LEON Cameron is the Warrnambool paperboy whose first footy game was for Caramut as a skinny kid. The AFL grand final-bound coach tells JUSTINE McCULLAGH-BEASY he's still a country boy at heart.
LEON Cameron's introduction to the sport which provides his livelihood came at a country football ground 55 kilometres north of Warrnambool.
The second youngest of four siblings would get dressed in his red and white Caramut Swans uniform and run out in the under 15 competition with older brothers Graham and Anthony.
He was seven and, as mum Annette recalls, "was that skinny he could have hidden behind the goal post".
"I started at seven and would sit in the forward pocket and I'd very rarely touch it because I was a bottom-age kid," Cameron, now 47 and preparing to coach Greater Western Sydney Giants in its first AFL grand final on Saturday, recalled to The Standard this week.
"I'd wear my Caramut jumper, be freezing cold and learned what footy was about at an early age.
"As you start to get a bit older and get a bit more of the footy, you get a bit more excited about the game."
Cameron is in his sixth season at the Giants' helm, leading the AFL's new franchise in the hustle and bustle of Sydney.
He was just 16 when, at Brauer College with mate and soon-to-be VFL rival John McNamara, the 1988 draft was read out on the radio, turning their worlds upside down.
The pair, living in Warrnambool and Port Fairy respectively at the time, packed their bags for Melbourne soon after.
Cameron forged a 256-game playing career with the Western Bulldogs and Richmond before turning his attention to coaching.
Work makes it hard for the father-of-three to spend much time in south-west Victoria but Cameron emphasises he will "always be a country boy at heart".
He went to primary school in Woolsthorpe, a tiny town of less than 700 people, and played football for three different clubs - Caramut (Mininera and District), East Warrnambool (Warrnambool and District) and South Warrnambool (Hampden league).
"I come back maybe once a year and I love the drive out to Woolsthorpe, I love the drive out to Caramut and we used to play at Hawkesdale," Cameron said.
"I love the little country towns. Warrnambool is a bit bigger. I can go for a drive down Lake Pertobe every day I am there.
"I love the breakwater... and there's nothing better than going up to the Reid Oval and watching a grand final. It's got a great atmosphere."
Cameron, who took his children Amelia, 14, Harry, 13 and Jack, 7, for a tour of his old primary school a couple of years ago, started his working life in Warrnambool too.
"Billy Hodges employed me to be a paperboy and all of the guys at East Warrnambool under 14s used to do it," he said.
"I am not going to go into too much detail because I will probably get into trouble but we used to cause a bit of havoc on our paper round but they were good memories."
Football was a constant during Cameron's childhood and he believes each club has shaped him as a person.
He played at Caramut with his two brothers for five seasons before the family moved into Warrnambool.
His mate Ben Cross lured him to East Warrnambool for two seasons and then crossed to South Warrnambool at 16, playing in a senior grand final in his only year as a Rooster.
"When I was a young kid at Caramut you're going 'imagine playing in the Hampden league one day? It would be magnificent'," Cameron said.
"You then go to the district league playing under 14s and you say 'how good would it be to play Hampden league?.'
"You get to South Warrnambool and I had one of my better years."
Cameron, renowned for his elite kicking skills on both feet, said exposure at Hampden league level was important to his development.
"You learn to grow up really quick because you are playing against men at an early age," he said.
"The South Warrnambool crew were just outstanding.
"They would look after me. Noel Mugavin was our coach and 'Shorty' Anderson, Darren Bolden, Richard Umbers, just to name a few, they would take me under their wing.
"We played in a grand final that year and got beaten by a goal at the Reid Oval by arch rival Warrnambool."
His earliest football influences were his two brothers - Graham, who still lives in Warrnambool, and Anthony, who now calls Horsham home.
"You don't know it at the time because you're just mucking around with your siblings playing backyard footy but in hindsight you look back and you go 'imagine if we didn't do that every night after school?'," Cameron said.
"We used to belt each other up like most brothers do in footy and compete against each other and I was lucky enough to play with them for five years at Caramut which is so unique.
"I reckon they helped shaped my footy career and then you have your mates, my mates at East Warrnambool like Ben Cross and Stephen Pye, and my mates at school like Jason Bidmade and Robbie Lowe. They help shape you because you're with them all the time."
Cameron wishes he had 500 grand final tickets to give to anyone who has played a part in his journey.
But there is one person, his mum Annette, a former The Standard employee, whom he reserves his highest praise.
"Mum is a star and I unashamedly go on the record about how good she was for Graham, Anthony, me and Nicki," he said.
"She brought up four of us from age 22 and she moved around and gave her kids everything she had.
"She gave up her entire life to bring up her four kids and I think she's done a great job.
"She's embedded a lot of values that the four of us display today and that's tough when you've got really hard decisions to make through those trying times."
Annette will be in the MCG stands on Saturday, decked in orange.
She's been an ardent supporter of her youngest son and rides all the highs and lows which come with coaching a team in the pressure-cooker AFL industry.
"She gets a bit toey," Cameron conceded.
"She likes to perch up on her seat at home with her wine and if it gets close she'll start pacing up and down.
"Parents are going to be like that with their children. You're heavily invested in their careers and I am lucky enough to be a parent now and you actually understand it. You have this bond straight away and you want to see them do well."
Cameron said Woolsthorpe, situated between Warrnambool and Caramut, was the ideal place for his mum to raise her kids.
"It is a great little place. I loved living on the farm, you get into mischief which is great as a young kid, especially when you've got older brothers and a younger sister," he said.
"You make up your fun on the farm. It is a great little community and it definitely served myself and my family really well when were growing up.
"I had some great times and wonderful memories from Caramut too.
"I think it grounds you early of what you appreciate about the game but also about the community."
It's at a fledgling club in the Western Sydney suburbs where Cameron is carrying on those values.
He took on the Giants' top job in 2014 and now, in the expansion club's eighth season, has it on the verge of a maiden premiership.
Cameron estimates 95 per cent of the Giants' playing list and staff hail from interstate which has helped strengthen bonds.
"The friendships are strong and real which then creates culture," he said.
"We put up our hands when we make mistakes.
"It hasn't been easy, but nothing is, and we've had some beltings, struggles and challenges but we've built a strong culture. It is a really special place."
Much like Caramut, East Warrnambool and South Warrnambool before it.
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