MOTHER'S DAY falls in the early stages of the AFL season, where clubs and players have settled into a routine and rhythm.
It's perfectly positioned to give us time to pause, celebrate and acknowledge the mothers of all footballers. They volunteer, coach, clock up mileage, make lunches, and host barbecues. They are mentors. They keep their kids on healthy diets and manage team budgets. They stand on the sidelines and scream - sometimes at their own. Some turn into umpires, others become leaders of other women in the football community.
When you peel back the layers and examine what mums put into raising a young footballer, you begin to discover just how deep their connections run with their sons and how much they influence their sporting careers.
WHEN MASON Cox was in kindergarten, his family of five moved to the outdoorsy suburb of Highland Village, one hour north of Dallas, Texas. It had running trails, soccer fields, and baseball diamonds.
"It was one of the reasons we moved there," Mason's mum Jeanette Cox tells ESPN. "We thought it was important to be healthy."
Jeanette, or "Jay", as Mason calls her, stands six-feet-tall. She says her son inherited his athletic ability from his father, Phil, but height is something she passed down from her side of the family. Jeanette went to an all-girl catholic school, and didn't play much sport. She majored in mechanical engineering at Southern Illinois University - the same as Phil. Then they had three boys, all two years apart, with Mason being the youngest.
Jeanette worked at manufacturing company, Texas Instruments, for 10 years, then spent the next decade raising her family before going back to work. When the three boys were old enough to start playing sports, Jeanette would sit down and map out Saturday schedules to determine who had training and where, and who the driver would be.
"At first it wasn't too hard because they were local games. But then they had tournaments out of town. Sometimes an hour away. That got a little harder," she recalls. "When we got home from work, they needed to be ready. That set a certain discipline. If you're late, then that's a domino effect on everybody else."
Over the years, Jeanette and Phil coached and volunteered as team managers on Mason's representative soccer teams. That involved travelling to games in Dallas, San Diego and Minnesota. They wrote a weekly newsletter, managed fees, set budgets, planned out-of-state hotels and became the fabric of Mason's team.
In Mason's sophomore year at Flower Mound Marcus High School, already staggeringly tall for his age, Cox underwent a growth spurt. "It was hard on his knees. He probably grew five inches in one year," says Jeanette.
Soon after, at Oklahoma State University, where Mason followed in his parents' footsteps and studied mechanical engineering, he was selected for the men's basketball team. Jeanette watched every game for three seasons. Every week, she and Phil would leave work early and make the four-hour drive north, watch the game, hang out with Mason for half an hour, before jumping back in the car and driving home.
"It was a lot of travelling for us," she says. "But we didn't want to miss a game."
Jeanette can't recall exactly how things materialised, but says an AFL scout reached out to Mason after an NCAA tournament game against Gonzaga. Two AFL combines later -- one in Los Angeles and one in Melbourne -- Mason was signed to Collingwood's list. Seven years later, Mason would play in the 2018 AFL Grand Final, earning best on ground honours in the preliminary final win over Richmond a week ealier and prompting Bruce McAvaney to famously yell "what have Collingwood unleashed here!"
Initially, Jeanette had concerns about Mason's foray into the AFL, a game shown on television in parts of the United States at 3 a.m, that most Americans hadn't seen before. She had heard of the horror stories of American soccer players going to Europe, not getting paid and being treated poorly. That thought didn't sit well. But after some research and developing connections with the Collingwood Football Club, things became a lot clearer on what Mason's career path would look like. As a mum who was living 14,475 kilometres away from her son, it was some comfort.
Since Mason's Collingwood debut in 2016, Jeanette says they have spent at least one month in Australia every year watching him play. They try and make the most of the long flight. They've travelled to places like Uluru and the Gold Coast, and even though the COVID-19 pandemic halted their annual routine, they stay connected through weekly texts and Facetimes. They talk about friends getting married. They sing happy birthday. And Jeanette knows to avoid football talk.
As a mum, Jeanette has always taught Mason and her boys that it is okay to fail, because not everyone is going to be a great athlete. She was also big on earning and giving respect, and while she loves watching her son play football at the highest level in Australia, she admits it matters more to him than it does to her. She's more proud that he's a good person.
