He is called a small forward, but it would be better if it was forward pocket, from footy’s old glossary. He’s that size, and he fits snugly in that place. Dumpy by the standard of AFL bodies, wearing shorts that hang off him, he is the unlikely kicker of unlikelier goals, not to mention good for the occasional nomination for mark-of-the-year, too.
You won’t see him streaming out of half-back, or prowling alone out on the wing. He does all his work in that part of the ground where the boundaries close in, the bottleneck where the ambush awaits. It ought to limit his possibilities; instead, it expands them. It is the necessity that mothers his invention.
Betts’ way is distinctly Indigenous. He does not so much get the ball as lead it on a dance. In his hands, it comes alive. When he puts it onto his boot, it is the same; he is not merely using it, but working with it. They’re a pair, him and the ball.
So it is that he kicks left-foot barrels from the left pocket, right from the right, bananas from both. He kicks around corners and through slits, working with the angle and against. He kicks at full speed and when stopped dead, frisking at the front of packs or sneaking around the back. He roosts, dribbles and toe-pokes, and through they go.
He’s the little man who stands taller than the lot of them.
He kicks in the AFL the goals we all tried to kick in the playground, and the goals we could not have imagined kicking even there. He makes a hard game look like a lark.
It hasn’t always been so. Events overtook him twice, when leaving Carlton, again when leaving Adelaide. Neither was his doing. Both pained him. But he’s outlived it all. He’s the little man who stands taller than the lot of them.
He has a back story, and a cause, and both are rooted in his Indigenous heritage, and more power to him for that, but it wouldn’t matter if he did not. He’d still be Eddie Betts. His footy will always and forever more speaks for itself.
Several generations of footballers listed their starry-eyed childhood hero as Peter Daicos. He retired more than 25 years ago, and his cult has just about worked its way through the system now. You imagine in another generation’s time the answer will be Betts.
Perhaps it is as simple as this: when Betts approaches, you just know he is going to make you feel better than you did a moment ago. Who will do that now?
This is an edited and updated version of a tribute to Betts on his 300th game in 2019.