Twenty-seven Beaumaris players have graduated to the AFL, with six currently on league lists. As part of a series to celebrate some of the best talent to grace Banksia Reserve, Jonno Nash will chat to some of the Sharks’ best who went on to achieve their dreams. This is the second in the series.
When Sydney drafted Oliver Florent with its first pick in the 2016 draft, it didn’t recruit a teenager. It got a man.
Oli gives a candid recount on his father’s four-year battle with cancer and how he was forced to step up for his mum and brother, all while aspiring to become an AFL footballer.
Jonno Nash: Sydney have lost all three games at the SCG this year. The postage stamp-sized ground used to be a fortress. What’s happened?
Oli Florent: Yeah. We’ve definitely had the conversation that such a big part of our history is winning at home and we’re obviously very disappointed, but know we can turn it around and get those wins on the board. It has been a fortress in the past and we’re very keen to make it a fortress again.
When can we expect Buddy Franklin and Dan Hannebery to return?
Not too sure. I think the medical staff will figure it out, but hopefully not too long. They’re two pretty handy players that fit really well into our team. We’d love to have them back.
I love how you’ve already adopted that AFL speak where it’s very controlled and you give very little away.
AFL players refuse to talk about themselves, other players … well, basically anything. They’re really limited with what they can and can’t say. How early is that driven into you when you get to the club?
Pretty much straight way. As a first-year player we have an apprenticeship program and learn about everything football and every outside of football, like how to talk to media and manage your money – a variety of things. With the media, we’re trained to not give everything away, but also give enough.
I wait for the day where someone has 50 touches, boots six (goals) and they can announce they’re the greatest player to ever play the game. But players are so robotic now. Can you do that the next time you have a pearler?
I’d love to do that, but that’s a big ask. I’d love to say that to the media. I think Bud (Lance Franklin) is a clear example of that. He pretty much does that every second week. He’s still so humble about it all.
A month ago you had an impressive, well-fought win over the Western Bulldogs. You were the match-winner with a late goal. But it came under scrutiny. With under a minute to go, you had the presence of mind to play on. But John Longmuire said he would have preferred you to waste the clock.
I thought I was running into an open goal. There was a ruckman chasing me, but obviously it didn’t turn out like that and I had to kick it from 50 (metres). John was very nervous when I took off, but we’ve laughed about it afterwards. Luckily I kicked it. If I didn’t, the Bulldogs could have gone down the other end really quick. They’re the decisions you’ve got to make as a footballer. Sometimes it goes right, sometimes it doesn’t work for you. You’ve just got to back yourself in. You’ve got to earn that trust from your players and back yourself in, which I think I did.
You’re career’s still in its infancy. You’ve played 16 games. Have you settled?
Yeah, I feel comfortable out there now. My first year was pretty tough. I thought I was playing alright but didn’t feel anywhere near as comfortable as I do now. I feel like I can match it out there with the older players.
How do you find the lifestyle in Sydney? It’d be nice to not be under the microscopic scrutiny others experience in Melbourne.
I know if I ever have a bad game, there’s not as much pressure on me. You sort of get away with a few things up here because there’s not as much football in the media. I’ve heard in Melbourne you can be yelled at from the streets. I guess it’s probably a good thing for me. But I tend to not take too big an interest if I have a bad game or if there’s negative things said about me. It doesn’t help to look at that sort of stuff.
Let’s go back to your junior career. It all started out at Cheltenham?
Yep. I was there from under 9s.
When did you switch to the Sharks?
I think I moved to Beauy in under-15s. I had a few mates over there who I went to school with at Mentone Grammar. It was the right switch. And they’re all still there, blokes like Harry Edwards, Jimmy Miller. They love it. We were all very close and I think they’ll be there for a long time.
Once a Shark, always a Shark, they say.
It’s pretty true.
Tennis must have been another sport you took part in. Your dad, Andrew, was handy with the racquet playing on the international circuit.
Yeah, I played tennis ever since I was a kid, around two years old, running around outside with dad. I probably stopped taking it seriously when I was 16. I thought that football was a more realistic chance, plus I loved it more anyway. I don’t think dad was too disappointed with my choice.
Did you show promise in tennis? Could you have gone somewhere with it?
I wasn’t old enough to know really. I was playing three sports – footy, tennis and basketball. Football was more fun because I was playing with my mates and I was playing at First XVIII level at school. I never really wanted to play tennis. I preferred a team environment and being with mates. Tennis is a hard environment to make it in. You have to be around the top 50 in the world to go somewhere.
Did you put everything into you footy when you made the under-16 Vic Metro team?
Yeah, I did. Playing in that carnival on the Gold Coast was a lot of fun and I learnt a lot from that experience. But I had a shocker. It made me take my footy seriously from then on.
Was there a disagreement with you and the coach ahead of the carnival? I heard you asked to bring your Playstation with you and he questioned whether you were taking the opportunity to wear the Big V seriously.
Haha. I think that was blown overboard. I was 16 years old flying up to the Gold Coast to play football. I think having that balance between football and distracting yourself from a match, for me, is needed. At the Swans, you’re encouraged to do whatever it is to help get your mind off the game. I think that was a misunderstanding and the coach took it a bit too seriously. I asked the question on behalf of everyone. No one had the balls to step up and do it.
You said you had a shocker of a carnival. What happened?
I probably wasn’t mature enough to play really good footy.
