Ben Lennon was six, he was kicking a football around the front yard with his older sister, Grace. Mark this, she told him, and you’ll play for an AFL team one day. Ben threw himself at the ball but it skewed off the side of her shoe and flew towards the brick letterbox. He dived, hit the bricks, broke his nose and dropped the mark. Oh well, Grace said. Maybe you’ll make it to the VFL instead.
The Lennons tell the story with a smile, these days. They’re competitive but have always been close, and keen to keep up with the bigger kid. When she was young, and golf balls were starting to land where she aimed them, Grace noticed how early her sister Kara was getting up for swim training most mornings and wanted to be just as disciplined. When he began to take football seriously, Ben
watched his parents ferry Grace from lessons to practice to interstate tournaments.
He saw how hard she was working to make sure the game she loved was what she got to do for a job one day, and decided he should do that too. “We’ve always had someone to look up to,” he said, “and someone to give us motivation.”
They still do. Grace was six when she hit her first golf ball, 15 years ago. Her dad took her to a junior clinic on her birthday and she got annoyed when her first few shots ran along the ground, wanting to be better than the boy playing next to her. At the end of next year, she wants to go to tour school in the US and Europe, and turn professional. “The good thing about golf is that you take your next step when you’re ready,” she said, “and when you’re prepared for it.”
Ben was six when he started, too, wanting to go with Grace to Auskick, getting jealous when he watched her play kick-to-kick in the backyard with their father. He turned 18 in July; by the end of next week he will be on an AFL list, starting his first real pre-season. Ready or not.
“You don’t get much choice. You have your name called out and the second it is, you have to be ready to go,” he said. “People keep saying, if you’re not prepared, you won’t last long.”
That’s the major difference both have noticed, on their way to the edge. Ben began by making his way through the Mcleod juniors, from the under-nines up. Like all the other kids, he wanted desperately to make the Northern Knights side, to play in the TAC Cup, and he was one of the few who got picked. He’s played for his state aged 12, 15, 16 and 17. He’s played for two or three teams most seasons, and for just as many coaches.
But it’s only in the last year or two, playing his second season at the Knights and being part of the AIS-AFL Academy program, that he’s started to believe he might really get there. “A lot of kids want to play in the AFL but I probably didn’t know what it was really going to be like, or what it was going to take, until the last two years. That’s when I started to think, ‘I definitely want to do it’,” he said.
“You’re taught so many things. You learn how to train better, how to work on all your skills, what to eat, how to manage your time, all sorts of things. You realise there’s a lot more to it than just playing footy. It probably comes back to that in the end, but you have to get your head around so many things and learn to be professional. If you’re not, the clubs won’t think you’re serious. They won’t even give you a go.”
For Grace, things haven’t been quite so cut-throat. She was 12 when she joined the Heidelberg Golf Club, just in time to win the women’s championship. Since then, there have been junior clinics, tournaments, one-on-one coaching, competing against people she was as good as, rather than the same age as. She practises, plays and works out six days a week now, as part of the Victorian Insitute of Sport squad.
She’s had time to struggle for motivation then find it again, to decide that playing professionally was something she absolutely, definitely wanted to do. She’s had time to hate being away from home on her first overseas trip, miss her family and play badly as a result. She had no trouble at all on her next trip, and played better. She hasn’t had to hurry, and still doesn’t.
“Some golfers burst on to the scene but for me, being a little bit older, I think I’ve got a little bit more life experience. I’ve probably just been through a bit more than someone like Ben has, and that’s natural. I’ve seen people around me go on to do great things or give the game away, and I know that a couple of years ago I just wasn’t mentally ready for it,” she said.
“I’ve had a chance to travel, and get used to it, and build up some experience, whereas I look at the situation Ben’s in now and he doesn’t have that much control. All he can do is play as well as he can, knowing that his time is coming.
“The other thing is that footy’s such a physical game. In footy, guys retire when they’re 33 or 34 if they’re lucky, whereas in golf there’s a senior tour and you can be 60 and still playing and making a good living. In golf, you have a bit more time and you get to decide what you do next. There seems to be more of a deadline when you play footy.”
Ben doesn’t mind that, and is ready to get started. Since his season finished two months ago, he has thought about the draft a little bit more each day. He admires his sister’s persistence and her competitive streak, and likes the way she treats golf as her job but also as an outlet. “She’s always been really motivated,” he said.
“When things don’t go her way, she never spits the dummy. She’s always tried to get better. Seeing that in Grace has made me want to be like that too.”
His sister thinks he is. “Nothing much fazes Ben, but he’s very determined,” she said. “If he has a game he’s not happy with, he’ll dwell on it a little bit, but it will fire him up to do well in the next game. One day he might kick two goals and be disappointed with his kicking, but the next week I’ll say, ‘How did you go?’ and he’ll say, ‘I kicked seven.’ He always comes back, he fires himself up, and I really like that about him. I think he’ll go well.”