The professional football career of one of the greatest players to ever play the game of AFL will come to an end this week when Eddie Betts steps off the oval at Docklands Stadium for the last time after his beloved Blues take on GWS.
‘I wasn’t offered a contract, it took me about a week to get over it,’ Eddie tells us via Zoom from his home in Melbourne, ‘I felt like I could play on, I thought I got a lot to offer those young small forwards, but I’m 34 turning 35 and the club is looking at going down the youth route, which is not a bad thing because I’ve had my time. Yes, I am disappointed because this is my life, seventeen years of AFL football and this is my life.’
In an industry where the average career length is three years, Betts will finish in the higher echelon of games played by Indigenous footballers behind Adam Goodes and Hawthorn champion Shaun Burgoyne. It’s a feat Betts himself couldn’t have possibly imagined, ‘to be honest I can’t believe it. How far I’ve come, you know with the support of my family and the people, it is unbelievable in a way.’
The father of five (Lewis 8, Billy 6, Alice 3, Maggie 3 and Eddie 7 months) has now come to terms with the club’s decision. ‘It took me a week, through to the weekend to sit back and think, ‘you know what, the next stage of my life is about to start and I’m happy, I’m starting the next journey’.’
For a player who has loved sharing the moment with crowds all over the country, it is a sad irony Betts’ last game won’t be played in front of a packed stadium where fans from across the AFL world could come together to celebrate the career of one the most exciting small forwards of his or any other generation.
However, as Betts knows all too well, the world is not always a just place and his last game will be played in front of the empty stands we have become accustomed to during this pandemic. But even this potential disappointment Betts is able to put in perspective, ‘just in terms of the 350th, I guess my retirement and my special game was my 300th. So we don’t really think about that for 350, it’s just a number.’
The ‘we’ Betts refers to is his partnership with wife Anna, a staunch supporter and defender of her partner’s career and legacy.
During our extensive conversation, Betts’ is at pains to ensure his fans received the acknowledgment they deserved, ‘the Carlton supporter group and the cheer squad have been unbelievable for myself and my family. They’re always been there on the journey with me even when I went to Adelaide, the cheer squad in particular cheered me when I played against them’.
‘Then moving to Adelaide, the city of Adelaide really embraced me and my family. The Adelaide supporter group became our second family.’
Any fan of AFL knows supporters almost never take kindly to players swapping clubs. The love shown for Eddie by both the Adelaide and Carlton supporter base underlines Betts’ popularity across the AFL world.
His announcement has come at what has been a tumultuous time for Indigenous players across the AFL as yet another racist controversy engulfed the news cycle in the weeks preceding. Once again Betts took a leadership role to speak out about the racism which has plagued so many of the game’s finest players, ‘I want to do it, I’m happy to do it because I want to make change, in the AFL and Australia in general.
I want to make it a safe spot for kids coming through and when I leave this AFL world, I’m still going to be there to protect them, to help them, to guide them.’
As a child, Betts didn’t always excel at school, as he struggled with literacy and numeracy well into his adulthood, but he has always excelled on the football field. This is where his leadership skills are highlighted in his sharing of knowledge, communication skills, team work, standing up for your mates, and working together towards a common goal.
All of these leadership skills he attributes to growing up in Kalgoorlie surrounded by his family and community. It is because of leaving school early Betts is now a strong advocate for education and would like to see more mob graduating from high school. It is through his dedication to his own learning that he is an exemplary example of what a leader does, which is to inspire others and to better themselves.
‘I’m really excited at the prospect of going to communities. I’ve always wanted to go to Arnhem Land and see the kids up there.
“To go to the Garma Festival, see the kids in Darwin, go to Alice Springs, back over to my homeland in Western Australia to see my family. Take my kids to see the red dirt, let them put their feet down and feel the red dirt.’
The discipline of living as an elite athlete and the constrictions imposed by COVID have provided limited opportunity to connect with some of the more remote Aborginal communities. As Betts highlights, ‘we haven’t had the opportunity to do things, COVID being one reason but also the AFL being really structure driven, following a sheet, games, schedules.
“I don’t have to do that anymore. So it’s really exciting to go into these communities and seeing these kids and putting smile on their faces.’
In his school outreach programs, Betts likes to encourage kids to uplift and support each other especially when it comes to speaking in front of crowds. This passion for working with children and empowering them to be confident young people was highlighted during one of his visits to a primary school.
“We went to an Aboriginal community, to a school there and one little girl got up to speak and she mucked up one of her words and everyone laughed. She put her head down and walked out. I stopped everyone and said, ‘hey, how do you think that made her feel?’”
I said “that happened to me, I was playing AFL footy and I got up in front of the team and they all laughed at me, so I never did it again until they encouraged me and gave me the confidence to do it again. So I told the kids, don’t laugh at her, keep encouraging each other.”
Betts worked extremely hard during his first three years of his AFL career to focus on his numeracy and literacy with his tutor. It is why Eddie holds the strong belief that “you don’t have to be a sports star to be a leader, you are a leader in graduating high school.”
The effort he put into his own education has led to his work to improve educational outcomes for Indigenous kids. Outside of his school outreach programs is further promoting reading and literacy with young kids in the authorship of his two children’s books which he produced with his wife Anna Scullie called “My Kind” and “My People”.
The books are designed to be read aloud so children can rap along to the beats with Eddie’s Lil’ Homies and read with confidence. The first book “My Kind” is about spreading kindness and helping kids to understand the importance of accepting others and equality. It is about the power and positivity we can all create when people come together. His second book “My People” aims to educate children on Aboriginal culture.
Eddie aims to educate young Australians on the oldest living culture in the world, and the book is about sharing facts about his mob. Eddie and Anna’s hope for the books are to grow life-long readers and give those kids who aren’t necessarily big fans of reading the chance to thrive in literacy.
Betts is also currently working on a collaboration with Coles Supermarkets as an ambassador of the Coles Healthy Kicks Program. It’s designed to inspire young 6 to 12 year olds to lead healthy and happy lives. The program isn’t just about playing footy but focuses on motivating kids to have a healthy mind, healthy body, healthy food, and a healthy team. Coles are one of the largest corporate employers of Indigenous people in Australia so making the choice to partner with them for the Coles Health Kicks Program makes sense.
Taking into account his passion for educating future generations and after dedicating his adult life to the game he loves, what advice would Betts give himself as a young man starting off in the world of league football? ‘Just work hard. Heart will only get you so far, it’s the hard work and dedication that’ll provide results. If I was to tell a young me something it would be to get off your arse and work on your days off.’
In the end it will be Betts’ prowess as a footballer, his humility as a leader and his generosity as a member of the community that he will be remembered for.
As a winner of several marks and goals of the year, we asked Eddie if he had a favourite out of all of these astonishing moments, ‘I would say the one (goal) at Adelaide Oval against GWS. I won goal of the year back-to-back in the Sir Doug Nichols round, where I kept in alongside the boundary and snapped it.
But what was special about that was dad’s sister Susie Betts, she designed the guernsey we were wearing. I got to have her, my father and my grandmother to the game. To play, to win and to kick that goal and win goal of the year in guernsey…that’s why that one is my favourite one.’
It is testament, in a career with so many highlights, so many moments of joy, that Betts chooses to highlight the moment that best represents his culture and nature. A moment that was not only his, but one he could share with his family, his elders.
It is that kindness of spirit that will continue to see Eddie Betts succeed in whatever challenge he takes on next.
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