Sam makes his mark, with mettle and medals to prove it
Author: STEPHEN RIELLY
Publication: The Age
THREE weeks ago SamCarpenter was one of 49 footballers from metropolitan Melbourne invited to train as a squad to represent Victoria at the next month's national under-18 championships.In ordinary circumstances, this would not be unexpected of a footballer who began playing under-10s football with Crib Point, on the Mornington Peninsula, at the age of six, who has since won nine club best and fairest awards and three league best and fairest medals. Last year, Carpenter kicked five goals on his senior debut, and four in the first half of the semi-final Crib Point lost to Dingley later in the season. This year he has become a frontline player for the Dandenong Stingrays, one of the 12 elite junior football clubs throughout the state, which each year feed the majority of tomorrow's stars into the AFL.But Carpenter's story is not an ordinary one. Almost 15 years ago, the inquisitive youngest child of Leigh and Linda Carpenter was playing in his parent's Tyabb butcher shop when he caught his left arm in a mincer. His tiny forearm, almost to the elbow, was ground away."Wrong place, wrong time," Carpenter says matter-of-factly.He can recall little of the accident, nor much of the emergency flight by helicopter from the nearest accessible clearing, the Tyabb football ground, to the Royal Children's Hospital, where his recovery began.Fortunately, he says, he is also unable to remember much of the able life he led as a toddler before the accident, an absence he says has enabled him to learn the game in a natural way, unhindered by previous habits or double-handed capabilities lost."I learnt to live without it," he says. "Because I was so young, I have never known anything different."I've tried to play the way I like footy to be played. I've never felt there was anything I couldn't do or had to do differently. The game's firstly about winning the ball. I pride myself on the hard-work stuff, especially tackling and putting my head over the ball."I always thought I was a good footballer. I don't know whether other people thought that - a lot of good juniors don't make the next step - but I always thought I could keep progressing."Leigh Carpenter can remember people admiring his son's determination and obvious, absolute love of the game, but also doubting that those qualities would be able to compensate for his disability."People used to say when he was very young: "When tackling is introduced, he'll struggle. When he didn't, I often heard people then say, 'At under-14s or under-15s, when the game gets a bit more physical, he's going to struggle.' But he didn't. "At every level he continued to be one of the better players." Leigh concedes that the loss of his son's forearm could have been a terrible burden on the family, particularly himself, but for the way Sam has embraced the challenge."It was really traumatic, a terrible accident. It made me think of people who lose kids and spend their time thinking, 'If only I'd done this' or 'if only I'd done that'. "At first we thought he was going to die, and that's the immediate feeling I remember having."Then a whole new range of emotions went through our minds. 'How is he going to do this or that? What sort of life can he have? What possibilities has he lost?' But thankfully, he adapted and showed us pretty quickly that nothing was going to be a problem for him."The way he has handled his life has made it a lot easier for us, and me in particular, because it would be very easy to think about what might have happened, for instance, if I didn't have the shop. Because he has a go at everything, it eases those feelings. "He's got a job, a car, he loves his footy, his fishing, his snorkelling . . . all the things you think might have been lost to him, haven't been."One of the few physical concerns Sam has as he eyes a career at a higher level - several AFL recruiters spoken to for this article described Carpenter as a potential draftee and a player of definite VFL capabilities - is his inability to build strength into the left side of his body. He is unable to pump weights but determined to do so. Carpenter has been experimenting with a variety of prostheses that will enable him to build the upper-body strength required of the modern-day midfielder, but is yet to find one that is stable when, with a weight attached, his arm is extended.He allows himself no other concession. For Carpenter, a mistake is a mistake, never a consequence of having to mark or gather a football by drawing together his right hand and the blunt, gnarled stump on his left arm."If I make a few mistakes during the game I know it's only because I made a few mistakes, it's not that I've only got one arm," he says."I normally do pick the ball up safely, and I normally mark safely, so when I drop it it's not about having one arm, it's error. I get angry about dropping the mark or spilling the ball because I shouldn't drop it or spill it, not because I'm bitter or unable or anything."For Leigh Carpenter, his 18-year-old son's uncomplicated self-image has been a source of wonder and even humour."We're lucky in a sense that he's the sort of kid who doesn't dwell, and because he really hasn't known anything else, he doesn't look upon himself as being different. "Initially, he copped a little bit from the opposition about his disability but he'd never, ever say anything to us because he knew we'd become upset by it. But over the years it's become less and less of an issue, as he's become respected as a footballer."