One hour before Adelaide’s Round Four clash with North Melbourne, forward Shane McAdam is in the midst of his pre-game routine.
He sits on the floor area of the Crows’ change rooms, using a foam roller to loosen his hamstrings and upper back, when he notices someone sitting next to him.
It’s not one of his teammates, but a young boy with a cheeky smile on his face.
Invited into the inner sanctum as a guest of the Crows, eight-year-old Hugo Klar has come bursting into the rooms unable to contain his anticipation or excitement.
He quickly finds his own orange foam roller to mimic Shane’s exercises, blissfully chatting about whatever comes to mind without a hint of hesitation.
Minutes later, Jake Kelly emerges from the locker room and Hugo’s face lights up as he leaps to his feet to meet his favourite player.
Hugo’s guernsey features the rarely seen No.8 emblazoned on the back and he wants Jake to see it straight away, doing a rapid 180-degree turn to proudly show it off.
Hugo adores the unheralded defender, inspired by Jake’s road to senior football.
Jake, overlooked by the Magpies as a father-son prospect in 2013, was eventually taken by the Crows with a late rookie selection, earning his senior opportunity on the back of his outstanding work ethic more than 12 months after joining the list.
Hugo’s father, Nic Klar, explained the parallels between Jake’s journey and the emotional struggles faced by a child with autism, and how Hugo could use it to deal with rejection and finding ways to cope with it in future endeavours.
“Jake wasn’t wanted, and the Crows got him. Then he worked hard to get better,” Nic said.
On the surface it seems Hugo does not have a care in the world.
Sporting a Crows clash guernsey from the mid-2000s, Hugo has been presented with new O’Neills merchandise upon arrival and is fully immersing himself in the experience.
But having been diagnosed with autism at five years of age, the harsh reality is Hugo faces daily challenges due to his lifelong disability.
Autism is a condition that affects how a person thinks, feels, interacts with others and experiences their environment.
While he is thriving in the rooms at Marvel Stadium, his current behaviour is an exception to the norm.
“You see him run around the clubrooms and a lot of people wouldn’t even realise there’s anything different about him because he’s just a happy young guy running around, talking to the players, enjoying himself,” Nic said.
“He still really struggles at school. He doesn’t really like formal education. He couldn’t stay at school full time until part way through Year 1 because he couldn’t be supported.
“We had to get funding in place so it was a matter of going around, knocking on the doors of the minister and the education department, the local member and all this sort of stuff.
“First term, year 1, finally got funding so he could go to school full-time. It’s been a battle of working with different therapists; OT (occupational therapists), psychologists, all the rest of it.”
While some people with autism are uncomfortable in social situations or may feel distressed or overwhelmed if there are too many sensations at once, Hugo wasn’t affected during his initial time with the Crows on Sunday.
“He’s very sociable, which is unusual for a lot of kids on the spectrum,” Nic said.
“I think one of the things that stood out to me was that there was noise and things like that which might normally faze him, but he was obviously enjoying himself so much that it wasn’t fazing him.
“The players were fantastic with him. He was just walking up and starting talking to them.”
The Crows go into their team meeting followed by the on-ground warm-up at Marvel Stadium. Upon returning to the rooms, both the music volume and intensity rise significantly as the players pump themselves up to take the field.
Feeling slightly overwhelmed by the increasing noise, Hugo removes himself from the change rooms.
He is content waiting outside as the players complete their final preparations.
With 15 minutes to go until the opening bounce, the Crows begin to emerge from the rooms to head out onto Marvel Stadium to take on the Kangaroos.
Hugo stands a few metres from the door in his No.8 guernsey, right palm raised, hoping to get some high-fives from his Crows heroes to wrap up the pre-game experience.
Paul Seedsman is the first man out, mind so firmly on the job ahead that he inadvertently walks past Hugo.
Seedsman’s teammates are quick to alert the hard-running wingman to his accidental blunder.
“Hugo was trying to high-five them and ‘Seed’ came out first, obviously focused and he walked straight past Hugo,” Nic said.
“The other players behind him, Rory Laird and a couple of others were like, ‘Hey, mate, you were meant to high-five Hugo’ and he stopped to go back, but by then all the rest of the players were coming out and he couldn’t cut his way through the queue.
“That was good that they had time.
“Even though they were focused on going out to the game, they still had the attention to give Hugo a high-five on the way out.”
Being a part of the Crows family provides Hugo with something very special.
A happy place.
A place he feels accepted, despite the challenges he faces with his autism.
“Being a very social lad, being able to go to the football affords him a feeling of community. He feels a bit more like everyone else,” Nic said.
“He gets to mix with other people. He gets to feel part of a group, whereas he probably doesn’t always feel like that.
And for his proud dad, seeing Hugo happy is what it is all about.
“I couldn’t fault anyone. He was made to feel welcome, he felt part of it, he was super happy to be there. They were all happy to talk to him and listen to what he had to say even if it wasn’t necessarily something they understood,” Nic said.
“The fact that he wasn’t overwhelmed showed how much of a happy place he was in and the real joy for me is seeing him happy.”