just a few of those life lessons.”
– Brad Sewell
O’Brien, also 22, was looking forward to heading along with his teammates. His motivation? “Growing as people I guess, getting to meet the community, see what’s out there. It’s a bit of a realisation of actually how good we’ve got it and it’s not something we should take for granted.”
Hawthorn’s player development manager, Cam Matthews, spoke of a similar theme at the start of the tour.
“This partnership is really important to us,” he told the Ladder participants. “We hope that you guys out at Glen Waverley get a little bit out of the association with us, but I promise you that in this partnership we’re the winners.
“We’ve got young blokes who are coming into this AFL system from all over Australia, and one of the things we want to make sure is that they grow as young people. And being connected with the community is so important. We absolutely know that they grow from their link with you.”
As the group wanders past several massage tables, they ask Brand and O’Brien whether they have ever fallen asleep while a masseuse kneads their muscles.
There are more calls of “hectic” and “wicked” when the group heads downstairs to the Peter Hudson Swimming Pool, and when they pile into the elevator and head up to the Players’ Lounge. Some of the kids imagine themselves reclining on the large comfy couches watching the TV, and then their attention is drawn to a big white sphere in the far corner.
It turns out the sphere is one of those privacy pods, where you can crawl in to relax or sleep and shut out the world. Some Hawthorn rascal has scrawled “The Brian Lake Stand” in green texta on one side of the pod.
One of the Ladder guys scrambles inside and looks like he’d happily settle in for the rest of the day. But the tour moves on. Other spaces visited include the lecture theatre, the gym, the physio and massage rooms, the ice baths and spa, and the kitchen area where the players eat breakfast and lunch.
All the while the players mention the club values and how they play out in a practical sense. Things like cleaning up after yourself and not making work for someone else. Or not being afraid to have honest conversations.
Heatherley, a 21-year-old defender who came to the club from New Zealand on an international scholarship, is asked whether he has any advice for the young people. “Just be true to yourself,” he urges.
The tour winds up where it began, in the theatrette, before players and visitors head into the gym area to boisterously shoot some hoops in an area that has a basketball ring.
Brand hangs back with former Hawthorn premiership player Brad Sewell to talk to aflplayers.com.au. “We’ve had a bit of a talk to them about some of the values we have here at the club,” Brand said. “And some of the ways we try to improve as people and maybe give them some ideas.”
Sewell, who became involved with Ladder during his 200-game career, now has a part-time role at the organisation and is a board member.
He sees the link between Ladder and Hawthorn as “a two-way street” that has value for both groups, and hopes more AFL clubs will initiate a similar partnership, utilising Ladder’s existing infrastructure and programs.
“I think it’s been really beneficial for both parties involved,” Sewell said. “There’s a perspective piece in there for the Hawthorn players that’s really important – they’ve got some contact time with some kids that aren’t as fortunate as they are.
“And hopefully the Ladder guys will get some small lessons in terms of discipline, in terms of resilience, in terms of just a few of those life lessons that hopefully they will take away from the AFL players.
“We’ll certainly look to other clubs to try to build relationships and establish those that give their players an opportunity to help out Ladder in any way, shape or form.”
If it amounts to little more than taking some local teenagers on a tour of their club then it will be worthwhile.
As the young people headed outside at Hawthorn they were buzzing. It had been a truly hectic experience.