Clem s guardian angels
Clem's guardian angels

For the first 10 years of his life, Clem Smith was angry.

Angry at his parents for not taking care of him and his two younger siblings, angry about having to move every other month and angry about never staying in one spot long enough to form tight friendships with other kids.

Then, after being moved to Thornlie to live with his cousin, two things happened which would change his life.

First he met a kid at school named Jake Christie, who quickly became his best mate and would invite him over to his house as often as possible.

Jake's parents Mick and Leah and siblings Monique and Tyler all took an instant liking to Smith, quickly graduating from polite niceties to accepting him as part of the furniture.

The connection he felt with his friend's family was far stronger and more stable than anything he had experienced with his own, to the point where two years later, facing a move to Donnybrook with his cousin, Smith asked the Department of Child Protection if he could stay in Thornlie and live with the Christies.

"We just said, 'OK why not?'" Leah said.

"Clem had been staying with us for quite a while, every weekend or so anyway, so he'd already become part of the family."

They have been his legal guardians ever since.

The second thing which would change Smith's life was Mick signing him up to play with the Thornlie Junior Football Club.

Before meeting the Christies, Smith's involvement in football had been limited to playing kick to kick in the backyard and at school.

After being exposed to the team environment, he took to the sport like a duck to water.

Since taking up football, Smith has represented WA at under-15, under-16 and under-18 level, twice earning All-Australian selection for his age group, and has been selected in both the level one and two AIS-AFL squads.

This year he has been an automatic selection in Perth's league side when available.

Smith, 18, plays the game with vigour and aggression which hasn't been seen from a teenage draft prospect in years, earning comparisons with Norm Smith medallist and revered bump artist Byron Pickett.

His explanation for the way he plays is pretty simple.

"Jake was an inside player who just runs in and hits packs, so I think I learnt it off him. Nobody else was doing it in Perth … so I just kind of took it as my style," Smith said.

However, Leah has another theory, one that she says has transformed the angry young man they first met into a young leader and a player who looms as a potential first-round pick at this year's AFL national draft.

"He had a problem with aggression when he was younger, when we first got him," she said.

"I reckon that's where you see his aggression on the football field - he's found a release, if you know what I mean."

Smith is expected to be one of the first West Australians picked at the November 27 draft, but expectations have cooled after a disappointing under-18 championships.

His skill is undeniable, but his 177cm frame and a penchant for giving away free kicks have caused some recruiters to wonder whether it's worth rolling the dice on him with their first pick.

However, the questions posed about his game don't bother Smith, who has been proving people wrong his whole life.

He was twice rejected by Wesley College before a dogged advocate of his at the DCP finally got the school to accept him on a provisional basis. Smith went on to graduate with honours.

He has since gone back to the school as a coach and leader of the school's Moorditj Mob Aboriginal dance group, of which his younger brother Raymond is a member.

Though Smith has maintained a strong connection with his younger brother and sister, who live with their aunt in Midland, he no longer has any contact with his parents.

"I don't really bother any more," he said. "You just get used to it."

At times this year, Smith has felt like he has been treading water between graduating high school and waiting for his AFL opportunity.

He's not worried about which club selects him, or which number he's drafted at.

He just wants to get stuck in and make the most of an opportunity which seemed inconceivable in the early years of his life.

"We want Clem to go and do good things," Leah said.

"Especially from where he's been."

The West Australian

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