LUAMON Lual remembers being woken up by his dad, Thomas, in the middle of the night. Then 14, Lual was in Bendigo, more than three hours from home, ready for a basketball tournament the following day.
"Mum's in hospital in Melbourne," Thomas told his oldest son, one of four siblings in the family. "We've got to go."
By the time they had made the two-hour drive to be by her side, the news wasn't good. Regina had suffered a stroke having attended an event with oldest daughter Juina, where she started to feel nauseous and unwell.
"It was an awful car trip," Luamon remembers. "I was confused and didn't know what to think. We got to the hospital room and she had a few family members there already and I could see the devastating looks on their faces.
"It's something you don't want to go through, but unfortunately that can be life. It was completely out of the blue and then suddenly it happened."
Regina died four days later, aged 48. There is not a day that goes by without Lual thinking about his mum, but he has had her on his mind even more so recently as the now 18-year-old gets closer to being drafted by an AFL club.
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Regina had been there all the way through his sporting journey, having made immense sacrifices for her family.
Regina and Thomas were born in South Sudan and moved to Australia as refugees in the early 2000s. Juina was born in Melbourne, where the family set up upon arriving in the country, but the busyness of city life didn't suit them, so they shifted three hours out of town to Warrnambool. It was here that Luamon, younger sister Cigi and younger brother Mali were all born.
Regina was well known in the community – in 2016, she and Thomas helped organise a fundraiser for their war-torn homeland by staging a film night. Her death was met with an outpouring of grief around the state, with a large funeral held in February, 2020, just before the COVID lockdowns prevented many families from being able to gather and say goodbye. It is something Lual is grateful for.
"It was a devastating time, but we were blessed to be able to celebrate her life," he says. "She was one of a kind. I loved her to bits. She was such a humble person, likewise with my dad, and she had done so much for me up until the point she left.
"She's shaped me to be the person I am, off the back of dad's help as well. She's so loving, so caring. I just love her to bits."
Lual and his siblings took a few weeks off school to mourn together, before Thomas urged them back to class. Without his dad's insistence, Lual thinks he probably would have been off class for 10 weeks.
The loss of his mum meant other things for Lual. He continued to forge ahead with his own dreams; he made more and more squads for the Greater Western Victoria Rebels and in Vic Country's football programs, whilst also taking part in the Western Bulldogs' Next Generation Academy, where he is eligible given his African background. But he also wanted to step up for Cigi, now 17, and 14-year-old Mali, particularly with Juina, now 21, in Melbourne studying at university.
"We had a chat to Dad after it all happened and it was such a significant loss for our family, so it was time for myself and my older sister to be good role models for our younger siblings," he says.
"We try to do everything we can around the house. My sister's moved now so I'm the bigger brother and look after them when I need to. Whether that's cooking, taking them to their sport trainings and games now I've got my licence, those types of things."
He hasn't had to look far for role models. He is in awe of his dad, who has taken up working at night at an aged care centre so that he can be there for his kids during the day.
"He's been very supportive. He has had trauma in his life in moving here and also the loss of family members back home, but he's had a significant role in my life," Lual says.
"He works night shifts just to cater for us during the day. He did that so he can work through the night, have a sleep and then after school be able to come and pick us up and take us to our sporting commitments.
"Sometimes he'd work night and not have time for a sleep, but take us to where we need to go when he got back from work. It's a pretty huge effort."
As has been Lual's ascent to draft contention. The attacking half-back is quick, smart and takes the game on. He showed that through this year with the Rebels and also in the under-18 carnival for Vic Country. He has trained at the Bulldogs as part of the NGA program and would like to go there, but the Dogs can't match a bid inside the first 40 selections due to Academy rules. A bid will probably come before then, and Lual says he will be happy to go anywhere.
Clubs like his speed and rebound, but also his character. During interviews at the Draft Combine, he spoke openly about his mum and family background. He was emotional during the conversation with Richmond, with the club's recruiters moved to follow up with him to make sure he was OK.
"Whenever clubs ask about family, I have to bring it up," he says. "I ended up shedding a tear when I had a meeting with the Tigers but they were very supportive, and likewise the other clubs. Over the years I've become more comfortable talking about it, but the build up that day probably got to me. They were very supportive and got in contact with me the next day."
With the countdown to the draft now on, Lual will finish his year 12 exams this week before biding time until names are called on November 20-21.
He knows he will have his mum in mind then.
"During footy games, I wish she was there to watch me and see how I go about it," he says. "For me to be drafted would mean so much to her.
"I'm doing everything for her."