Father, writer: Libba more than meets the eye
Phones belonging to every Western Bulldog lit up.
On February 1, Tom Liberatore announced to his teammates that he had become a father … and named his baby Tennys, after Australian Open quarter-finalist Tennys Sandgren.
"I did put that in the WhatsApp group," Liberatore said.
"We were watching the Australian Open on the training camp in Mooloolaba and I just found it astonishing there was a bloke called Tennys and he played tennis and was from Tennessee."
It was Liberatore's first "dad joke". He and partner Malia called their boy Oscar and little Oscar has changed Libba's world.
"It has put things in perspective for me, for a start," Liberatore, 27, said. "When he was born it was pretty humbling and obviously exciting, and relieving, that he was all healthy.
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"Then the last month or two it's been heaps of fun and a pretty happy time. He's at the age now where he's just fun to watch. Everything he does is quite entertaining and quite amusing."
Their Kingsville home is a busy one. Liberatore lives with Malia, her four-year-old daughter Lotus and their two bulldogs.
"And a guinea pig, too, so there's seven of us," Liberatore said. "The guinea pig's called Big Papa and the two dogs; the boy is called Earl and the girl is called Toni."
What sort of dad will Libba be?
"I'll hopefully be a pretty good listener and just calm," he said. "I think I'll be pretty easy going. I could be a bit too soft at times, but I'll try to balance that out because early on you're pretty vulnerable and just want to get that side of it right and make sure he's OK in every situation."
It sounds like it runs in the family. Liberatore said that Oscar brings out the "soft side" in his father, now known as "Grandpa Tony".
"Behind all the on-field stuff he's a bit of a wuss. He's very caring and a good dad," Liberatore said.
Liberatore Snr - the 1990 Brownlow Medallist and footy tough guy - couldn't help but laugh at the arrival of Tom's dogs.
"I remember when he told me he got two bulldogs he said, 'Dad, I hope you don't mind, I'm going to call one of them after you'," Tony said.
"I said, 'Tony? Oh, thanks' and he said, 'Yeah, but the girl, not the boy!'
"He cares so much for those dogs, they would sit just below Oscar and Lotus."
That in essence is how Tony sees his son. A young man who is one part laughter and three parts love and care.
"It's good to have someone that's a bit of a happy larrikin at a footy club, because they just brighten things up a bit," Tony said. "If we were all dead straight … gee, it gets a bit boring, doesn't it? But he doesn't judge people one iota.
"You could be unemployed or down in the dumps or whatever. He would never want to join a leadership group for argument's sake, even though he's been at the club long enough.
"Because he won't judge Lachie Hunter. I remember speaking to him about that and said, 'What do you think?'
"He goes, 'I'm not going to judge him. Why should I judge him? We've all done silly things, me included, so I'm not going to judge him. I refuse to do that'."
Liberatore stressed to his dad that it was important to ensure Hunter's wellbeing was the priority.
"Lachie's a great bloke and the playing group respects and loves him just as much and will support him regardless of the incident," Tom said.
LIBBA THE WRITER
Liberatore is a bright boy. He enjoys a social game of chess and, as Tony said, "Anyone who gets 94 in VCE is clever".
Tom deferred this semester of his creative writing course to care for Oscar. But his daily routine includes putting pen to paper, usually crafting short stories or poetry.
Recently he turned the last page of Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut Jr, a darkly satirical bestseller from 1969, and on interstate trips he is often buried in a book.
Could a post-footy career as an author beckon?
"I don't think I'm good enough for that, but I'll continue it as a hobby as a way to combat mental health," Tom said.
Tony thinks that Tom's future is as a welfare officer.
"He likes to help people," Tony said. "He helps out the buskers and when there's a GoFundMe page or Movember he's in there front and centre.
"He won't be one of those guys who finishes footy that says, 'Look at me I've got the beautiful house, I've got this and that' because he's there to help people.
"Malia is a little bit older than Tom with that same sort of psyche. She helps asylum seekers out and Tom would look at that and say that is so admirable, because that's an important part of life."
Liberatore and two mates are working to create a social enterprise called "Busk it" which aims to help buskers utilise their talents and bring awareness to homelessness.
HIS RAPID RISE
The contested-ball terrier missed Round 1 with a knee injury, but he is ready for the next game. He was spotted by TV cameras training in Yarraville with Lin Jong last month.
It is easy to skip over the inside midfielder's rapid rise to stardom.
