JO and Mick Saunders didn’t hesitate when asked to house a teenage football recruit for the 2016 season.
It took the parents of four – now empty-nesters – less than five minutes to agree.
And so they welcomed Cedric Cox into their Camperdown home for what Jo describes as “an unexpected winter”.
“It’s not hard to bring someone into your home and look after them, that, to me, is the easiest thing,” she said.
“It’s been very different from what we expected because we weren’t expecting the roller-coaster it’s been heading towards the (AFL) draft.”
Cox, 19, landed in Camperdown from the remote Western Australian community of Halls Creek in March.
He wanted to carve a better life for himself. And football, the sport where he dazzles with his pace and foot skills, gave him that opportunity.
The decision to move 4000 kilometres away opened doors – starring roles for Camperdown turned into Hampden interleague selection which caught TAC Cup North Ballarat Rebels’ attention.
AFL clubs came calling, thick and fast.
In the background, the Saunders were swept up in Cox’s journey.
The Camperdown-based teachers – Mick works at St Patrick’s Primary School and Jo at Mercy Regional College – found it was opening doors for them too.
“We also reconnected with the football club, which was nice,” Jo said.
“They were really welcoming because we know everyone there, being such a small club.
“Our kids had played there but only as juniors and (then this year) we started going up there on Thursdays for dinners.”
Mick watched with pride as Cox climbed the football ladder.
“We were just happy to have him involved in the local footy and then all of a sudden we found ourselves driving him to Warrnambool for interleague training and then taking him to Ballarat to introduce him to Gerard (FitzGerald) and the crew up there,” he said.
“And to Melbourne when he made the Victorian under 19 team, we took him down there to train a couple of times. Then it was most Thursday nights, going to Lismore and picking him up off of the bus.
“James Castles’ wife Chelsea would run him out to Lismore and he’d hop on the bus there and I’d pick him up on the bus at 8.30pm.”
Off the field, the reserved Cox thrived too.
He found work at Loaf and Lounge bakery, working four days a week before football commitments lessened his hours.
Workmate Tom Henry would pick Cox up at 2am and they’d head in for their shifts.
“He’s made some really good friends and they’ve supported him too,” Mick said.
“And most Saturday nights we didn’t see him – he’d go off with his friends, they’d go camping and hunting, he loves to shoot rabbits.
“He was able to keep that country boy aspect of his life.”
Jo, who would make a batch of “lucky biscuits” for AFL recruiters’ visits, said Cox’s easygoing nature helped him settle into a new lifestyle.
“Mick made the comment the other week that the friends he’s made, it’s not because he’s a good footballer, it’s because he’s a nice guy,” she said.
The significance of the Saunders’ impact on his life is not lost on Cox.
“I have loved their company, and their background and their family,” he said.
“It’s really great and they treat me like a son.”
Camperdown reserves coach James Castles, who met Cox during a teaching year in Halls Creek, is another important figure in his life.
“He’s been a big influence, bringing me down here and always keeping that contact when I was back in the Kimberleys,” Cox said.
“He’s the one who wanted me to do something with my life and put my life on track. I respect him a lot.
“If it wasn’t for him, I would not be here right now.”
This year has been one of firsts for Cox.
Working in the bakery was eye-opening – he “wanted to try something that I’d never done before” – and even aspects of football were foreign to him.
“Back at home we never had a structured plan or anything like that,” Cox said.
“It was basically grab the ball and run with it and see what you can do.
“Down here it’s all about structures and training hard – we never used to have full trainings or pre-season training.
“It is great learning all this stuff and how they do footy down this side (of the country) and learning about what you can develop more.”
Cox played 10 games for Camperdown before he was talent-spotted and joined TAC Cup ranks. But he won’t undersell the Magpies’ role in his development.
“Fitting in was pretty hard. I didn’t know any of the players until a couple of weeks later,” Cox said of his pre-season arrival at Leura Oval.
“Now I know every single one of them and it was really great playing for them and playing for their club.”
Cox is one of six siblings and remains in contact with his family in Halls Creek.
He returned home to relax after the season and will have them on Skype during the draft telecast so they can share the moment too.
One of his brothers, Daniel, had his own football journey in 2016, finishing runner-up on TV show The Recruit. Cox was proud of his more outgoing brother’s efforts.
“He’s always the loudest one in the family; he’s always the centre of attention,” he said, tongue-in-cheek.