After that famous 2018 preliminary final, Jeanette saw her son standing at the top of the MCG race, where the tunnel meets the ground, talking to his older brother, Nolan. She walked down to them and the trio reminisced about Mason journey.
"It was such a surreal moment. He started out with nothing. You look at the MCG. It was a touching moment. We're very proud he's stayed true to himself," says Jeanette. "He's got athletic ability. He has some opportunities because of his height but that's not going to provide everything. He's really pushed himself."
THE BIGGEST adjustment Melinda Hately had to make when her son Jackson first made the leap to AFL player in 2018, was the shocking introduction to online trolls and fan abuse directed at players.
"You read a comment here or there and that's really hard. That gets me," she tells ESPN. "He knows that can really damage him."
It's a Monday morning and Melinda has just finished a yoga session. She is back home in Adelaide after a rollercoaster weekend watching Jackson debut for the Crows against the Hawks in Tasmania. At the ground, she sat nestled among other Crows parents, which included fellow debutant Riley Thilthorpe's family. Adelaide lost the game by three points. After the game, there was a quick mother-son exchange.
"He felt pretty good out there. He could have done this a bit better, that a bit better. But he was happy to be part of the team," she says.
Being a yoga and meditation teacher, Melinda has used her calming influence to help keep Jackson grounded, although she says he's always been an "old soul." They talk about things like mindfulness, letting things go, and being in the moment. It's almost the perfect remedy for a 20-year-old living in an age where fans have direct access to professional athletes through social media channels and where pressure seemingly comes from every angle for AFL players.
Mums have an uncanny memory. They remember everything about their kids. Melinda still recalls how Jackson learned to read football cards before he could actually play the game - he played snap and memory with them. And he learned the six-times table because he wanted to know football scores. When Jackson was old enough to play sports, Melinda's weeks were filled with basketball and football training with three kids and dinner was "on the run".
"I'd have to cook them dinner in the afternoon. We'd pack thermuses and have a picnic at the stadium. It was a whole evening," said Melinda. "Jackson didn't want to miss training. From an early age he knew that he had to work hard to get what he wanted."
Over the years, Melinda and Jackson bonded over the science of food and being aware of how nutrition and clean eating plays a big role in getting the best out of your body. Melinda says it's probably one of the main mantras she has tried to pass onto him.
When Jackson was drafted in 2018, Melinda still vividly remembers the tears, knowing he was leaving his Adelaide nest for Sydney. It was a defining moment, but one Melinda was confident Jackson could -- and did -- handle.
"I definitely feel like we've helped him realise his dream. It's been a lot of driving back and forth," Melinda said. "There's been a lot of sacrifices on his behalf but I've talked him through all that and reminded him why he's doing it when all of his friends are out at a party and he's at home."
PRIMARY SCHOOL teacher Katie Pelosi has just spent Saturday morning organising a raffle for her AusKick cohorts. Over the last four years, the mother of three has spent her Saturdays watching her kids play AusKick, but has also volunteered her time organising coaches, hosting sausage sizzles, recruiting kids to play football and mothers to coach AusKick teams.
"It was super exciting [when I first started volunteering] because it brought back all those memories of my childhood," Pelosi tells ESPN, adding, she grew up with a football family and absorbed herself in VicKick. "Being a parent, all you want to do is support your child. Being involved with Auskick gave me the chance to do that."
Pelosi says a typical AusKick morning starts at 8:30 a.m. on Saturdays. The kids' ages range from four to eight-years-old. They start with a warm up. They do drills. And it ends with a game. The backdrop to the chaos of 65 kids playing football is a barbecue run by volunteer mums and dads just like Pelosi.
"These kids, all they want to do is go and kick a goal," said Pelosi. "But especially for those kinder kids in their first year, for them the aim is to see their friends, run around in their footy jumper and develop a love of football. That's what it is all about."
When Pelosi was growing up, football teams for young girls didn't exist. She had to find other ways outside of playing backyard football with her brothers to get involved. Her dad Ian Penhalluriack was zone recruitment manager for the Swans in 1984-85, then recruiting coordinator for Richmond for five years, and has been the team manager for the Sandringham Dragons since they were founded in 1992. Pelosi would shadow him every weekend and even operated the scoreboard at Victoria Park. At 15, she ran waters for the Dragons, which she described as her "second family," and when she was 19 she became an accredited Level 1 coach.