Liberatore's scouting profile said he was a draft prospect with elite hands - much like Sam Mitchell at the same age - and a neat kick. He was a good tackler, although looked a little one-paced, and recruiters said he was quiet, polite and respectful in interviews.
Then, whoosh. Liberatore was drafted in 2010 and was on stage at best-and-fairest night in 2011, '12, '13, '14 (twice) and '16.
That was to collect, in order, the Chris Grant Award (best first-year player), the Tony Liberatore Award (most improved), the Doug Hawkins Award (best and fairest runner-up), the Charles Sutton Medal (best and fairest), the Brad Johnson Award (best team player) and the Scott West Award (most courageous).
The missing year was 2015 and that was only because Liberatore missed the entire season with a knee reconstruction.
"I'd never really missed much footy. That was my first stint on the boundary," he said. "That was tough, but it allowed me to grow in different areas that I didn't realise I needed to work on."
In 2014, Herald Sun writer Jon Anderson declared Liberatore the heir to Gary Ablett's throne as the game's No.1 midfielder, ranking his potential above Patrick Dangerfield, Nat Fyfe and Trent Cotchin.
Unfortunately, knee reconstructions wiped both Liberatore's 2015 and 2018 seasons, just as they restricted Tony in 1989 and 1998.
Liberatore brushed over his 2014 best-and-fairest victory as a 22-year-old. It meant little to him because the Dogs struggled and he hated missing their rise into September the following year.
It took Tony until 1997 to understand team football, when coach Terry Wallace asked him to play an unglamorous role as the Dogs skyrocketed into the top four.
Tom was also born with that selfless mindset.
"He was always the one person who always understood team football," Tony said. "I truly believe every coach would love to coach him, because he's the ultimate team man. He's also so resilient. He'll never show you the side of him when things are hard, he's just happy."
It might be difficult to read from the outside, but inside Whitten Oval the genuine care Tom shows for his teammates is why Bulldogs people describe him as the club's heartbeat.
Toby McLean reckons he's the funniest player at the club and Bailey Smith and Caleb Daniel are among those teammates Liberatore has helped nurture.
He puts his body over the ball without any regard for safety. He then extracts it, glances around and feeds it out with lightning hands.
Liberatore's 19 tackles against Melbourne in 2016 remains an AFL record.
That season he returned from ankle surgery in record time - the operation that saw the tibia and fibula bones held together by rope had never been conducted in Australia before - to play in all four finals.
THE FUNNY SIDE
But on Grand Final day Liberatore's ankles were naked in the MCG rooms pre-game because he had forgotten his boots.
"I'm not the cleanest bloke, so I had my laundry on the floor," Liberatore said. "The boots were on the ground and I had my bag on top of the boots, so I thought they were in there. I picked the bag up and went to the car."
Liberatore's mates jumped in an Uber from his house and delivered them to property steward and popular clubman Jayden Shea.
"That's typical Tom - he's so worried about everyone else, probably getting tickets for his mates and making sure they're all right," Tony said. "It's always, 'Are you OK? Are you OK?'"
Tony said his son loves Kramer, Jerry Seinfeld's goofy neighbour.
He finds The Simpsons so funny that his favourite moments are inked on his body - think "It was just vapour lock" with Joe Namath, and the "Hellfish" logo from World War II stolen German art.
"My favourite is the one on his leg," teammate Billy Gowers said. "It says if lost call … and it's got his best mate's mum's number."
Liberatore used to get around town in a two-door Australia Post mail van purchased off Gumtree.
"I tried to get my surfing career to take off, pretending I was a surfer. It didn't really work out," Liberatore said. "I've since upgraded to a family car."
Those are the anecdotes which make Liberatore such a fascinating footballer. But it's a fascination he chooses not to feed.
"I think Tom doesn't really like attention," close mate Luke Dahlhaus has said. "He hates it and you wouldn't think that with his tatts and the new one he has just got, but he hates it, he absolutely hates it.
"There are times he gets noticed and he really struggles with it. But he is the most loyal, nicest bloke you would ever meet and he's been such a good friend to me."
In Liberatore's words, it is more a matter of respect than privacy. He is his own man and now he's Oscar's old man.
"When he was born you couldn't wipe the smile of my face, really," Liberatore said. "The Grand Final is up there, but this takes the cake."
Originally published as Father, writer: Libba more than meets the eye