Off the leash: Bulldog Tom Liberatore has responded well to “tough love”. Photo: Ken IrwinTom Liberatore didn’t need to be told. He knew how worried and disappointed his family was, and that everyone at his football club would be feeling the same way. The last place he ever wants to be found again is on King Street, early on a Sunday morning, semi-conscious and drunk, with ecstasy pills in his pocket, in such a vulnerable way. “Definitely not. You don’t want to put yourself in that position, and you shouldn’t put yourself in that position. It’s not that difficult,” he said. “It wasn’t hard to figure out that people were going to be disappointed in me – it was pretty black and white. The most important thing to me was how it affected my family and how it affected the club, knowing I’d lost the respect of people. That’s what you lose control over and that’s what I wanted to gain back, their trust and respect.”
He has made a good start. It is a little over 10 months since Liberatore made his big mistake, his only mistake. Since then he has had his third, and his best, pre-season. He is fitter than he was, arriving at stoppages earlier and with a less tired mind, able to think more clearly about what he wants to do there. He has won more hard balls than any other player in the competition.
Around the Western Bulldogs, he seems, if not happier, then more comfortable. “I think he’s figured out the sort of person he is, and how he can still be that person within footy, which is more intense and asks for more accountability every year,” said one of his teammates, Bob Murphy. “Everyone grapples with that, with finding their own space, but he just seems to be a bit more comfortable in his own skin this year. I don’t want to use the phrase ‘the footy world’ but I do think he’s starting to find that balance of doing the things that are part of the job, but still being himself within all that.”
Liberatore, 21, didn’t want to talk about that night, which left him dealing with some very adult things: an interview with police, a drug diversion program, a first strike under the AFL’s illicit drug policy and a place on the target-testing list. His club suspended him from its final four matches of last season, had him train in the mornings and at night, and put him to work on a building site. At the same time, the Bulldogs made sure he understood how much everyone cared about him, and was worried for him. The first thing his teammates wanted to know was: are you OK?
Liberatore never worried they would act any other way, because he had seen them deal with other things and it was how they had always made him feel, before anything happened. But it was what made him want to use his time away from them how they wanted him to use it: to realise what a good first job he had, and what he might be doing if he didn’t have it. It made him think about the words he wanted them to describe him with. “I suppose you come to understand how you want to be seen,” he said. “And you realise you want to be seen as someone who’s determined and who perseveres, someone who cares about their career and doesn’t want to give it up easily.”
So, most mornings, he would be at the club by 6am to train. He would do the same each night, heading back to the club, driving to a boxing gym in Richmond or meeting one of the assistant coaches somewhere. In between he would head to East Malvern, to work on a building site, at a job that allowed him plenty of time to think. “It was pretty basic labouring work, pretty standard work, just cleaning up around the site and doing what they needed me to do,” he said. “It was obviously mundane, but at the same time the other builders were really good blokes, they were all friendly to me from the first day and they made things comfortable for me, which they didn’t need to do. It did resonate with me, how lucky I am to come to a footy club, to do what we do, just around the corner from home, pretty flexible hours. It was the right thing to do, the right process to go through to be able put things in perspective and realise what the good things were in life and what I wanted do.”
It wasn’t something he spoke about much. Murphy imagines there was shock, and some fear, and remembers wanting to give his young teammate a hug, as much as anything else. “I wanted to put my arm around him. It was a mistake and I don’t know exactly how he felt, but we almost felt paternal about it. Most people in that situation only have to deal with the person standing in the room with them, but he had the whole world, the whole city on him. People will make their moral and ethic judgments about what happened, but it was like our little brother had made a blue and he needed protection. We were scared for him, but I know Tom. He’s a strong-willed person and once he decided he was going to make amends, he was going to make amends. He’s an independent person. He dresses differently to the other young guys, he listens to Hendrix, he actively seeks to avoid the mainstream. He makes up his own mind about things, and then he goes and does them.”
Liberatore did, but he was also conscious of what was being done for him. Tom Williams was in rehab at the time, and some mornings would get up to the club early so that Liberatore had company. Other teammates had him around for dinner. Every Friday morning, he had breakfast with development coach Chris Maple and Brett Goodes, then the club’s player wellbeing manager, before heading off to university. “They were probably the two biggest influences on me,” he said, “just with how much they cared.” This year he has sensed all of his teammates start to think of each other more – to fully absorb feedback, to feel losses more deeply and to try, when games are turning against them, to remember what they need to do, then do it. “We talk about it a lot, about being outspoken, being totally honest with each other, improving morale and improving the mateship around the club,” he said. “We speak about it and train it, and now we’ve got to do it more on match days. And that’s definitely something I felt last year, just how warm people were. I let them down but they were still wanting to know how I was, and caring, and wanting to help me through it.
“We have players here like Daniel Cross and Liam Picken and Dale Morris, even Matthew Boyd. And there’s more, the list goes on at this club of players who have fought tooth and nail to get where they are. A few times, working, you’d just draw the parallels between what you could be doing at that time, as opposed to shovelling bricks or whatever it was.
“I wasn’t sitting there thinking I was at rock-bottom and I’m not making some sort of heroic return, but it was a good reminder of what I get to do every day down here and that you can’t just fall back and rely on your talent to do it well.
“I’m still best mates with my friends here, and my friends outside the club as well. But you need to know what you want, what matters to you, and what you need to do to keep doing it. It was a one-off mistake and I’ve kept things in line and I’m approaching my footy how I think I did in the past anyway – pretty focused. This just gave me my right whack, to learn how to balance every part of my life and front up every week and do everything possible to be a consistent player. You have to tick every single box if you want to last in this league and I want to last in it for as long as I can.”
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