The Carlton Blues finished the season in 13th place on the AFL ladder, as they won eight games and lost 14 games in season 2021.
It wasn’t the ending that Eddie Betts wanted. Ask him and he’ll tell you, he’s still got plenty of gas left in the tank.
Over the next few months though, once the grand final ends another year, what will start to emerge is the second coming of Betts and his new chapter.
Retired from football? Yes.
But Betts has plans.
Between now and then he’ll use the empty days to reflect and bask on his 350-game career, 11 seasons with two clubs, 638 majestic goals and ponder what it all meant to him.
When football clubs clock in for preseason, he won’t be there. No more skin folds. No more time trials and beep tests. He’ll miss the art of kicking goals from miraculous angles. And we, as fans, will miss watching him pull off these incredible feats.
Ahead of his last game against Greater Western Sydney at Marvel this weekend, Betts spoke to his teammates. He told them painfully that the hardest part of not being offered another contract to play in 2022 was going home to tell his son Lewis the news.
“He started crying to me and I said ‘don’t worry mate, the next chapter is going to be good,’” he said.
“I believe I have a big part to play now and that’s stamping out racism and I’m going to continue to do that and continue to try and make change here in Australia and throughout the AFL.”
The game that gave him so much elation, and happiness to every Australian that watched him carry out his craft each week, will always be in his heart. Talking to Gerard Whateley on AFL 360, his eyes lit up any time he spoke about what football means to him.
“Footy is tough. It’s a hard game but you’re there because you love the game – the smell of deep heat when you go to the change rooms and just kicking that ball,” he said. “It keeps that little child inside of me. It gives me joy.”
When Betts hit his peak, he was as ruthless as you can get as a small forward. Give him a second to use the ball on the boundary and he’d make you pay. Not just once but repeatedly.
Rival coaches now try to develop, recruit and mold their own ‘Eddie Betts’ in their forward lines. Someone who can crumb, kick freakish goals, bring elite defensive pressure, have breathtaking evasive skills, and do all of this every week.
An ‘Eddie Betts’ forward is almost a must-have for premiership contenders. In some ways, Betts created a gold standard that is almost unattainable.
Betts retired a Bluebagger, but has fond memories of South Australia. The move was hard but the six years there were rewarding. Betts got to experience a grand final in 2017. He made the Adelaide Oval forward pocket his own graveyard for defenders. And it was there he developed his voice, became a leader, and a spokesperson for Indigenous community. When he spoke people listened and the football community endorsed his bravery.
The 34-year-old became the 19th player to reach 350 games. What makes his longevity that much more remarkable than the next player is how he’s been a leader to help change the conversation around racism in the AFL — which some will argue has had more positive impact than what he achieved on the field.
Remember: Betts arrived to the AFL as a “shy” and “chubby” kid in his words. And now after 17 years he’ll leave the game as an icon and anti-racism activist.
The same beast he’s trying to fight also gave him traumatic experiences. Betts has often said that he’s received racist abuse — at games and from trolls online — every year since he started playing in the AFL in 2004.
“I don’t feel like it’s safe at the moment,” Betts told the media this week. “I feel like there’s still a lot of racism. This year there has been a lot of racism. It’s been draining and it’s been tiring. Every year we’ve seen myself and the other Aboriginal boys standing up, trying to call it out, trying to make a stance.”
In his new post-football world, Betts will balance a mix of ambition and being a man in demand. He’s got plans with Coles Australia, Fox Footy and he will also embark on setting up his own foundation to help Aboriginal kids be leaders in any aspect of life. But he cautioned that he alone can’t eradicate racist behaviour.
“We need everyone to chip in,” he said. “Because nobody is born racist. Everyone’s learned it along the way somewhere or heard it.”
The outpouring of praise, reflection and adoration for Betts has been like one long, ongoing ticker-tape parade. It’s what you’d expected when someone who gave so much to the game leaves a gaping void. It’s a reminder of how universally loved he was by the football community.
Adelaide’s Rory Sloane posted on Instagram: “It was an absolute privilege to play alongside this man and to have the best seats in the house to watch the [Betts] show for years.”
Richmond three-time premiership forward Jack Riewoldt said on AFL 360 that Betts was a “phenomenal player” and will be “forever loved”.
Collingwood’s Mason Cox tweeted, “So much respect for this man. I hope he continues to be a voice of reason to the community.”
Carlton coach David Teague, who was a former teammate, told media that Betts had had a significant impact both on and off the field throughout an “unbelievable career”.
“I’m honoured to have been a part of, both as a teammate and a coach,” Teague said. “To have him impart his experience and wisdom on to our younger players over the last two years has been great for our entire group.”
And on Twitter, host of AFL.com’s Colour Of Your Jumper Shelley Ware posted, “this game and our hearts will miss you.”
If you go to YouTube, fans have already packed up the best clips of Betts’ work in front of goal. A Carlton fan channel ‘Blue Abroad’ that has more than 1.2 million views will be live streaming an Eddie Betts tribute show tonight at 8pm where fans can weigh in on their favourite moments of the mercurial goal-sneak.
Betts broke down after the 95-point loss to Port Adelaide. It was his last game of football at the Adelaide Oval where he made so many memories. And that was the night he told his Blues teammates for the first time that he was retiring. He said he was bawling in the rooms after the game. All of it was a lot to digest.
It’s been more than 36 hours since Betts announced his retirement and already it feels like the wheels are in motion for what’s to come. But being at peace with leaving the game that gave him everything will take time.
He was asked on AFL 360 whether or not he’s had time to reflect on his career just yet and Betts said he’s just been soaking it all up – the text messages, phone calls, interviews and the re-watching of all those freakish goals he kicked, which he says sometimes he can’t believe actually went in.
In a couple of weeks from now, Betts will sit back and reflect on his journey and the great imagination and instinct he injected onto the football field.
“I hope at some point in my career I was able to put a smile on your face. If I did, I’m happy and my work is done here,” he posted on Instagram. “Looking forward to seeing you all come with me on the next ride.”