Aug 2018 The Roar
I fell in love with footy at a young age – my dad was a pretty mad keen supporter, so it was only natural to follow in his footsteps. Playing it at school, the challenge of competing against everyone, was really enjoyable, and, as a Geelong supporter, going down to Kardinia Park was a highlight. I always harboured the dream of playing AFL. It’s a long journey to make it to the top level though and everyone has their different challenges. For me, there was one particular hurdle to jump over that not many others have had to face.
I was born with profound deafness. Basically what that means is that I was born without any hearing whatsoever. When you’re talking, I hear nothing. I require a cochlear implant to hear. I only have one, which is on my right side. It has made things a little different – I’ve probably had to display more resilience than other people – but it has been that way my whole life, so it’s all I really know. I can’t compare it to anything else.
It was a lot more noticeable in my early years and, as a kid, you look around and wonder why you are different, and what being different might mean. As I’ve grown older, I’ve got used to it. Honestly, the worst thing that happens these days is I might have to ask someone to repeat themselves.
People often see the funny side of it. They’ll go “Sam, I only had to call your name six times!” or something like that, and we share a laugh over it. It’s not something to take too seriously any more.
Part of the appeal in playing footy as a kid was the chance to prove to myself that I could pretty much do everything anyone else can. I played a few other sports too – tennis, cricket, basketball. I also did swimming but that didn’t work out too well. I was always finishing near the end, not because I was a slow swimmer, but because I couldn’t hear the starter gun!
I always dreamt of making it to the top level in footy and honestly never thought deafness would prevent me from getting there. It was something that was built into me at a very young age by my parents – they always told me I could be whatever I wanted to be, whether it was a footballer or a rocket scientist. I’m very thankful to them for instilling some mental strength and resilience in me. Because of that, I always backed myself to make it on my own merits and never saw my deafness as something that would hold me back in any facet of my life.
Sam McLarty is getting closer and closer to making his AFL dream a reality
It did provide challenges along the way. Obviously, footy is a very vocal sport and it’s not possible to rely on my teammates to tell me what to do, because I can’t hear them. When you’re learning footy it’s very see-ball-get-ball, but coming into the top level it’s been more of a challenge, and my ability to overcome that is something that’s still evolving. That forces me to rely on my eyesight a lot more, but that’s become a strength. My ability to read the ball in flight and pluck it out of the air, along with my competitiveness, is what got me drafted.
I had a lot of great support along the way from my school Yarra Valley Grammar and the Oakleigh Charger as well as my mates and family. They were fantastic, I can’t thank them enough. Dealing with many sceptics wasn’t something I ever really had to do – if they were out there, they never really told me. But drafting a player is an investment and I’m sure there were questions asked. Fortunately, Collingwood never saw my deafness as something that could jeopardise my career.
It was a similar case last year with Jaidyn Stephenson – who the club drafted despite concerns over a heart condition – and look how he is playing. It’s a credit to the professionalism of the club’s doctors. You do hear whispers before the draft but nothing is set in stone. Andy McGrath didn’t know he was going to go No.1 until the day, and if Andy doesn’t know then who does? In the end, it was a relief and – having had a bit of a shoulder injury during my draft year – it was a surprise to go at pick 30 in the end. I had family and friends around and it was an awesome night, a really special moment.
Being in and around Collingwood feels great. A lot of the boys are saying it’s as inclusive and fun as it’s ever been. The mood’s very positive here and the best part is that’s translating onto the field – it’s a great place to come to work every day. My dream of becoming an AFL player hasn’t been achieved just yet, but I’m so focused on getting that first game. When I do, I can’t wait to be wearing black and white.