Eddie Betts made stadiums murmur.
Not many could. Daicos. Ablett Snr. Modra. Fevola. Rioli. Franklin. Martin. Toby Greene might get there soon.
The murmur is our greatest recognition of a rare athlete.
It starts with you, sitting in your seat in the crowd, watching Betts go near the ball in the pocket. There’s a strange sound coming from your throat.
Betts barely stoops to gather the Sherrin, tiptoeing along the tightrope boundary line.
Nothing yet spectacular, but you know what’s happening and so does everyone else; all the throats are making the same involuntary noise, growing louder, like an approaching train.
Above the murmur, you can hear people shouting. Eddie Betts. It’s Eddie. He’ll kick this.
He usually did.
In making three All-Australian teams, he also stalked backmen, tackled, flew, flicked handballs, and laughed.
“As I get older, in a footy club I go out of my way to make a coach, a fan, a stranger in the street, or my teammate happy. That’s the motto that I have every day.”
He succeeded: long after his retirement, we’ll remember how it felt to see this champion play.
Where did he come from?
His earliest years were spent in Port Lincoln, South Australia.
After his parents separated, he moved with his mother and sisters to Kalgoorlie, Western Australia.
They made their home in a packed three-bedroom house in Boomerang Crescent, with about 17 other children; sleeping arrangements involved a caravan and trampoline in the backyard.
“It was so much fun, growing up with all my cousins,” he explained to Giants player Phil Davis on an ABC podcast last year.
A tough part of his upbringing was travelling back and forth to see his father in Port Lincoln, driving across the Nullabor Plain about 30 times.
Football was always in his life — Betts tested and developed his skills against older kids in the neighbourhood – but school was not a priority. He couldn’t read or write.
Sensing trouble might be around the corner, Betts’s mother sent him to Melbourne to attend a TAFE program for Indigenous youth, overseen by former VFL player Phil Krakouer.
Young Eddie lived in Glenroy but played for Templestowe in a local league. Soon he was selected by representative teams, first Calder Cannons then Victoria Metro.
AFL clubs balked at picking up Betts after his final under-18 season; Carlton astutely recruited him in the subsequent pre-season draft.
At 18, he’d already come so far.
Betts the player
One of the best gongs in Australian rules is Goal of the Year.
Betts won it four times, Lance Franklin twice; no-one else has been able to kick more than one of them (Krakouer took it out in 1986). The AFL should name it the Eddie Betts Goal of the Year Award.
The Carlton and Adelaide champion will finish his career this weekend with 350 games over 17 seasons, and within the collection of his most celebrated goals – in which he holds the ball for a total of 7.5 seconds – lies his legacy.
The first classic was in 2006, when he was 19.
Second quarter against Collingwood, a fight broke out in the middle of the ground. The crowd was almost manic.
A long kick landed in the Blues’ forward line; the Magpie defenders tried to run and carry their way out of trouble.
Tarkyn Lockyer’s handball was smothered by the leaping Betts, who followed the ball to the boundary, gathered it, turned his body, and kicked with his right foot, making the leather arc and fizz.
Two Collingwood defenders attempted to cut it off, but the teenager was too fast, too clever. The youngster celebrated in the arms of rapt teammates.
His next Goal of the Year was in 2015. By now Betts was the hero of Adelaide.
He got an imprecise Josh Jenkins handball where the 50-metre line met the boundary. Crowded by no fewer than three Dockers, Betts took one step and kicked the ball with his non-preferred left.
Freeze the frame on his ball drop! Betts was kicking a torpedo. A torp was risky here because the ball-to-boot impact would need to be slightly to the outside, and if he didn’t get it right the Sherrin would end up in the front row of barrackers.
Betts got it right.
Also, he understood the possibilities of a football better than most; he knew to aim his shot at the point post, let the twisting nature of the torp pull it right – fading like a pro golfer’s three-iron – so it landed in front of the goals. The crowd murmured.
“No way, not from there,” the commentator said.
Yes, from there. The ball bounced through the big sticks, curving back the other way, like a back-to-front S. With dramatic flair, the goal umpire stepped aside, allowing the ball to almost kiss his feet, pausing slightly, before giving his signal. Betts was back at the fence, sharing his excitement with his audience.
We didn’t have long to wait for his next award winner.
It was 2016. Against Greater Western Sydney, Betts chased a crumb to the boundary, skidded to his knees to trap it, looked up to assess his problem: two opponents and a teammate standing over him.
He had no way out. What can I do?
He stood up in possession and considered a handball.
The Giants were wise enough to keep a step away — if they rushed at Betts he’d have sidestepped them, made them look silly — but now they were anchored on their heels, wondering: “What’s he gonna do? What if he handballs it between our legs?”
Betts saw an opening, ran outside the white line but kept the ball in. His reward for this decisiveness and speed was space on the other side. He cut back infield, swerved to find an angle that might allow him to kick powerfully (he was still about 40 metres out and needed a full leg swing) and bent it better than Beckham with his right boot.
He turned to the crowd and slapped his Indigenous-designed jumper. The people loved him, and they let him know how much.
Next time – his fourth Goal of the Year performance — the young man was 32.
Betts was in the same pocket. His pocket.
He caught the ball from a defender’s spoil by swivelling to face the goal while the leather was still in the air. There was a casual precision in his movement, making the difficult look easy.
This time he went back to his left foot.
Freeze again on the ball drop! He was laying it sideways across the bootlaces. If he tried this in Victoria it would’ve been called a “banana kick” but here it was a “checkside”.
This goal was like his first amazing feat for Carlton against Collingwood, only on the other side of the ground, with his opposite foot. He was so confident he would slot it that he backpedalled after kicking, while watching it curve and sail through. Once more, he shared the moment with the Adelaide Crows supporters.
First bloke to hug him was Taylor Walker.
Betts ‘drained’ by racism in AFL
Inspired by Adam Goodes, Betts has become a powerful voice against racism.
“I’m sick of it, I’m sick of fighting; it’s draining,” Betts said last week after being asked to comment on his old teammate Walker’s suspension for racial vilification.
“I can’t do it, I can’t, it’s hard.”
These past 17 years, while the crowds were cheering, Eddie Betts was being repeatedly racially abused by individuals.
“We’ve got a platform now, us older players, to try and make a stand,” he said.
“Goodesy believed strongly about our culture and he stood up for what was right and he got crucified for it.”
Betts said there were fears among other young players that they would be similarly treated.
Once shy and wary of media, Betts has now decided to be an advocate for public discussion about issues of violence, physical and sexual abuse, and alcoholism.
“That was my life, and I thought that life was normal,” he said.
“That’s why I’m big on education. That’s why I’m big on Aboriginal kids, especially Aboriginal kids in community, succeeding in life and being role models.”
The father of five is also an author of children’s books under the series Eddie’s Lil’ Homies. His first two books, My People and My Kind, were written to express kindness and empathy.
He hopes to turn the stories into an animated television production.
There is some sadness when champions leave the game, but not when they’ve got so much else to do.
Eddie Betts’s future in football retirement looks as bright as his resume.