Time Out Sydney

Nice guy Adam Goodes' warrior spirit is fiercest off the AFL field

He’s one of the AFL’s true greats – a dual winner of the prestigious Brownlow Medal, three-time All-Australian champion and a key cog in the Swans’ 2005 premiership win. But nice guy Adam Goodes’ warrior spirit is fiercest off the field.

Adam, you’re in your 14th season with the Swans and your second as captain. Yet you still consider your non-footy life a better expression of who you are?
On the footy field I’m a creature of instinct – running around, not thinking, reacting – a pure expression of my Aboriginality, an equal on a level playing field. But off the park I’m borne of a different skin colour and that means I’ve got to think deeply about what I do and the choices I make.

So much of Aboriginal history is about being denied that basic right. Your own family is testament to that isn’t it?
My mother was one of ten children and she and eight of her brothers and sisters were taken from their parents in the 60s and 70s, never to see them again. My own parents split when I was four and alcohol and domestic abuse were part of my up- bringing while my stepfather was around. It all made me grow up very quickly and appreciate the family I had, particularly my mum who sacrificed so much to raise my two younger brothers and I.

How deep did your own trouble get?
We moved around a lot as kids and, almost without exception, I was the only black kid at school and on the football team. When I got to high school the principal introduced me to some kids to be my new friends. In the bus shelter they lit up yandi [cannabis] and offered me a puff. Nearby on the oval some kids were kicking a Sherrin. I’d never smoked marijuana and to that point I’d only played soccer. But a kick was a kick, so I walked to the oval and said: “Can I join in?” That decision changed my life.

The other key choice you’ve made is to actively study your people’s past and chart them a different future, right?
For me that meant doing a Diploma in Aboriginal Studies at Eora TAFE – what an eye-opener that was. Up to that point all I knew about being Aboriginal was to be called a ‘black c***’ in the schoolyard and on the footy field. Once I educated myself on the Stolen Generation and the history of indigenous players in the AFL I asked myself some hard questions.

It led to you writing a now-famous essay ‘The Indigenous Game’ which saw you labelled a “racist” by one historian…
… because I said that Aboriginal people were born to play AFL football. Look, I’m an open, honest guy and I stand by that belief – Australian football is a game we love to play and we bring unique skills to it. Writing that article there was no hiding away from the bad bits of our history. It’s important to shine light on the dark past because that’s what has defined indigenous players in our game. That past is what informs the rules we live and play by now.

Is that discipline harder to maintain in so fast and fickle a town as Sydney?
Sydney’s a tough market to do business in – for players, for sponsors and for fans. But once you’re in, you’re in. Sydneysiders love their red-and-white and support us week-in, week-out. But the bottom line is we want as many people watching, playing and participating in AFL as we can. The new Greater Western Sydney side next year will help a lot with that.

Eh? I thought it was all-out war between the Swans and GWS for Sydney’s heart?
Sydney wants GWS to be successful – if there are two great clubs in this city, the game’s successful and clubs, communities and fans reap the benefit. We all want that so we’ll work together to get it. As for the indigenous players at GWS, we’ll go out of our way to form a bond with those guys. We come from the same place inside.

Does Sydney feel Aboriginal to you?
Sydney is my home, it has been for 15 years and will be for many, many more. It’s a very spiritual place. I know a lot of Aboriginal people and communities in Sydney and wider NSW and it’s great to share Sydney’s indigenous stories with them. We recently formed Black Swans, a supporter group for indigenous Sydney Swans fans, and Michael O’Loughlin and I have the GO foundation doing fantastic things in education, employment and health.

We hear you’ve taken Sydney’s young indigenous players under your wing… The biggest challenge young Aboriginal players face is moving away from home and finding people to talk to and trust in the city. In a professional environment like footy, the pressure of training, playing, eating right and behaving appropriately can defeat you before you’ve even begun. That’s why, when I re-signed with Telstra as an ambassador, I took young Lewis Jetta and Byron Sumner with me so they can see what that sort of meeting looks like. It opens their eyes to the fact that being a footballer isn’t just about playing football. It creates an income, sure, but it also supports initiatives and community programmes that can become a big parts of your life.

Football isn’t that simple though is it? You’ve admitted to carrying “baggage” – how much of your game is mental?
Ninety per cent. When my mind is clear, my body feels good and I play well. When I’m physically injured I do more meditation. The mind is a powerful thing – it plays tricks on you all the time – but you can use it to trick your body the other way too. When it comes to ‘baggage’ we’ve all got it. It’s the extent to which you let it affect you and how you control it that decides whether you win or lose. Me? I’m human. Criticism and outside factors from my past affect me. So I do yoga, meditate and I visit a sports psychologist most weeks. Most of the time we don’t even talk about footy, I just debrief and talk about random stuff to keep myself ticking over.

Very Zen. But doesn’t every footballer live or die by his level of ‘mongrel’?
I didn’t have mongrel at the start of my career. But I’ve learned since that I can cross the white line, find some mongrel and still be the person I want to be off the field. That balance has been a long time coming for me. But the heartache of losing the 2006 Grand Final by a point and the disappointment of falling short in big games helps you find that mongrel and fuels a burning desire to do better. I want to be the best footballer and captain and man I can be, but that doesn’t mean focusing on myself. The true sign of great leadership is bringing the best out of others.

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Updated on 4 Jun 2015.

By Angus Fontaine   |   Photos by Dan Boud

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