No one would be questioning your maturity today. You had to grow up quickly when your family was rocked by the diagnosis of your father a year or so earlier. He was told he only had three to six months to live with stage four bowel cancer. That must have been an incredibly challenging period.
Yeah. It’s a big shock when you hear that. I was probably a bit young to understand it all, but I knew when you hear that word, it’s not a great word to hear. I think I took a lot from that and tried to take my mind off a few things and focus on family and football and school. But you are forced to truly understand the value of life. When I was playing under 18s, I understood it all a lot more and was able to deal with it better than I could’ve when I was younger. I wouldn’t take anything back. I think I have become a better person for it and I have learnt a lot. It was pretty big learning curve and a shock in my life. Everyone is a passenger on this earth and how you deal with it determines what’s sort of person you are.
You’ve articulated that beautifully. That same week when your dad was given that grim diagnosis, your mum’s mum – your grandmother – was diagnosed with cancer too. A tough period only got tougher.
Yeah, especially for my mum. As a young kid, I was worried about how I was going. But now I look back and acknowledge that mum was incredibly brave and strong to go through what she did. I love her a lot. I had to be there for my mum and I will always will be. Putting them first I something that I’ve learnt and will continue to do.
Remarkably, your dad showed his trademark fight. He was not expected to live out the year, but persevered for another four years. You must be proud of your dad’s resilience and his ability to fight when everything was stacked against him.
Yeah, definitely. We had some pretty long and emotional talks where he told me to take care of my mother and brother. It was special to see him defy the odds. I’ve taken so much from that. It’s allowed me to realise that I can endure more than I first thought. Like in games or at training, I know I can push through and there’s another level I can reach because that’s exactly what dad did.
It’s important for anyone to have an outlet. But during this time, you’re three important environments – home, footy and school – all had significant stressors. You’re trying to get drafted, negotiate year 12 and be strong on the homefront. How on earth did you get yourself through that year?
It was tough. I had my moments. I was close with my principal, who helped me through school. Dad implored me to work hard. Obviously I continued to go to school and play footy. I knew it was going to be tough – and it was. But I got on with it. I had to. I think the way I handled it was very mature. It was a tough period, but we had a close family and network who guided me through it. Despite that, dad was going through something tougher. That was my inspiration.
As challenging as the entire experience was, do you feel the silver lining was that you now have a closer bond with your mum and brother?
Yep, for sure. I’m super close with my mum and my brother now. Although I know how much of a strong woman my mum is and how strong my brother is, as well as how strong I am. We’ve gone through that period together and I’m so grateful to have them there.
During the twilight of your father’s life, your family spends five nights sleeping in his hospital room. It would’ve been a powerfully raw time.
That was definitely a period I’ll always remember. It was one of the toughest moments of my life too. I learnt a lot in that time and I’m so grateful to spend that time with dad and look after him. It was a wonderful time shared with our family. I’ll forever have that.
What wisdom did he impart onto you?
When we rocked up to the hospital, they told him he had 12 hours to live. He lasted a week. That really hit home to me how hard he actually fought to show us how brave a fighter he was. He always wanted to get up and go to the toilet on his own and try to live normally, even though he was days from dying. The hospital actually called him Superman. It was pretty incredible.
You showed some super powers yourself. The back-end of your year at the Sandringham Dragons was arguably your strongest. How do you explain that given everything you were going through?
I guess I just wanted to enjoy my football. I just went out there and enjoyed my football and played with a good intensity. I know if I continued with that I was capable of taking my game to another level.
Three months after your dad’s passing in 2016, your name is called out at pick 11 at the draft.
I was so happy to get drafted to Sydney. It was a good thing to get out of the (Melbourne) bubble, but it was definitely hard for my mum to see me go. It was pretty tough for her, but we always keep in touch. Things couldn’t have turned out better. I’m surrounded by great people, from the players, coaches and mentors. I feel like I was mature then, but I’ve taken another step in becoming a consistent footballer in the AFL.
The attributes you’ve been forced to develop, how much has that helped you in the early stages of your career?
Playing with confidence is what the club likes me doing. From there I can go out and play my role for the team. For now, I don’t have to go out there and get 30 touches and kick a bag. I just need to play my role. The club’s happy with my progress. But I couldn’t have done it without the help of Dan Hannebery, Kieran Jack and Dane Rampe. They give me a lot of confidence to go out there and be myself.
What was it like to play in the round 1 side of your inaugural year? That’s a huge endorsement considering the club does all it can to play its best possible team in the first match of the year.
I felt like something good had finally come from everything that’s happened. It was a great moment for me and my family to experience. I’ll never forget that day.
You had to wait some time to play in your first win. The Swans lost the first six matches of the season. But by round seven, against Brisbane, you tasted you’re an AFL victory.
It was a long wait, but a great moment to share with Will Haywood and Lewis Melican, who I’m really good mates with. It was very special.
How did you reflect on your first season of AFL? You played nine games.
It was definitely a big year. I know I have since come along way from my first season. I’m determined to build on every game. It was a challenging season that’s armed me well for this year.
What are your goals for the rest of the season? You’ve entrenched your spot in the team, having played all seven matches. What do you hope to get out of it?
I want to continue playing my role and help the side win. I really want to play finals and experience that. I also want to show the players I can play at this level consistently and take the game on to best help get the team over the line.
You’ve started off brilliantly, Oli. Keep it up. Your story is an inspiring one. All the best for the rest of the season.