Ollie Florent will spare a thought ahead of his 100th AFL game this week for his No.1 fan who never saw him play in the AFL. His late father.
Andrew Florent, an international tennis player once ranked as high as #13 in the world in doubles, died of bowel cancer aged 45 on 16 August 2016 – 101 days before his then 18-year-old son was drafted by the Swans and 221 days before his AFL debut.
And while Florent wears jumper #13 for no reason other than chance – as the club’s first draft pick of his year he inherited it from Toby Nankervis when the 12-game ruckman joined Richmond – there is a nice and even fortuitous link to his father’s tennis ranking.
It is all a topic Florent has not spoken widely about in Sydney, but one interview with Emma Quayle of The Age even before he was drafted provides an insight into his special relationship with his father, an Australian Davis Cup representative, and details how proud of him he was during his five-year battle with cancer.
Quayle wrote beautifully how Florent lay beside his father every day for the last five days of his life, relishing every last second after the doctors had told him on the Monday of his final week he only had 12 hours to live.
As he had done for three years after being diagnosed with terminal stage-four bowel cancer, his father continued to defy the experts. Through Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday and into Friday.
"It wasn't him in the end. He was just a heartbeat. I was laying there listening to his heartbeat thinking 'I could never be more proud of you'. It's hard to explain because I wish he was still here. There are all these things we never got to do, but we said everything to each other. There was nothing I had left to say.
“I still feel like we have missed out on so much but he gave me three years he wasn’t meant to have and by the end it felt selfish to want more. He’s always going to be here with me. I’m so lucky to have had him.”
Two years earlier Andrew Florent had been responding so well to treatment that while still undergoing chemotherapy he was able to play legends doubles at the Australian Open, adding a beautiful final chapter to a tennis career in which he won three doubles titles on the world tour and was runner-up 10 times.
Born in Melbourne to parents who had migrated from Mauritius, he had turned professional in 1990 and in the Grand Slam tournaments reached the doubles quarter-finals at the Australian Open (twice), French Open and Wimbledon, and the third round at the US Open.
A popular member of the Australian tennis fraternity and close friend of Pat Rafter, he twice won the doubles at the tour event in St Poelten, Austria, with Vojtech Flegl from the Czech Republic in 1994 and with Russia’s Andrej Olhovskiy in 1999, shared a doubles crown with fellow Australian Josh Eagle in Adelaide in 1998, and later coached Mark Philippousis.
Ollie told how, even when his father’s cancer returned in 2016, he never stopped smiling. He was always laughing, making jokes and telling his son what a bad nurse he was while following closely his football with the Sandringham Dragons ahead of the AFL Draft.
His father went to as many Dragons games as he could, always refusing to use a wheelchair. “He almost fell over five times one day because he would never, ever use one,” Ollie recalled.
By then every day was a bonus, and Ollie marvelled at what his father wasn’t supposed to be able to do but did anyway. “People were saying, how is he doing this, and they said it was unbelievable," he said.
"The things I saw him have to go through no-one should have to go through. No-one should even see. But he's pretty much my inspiration. Nothing is as hard as what he went through. Footy is easy, compared to all that.”
Yet Florent wasn’t always going to be a footballer. He was a keen and talented tennis player until football took over at about 15 over during his time at Mentone Grammar in Melbourne’s south-east, also the school of Shane Warne.
His love for football grew quickly, and in 2016 he told his dad that he was going to play in a grand final with the Dragons in 2016. He did just that after they’d finished fifth at the end of the home-and-away season and in a winning side was pipped for best afield honours by teammate Andrew McGrath, later to join Essendon as the #1 pick in the draft.
He told his dad he would play in the All-Stars games on grand final eve. He did. And this time he was best afield.
And he told his Dad he would go to the AFL Combine. He did that too, posting an equal best beep test score of 15.1 and convincing the Swans he was the one for them.
From the moment the Swans called his name with pick #11 Florent’s life has never been the same. Leaving his mother Rachel and younger brother Jai in Melbourne, he grew up on the run in Sydney.
As he said at the time, one minute he was mucking around like any kid and the next day he was an adult. It was hard but there was no other way.
As Florent prepares to play his 100th game on the same weekend as former Under-18s teammate McGrath statistics on the AFL Draft Class of 2016 say he made the right choice when he chose the football pathway.
After nine games as a slightly-built 18-year-old in his first season Florent has played 90 of a possible 91 since then, missing only when a late withdrawal with a hip problem in Round 19, 2019. He has since enjoyed a 50-game streak second only to Luke Parker’s 69.
Only five players drafted in 2016 have beaten him to the ton – Brisbane’s Hugh McCluggage (112), Geelong’s Tom Stewart (111), GWS’ Tim Taranto (104), North Melbourne’s Jy Simpkin (101) and Geelong’s Brendan Parfitt (101).
Florent ranks 8th in aggregate possessions in the same group, and only six ‘classmates’ have polled more Brownlow Medal votes in their first five years than Florent’s 13 – Taranto (27), McCluggage (20), St Kilda’s Rowan Marshall (19), Richmond’s Shai Bolton (19), Stewart (16) and Fremantle’s Luke Ryan (16).
Florent will be the 137th player on an all-time Swans playing list of 1441 to play 100 games in red and white, and at 23 years 284 days he will be the 18th-youngest. Of the current players, only Luke Parker (22 years 287 days) and Isaac Heeney (23 years 97 days) have been younger. Team of the Century choice Mark Bayes was the youngest all-time at 22 years 170 days.
Set to play his 100th against Brisbane at the SCG on Sunday afternoon, he already ranks second in games for the Swans in jumper #13. Only Rod Carter’s 217 is ahead of him.