"It changed the relationship I had with my dad. It made us a lot closer in a different way. They were amazing memories," she said. "Having that as my childhood and growing up with it being my life, and now seeing my mum and dad still be part of their grandchildren's football, I take my hat off to them."
Life keeps getting busier for Pelosi who's eldest son Archie is now playing Under 9s football. She'd like to coach more and do more because football is her passion, but with two younger kids, she's more realistic with what she can do with her time and contributes anyway she can.
Most kids get their football start at Auskick. It can be the embryonic stage of their football journey. Pelosi explains there's no expectation for any of the kids to make their pre-junior football years count toward a career in football. For her kids, it's about learning what respect means, developing mateship, and having a go.
"We're all built differently. And we don't do things the same way," says Pelosi. "We want to build that confidence and value everyone having a go and to value what's really important."
On Mother's Day, Pelosi will be taking part in a mothers football game at Auskick, which will also include a treasured pastime, the longest kick competition. It'll be another weekend of football, but she'll be surrounded by a football community of mothers who are there to celebrate the small wins for their kids, just like her.
"Seeing your kids succeed and that could be something really really small, or it could be a big success, but being on that journey because you know how hard they've worked that's what I absolutely love about the kids," she said. "If I can give back something that my kids are doing, that's great."
IT'S A small sample size so far, but if you've watched Sydney's first-year sensation Errol Gulden, you'll be aware he doesn't enjoy losing a contest.
"I was always competitive at sport, it didn't matter what it was," Errol's mum, Bronwyn, tells ESPN.
As a self-described footy tragic, Bronwyn grew up with two sisters and a dad who played the country Victoria circuit, coached and became a trainer. He had an opportunity to play VFL for Melbourne, but tossed it in to raise his family. Club life and things like kicking the football with her dad made Bronwyn fall in love with the game. The comradery, tight-knit club culture and team football was ingrained in her. As a mother of four, that's what she wanted to pass onto her kids.
Bronwyn wasn't quite sure how it all worked out but, when Errol and his siblings played basketball, football, soccer, rugby, and dance, she was working for Virgin Australia as part of the airline's cabin crew. Most days started at 5 a.m, and after flying all day, she'd get home in the afternoon and take her brood to training. On weekends, Errol played one, sometimes two, games of football, along with his sister Senna, while Alana had dance classes and older brother Adam had soccer.
"How did we actually manage? Every parent and every mum does," said Bronwyn. "I guess that's just what you do."
With Errol still living at home, Bronwyn says her role is making sure the fridge is stocked with the right food. She tells me the 18-year-old is leading the charge as part of his push for independence and meticulously sticks to his meal plan. Being a sporting family, when the kids were growing up, Bronwyn made sure the Gulden household had ample pasta, but the modern AFL diet is a far cry from that. Things like workload, pre-and-post game timing, playing away all impact food choices. The balanced structure usually consists of three meals per day plus four snacks. No day is the same.
As a new family at Sydney, the Guldens attended a presentation by the Swans aimed at new parents to give them a glimpse of what life will be like for the players - and what to expect on their football journey. From that, a WhatsApp group evolved with five mums: three based in New South Wales, one in South Australia and one in Western Australia. Bronwyn says it acts as an unofficial support crew where they organise dinners, game day rituals and give advice to each other about the AFL transition. Bronwyn says she's also been able to lean on some of the other Swans mothers who have been in the AFL system for years.
Being an assistant coach of the Sydney Swans Academy's senior girls team, and a mum to sport-loving kids, Bronwyn tries to keep the footy talk to a minimum at home. She says she watches Errol's games differently: she picks apart the structures and pays attention to Errol's running patterns.
"From a mum's perspective I just want him to get a touch and be okay and not get injured. It's quite an emotional rollercoaster," Bronwyn said. "Once I started coaching you couldn't keep me away. And that's been fantastic because I've always had something to talk to the kids about or help them in any way that I can, but with a little bit of a different perspective other than just a mum standing on the sidelines."
Looking back at what she's taught Errol, Bronwyn says the one thing she tried to instill in him was always respect where you come from.
"We've been to every game with Errol and we'll ride the highs and lows with him," she says. "And we'll do that as a family unit. We'll enjoy what he's enjoying at the same time."