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Eddie Betts Foundation delivers Indigenous teens the ultimate AFL experience

Andrew Mathieson -

Footy magician Eddie Betts had a natural knack for making everything he did on the field look far too easy.

But entering the AFL system back in the 2004 preseason was anything but that.

Even after 16 seasons at the top level, having been celebrated for his achievements, and after all of what the AFL administrators had done to reciprocate change for a sport still buried much in prejudice, Betts came out once to say the game was still "not a safe place" for the mob.

Anna Scullie, the wife to Betts and mother of five, knew the landscape only too well.

She's lived the amazing ups, but also faced up to the dismal lows with a husband that has made a nation tear up a little when racism rears its ugly head and can't help but to wear his heart on his sleeve.

"When I finished playing footy, Anna said to me, 'You played 350 games, you kicked a lot of good (640) goals, you've done a lot out there, but no matter what, your job starts now,'" Betts told a national audience on Thursday.

"She was right – my real job starts right now."

There the Eddie Betts Foundation was born.

The purpose has been to hand opportunities to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders while still promoting a sense of community.

Inaugural foundation players were presented with guernseys ahead of the match. (Image: @eddiebettsfoundation/Instagram)

The foundation delivers this kind of equity by providing a greater access to sporting facilities, to equipment and to programs for disadvantaged Indigenous individuals and their communities while additionally fostering a sense of belonging, health, and also wellbeing.

After the public launch in just May of this year, 25 gifted Australian rules footballers from the far reaches of Northern Territory, Western Australia and South Australia joined a sprinkling of Victorians closer to the action for a week that changed a lot of lives.

"Lot of the boys told me this was the best week they ever had," Betts says.

Betts has been left smiling at the astonished reactions from his inaugural intake of enthusiastic 13 to 16-year-olds being exposed to the traditional heartland of the game in Melbourne.

For starters, some had never been on a plane before. Few less had never left community or Country too.

The lifelong friendship and the unique bond that First Nations strangers can form has also been immeasurable.

"They were all a bit shy coming together for the first two days, but by the end of this week they got to know each other really well," Betts explains.

"We wanted to create a space for them to open up and feel safe.

"They have become like brothers now."

The adventures contained meeting some of their heroes at Carlton and Collingwood, enlisting in a NBL training session with South East Melbourne Phoenix, but also the life skills of cooking classes in a gourmet MCG kitchen to learn healthy eating habits.

The experience has made the teenagers more confident and willing to open up about their own stories.

Players participated in a masterclass cooking lesson lead by My Kitchen Rules chefs Tasia and Gracia Seger. (Image: @eddiebettsfoundation/Instagram)

One funny anecdote Betts shared was of Jalyn Priestly and his relationship with Carlton youngster Jesse Motlop.

"He's an outward character, he's a funny man and he energises this group," Betts tells.

"He came up to me and goes, 'Jesse (Motlop) is my lost cousin', and I said, 'Oh, is he?'

"He then said, 'Yep – we're not blood-related, but we grew up together', but that is cousin to him.

"But a lot of them were walking around in the rooms where we were staying saying, 'Hey Eddie, hey Eddie' all the time, so I am like an uncle to these boys now.'"

Aware of the emotional come down after many told Betts they would beg their mums and dads to send them to Melbourne for schooling to embrace their new love of footy culture, a zoom call a week later was set up to check in with this cherished group.

The foundation's academy week - of course - could not have gone ahead without playing a match to ensure they went home happy.

The proud Wirangu, Kokatha and Guburn man took a moment to reflect on what his new foundation achieved that even included telecasting the game to the families of the players, often living in remote areas of Australia.

"I have to say Anna has worked tirelessly beyond what I could ask for," Betts said, "so if it wasn't for her, this game alone would not have happened."

That came right down to organising 11-time AFL grand final umpire Matt Stevic to be there at the opening bounce.

Betts was beaming that the sport's leading whistleblower, who was also present in the past 10 season-deciders, would agree to take control of such a groundbreaking day.

Players travelled from across the country to participate in the match. (Image: @eddiebettsfoundation/Instagram)

That didn't stop the Carlton and Adelaide champion, who ran in earshot of Stevic once during the Crows' 2017 grand final loss, to jokingly ask for a free-flowing game.

"I did say to him before the game please let the boys play – just don't over-umpire," Betts laughed.

And the occasion could not be a more Victorian experience than to run out on the hallowed turf of Victoria Park that continues to host all but AFL fixtures still after first opening 144 years ago and continuing to be the spiritual home of Collingwood since 1892.

There the Eddie Betts Foundation team took on the Yarra Junior Football League, the suburban footy network that has been one of the best nurseries for past AFL talent.

The fact that the rivals from Melbourne's eastern suburbs wore its black and white striped interleague guernsey further added to the nostalgia of the Thursday afternoon clash.

The Indigenous guernsey had a traditional touch that rivalled anything that AFL clubs have worn in a Sir Doug Nichols round.

The design with several shades of blue in an eye-catching water-looking theme from proud Yamatji/Martu woman, artist, mother and footballer, Emma McNeill, "came up really nice", Betts had felt.

"The jumper is about coming together as a family from all of our communities," Betts said.

The match was an intriguing battle, as the sons of former AFL boss Andrew Demetriou and former Western Bulldogs star Luke Darcy – the brother of rising star Sam Darcy – took on a number of familiar AFL surnames and other Indigenous connections.

There was a bit of a Collingwood but also an Essendon presence, with the nephews of both Gavin Wanganeen and Richard Cole, along with the son of Chris Egan, and even the grandson of Derek Kickett playing to name a few.

There were also multiple players from the Darwin Buffaloes, the Palmerston Magpies and from the Top End's most dominant club, St Mary's.

Ollie Bond and Shaquarn Cox were named best afield during the match. (Image: @eddiebettsfoundation/Instagram)

Representation also came in the shape of Port Lincoln and Kalgoorlie, the two towns that Betts twice called home before Victoria later came calling.

The foundation team took a bit of time to get going and in a slow start, struggling with the physical presence of the Yarra juniors despite their average being just 14 years of age.

But their natural skills flowed through in the second half to go near goal for goal in an honourable 19-point loss.

The scoreline, though, almost became consequential in the bigger picture of what Betts, who once struggled to read and write until adulthood, had been trying to achieve.

"If I can help these kids, like I've said with education, getting them into schools down here, helping them with sport, their football, that's great," he said.

"But for me, I am really on their education with these kids.

"Hopefully our foundation will give an easier pathway to succeed.

"For me growing up, coming through the system there was a lot of challenges I had to face, and I had to do it the hard way.

"But now I am in a position where I can give these kids that opportunity

"That's the key; that's the main word: opportunity."

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