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Legend Q&A: Dean Widders

Dean Widders learned plenty at the feet of Arthur Beetson when he lived with him while still at school.

In this Rugby League Week Legend Q&A first published in 2012, Widders details his early struggles at the Roosters, flying high under Brian Smith at the Eels, the passion of Russell Crowe and how a giant fog cloud prevented him joining the Gold Coast Titans.

Legend Q&A: Dean Widders

How important was Arthur Beetson in getting your career started?

Artie was the reason I went down to the Roosters. I moved down to Sydney when I was in Year 12 and lived with him while I finished school. It was a big move going down from Armidale and Artie was like a father figure to me.

There was no way that my father would have let me go down if Artie wasn’t there because he knew that he’d look after me. Living with a great like that inspired me to make something of my footy career.

Tell us about living with Arthur?

One night he said we were going to have a barbecue for dinner and there were four massive T-Bone steaks getting cooked. I thought there must have been someone else coming for dinner but he put these two massive steaks on the plate and said, 'There you go Deano. Get yourself some salad and there’s your dinner'. They took up the whole plate so there wasn’t much room for salad!

Every time I jumped in the car he would be on the phone on the loud speaker the whole time to legends like Ron Coote or Jack Gibson. It was a proud thing for me as a young player to have Artie Beetson interested in me. I’d spoken to a few other clubs, but Artie was the first one who spotted me. Once he came to see me I was going straight to the Roosters.

Artie obviously had a huge influence on you, as did Eels legend David Liddiard?

'Lidds' took me to England when I was 16 with an Australian Aboriginal team. I was the youngest bloke  on the tour and he taught me what rugby league can offer you if you have a crack.

I realised what a big difference I could make to a community if I made it. It was just good to see all these Aboriginal boys from different communities and tribes come together as one.

Some had dark skin and lived the traditional way and spoke traditional languages. Some were from the city that had light skin and didn’t know much about their Aboriginality. It is the same today with the Indigenous All Stars where the boys all come together and are proud of their culture.

It was the trip of a lifetime and I always said that I wanted to go back and play [in England]. That is where my professional footy career sort of started - and it is where it finished with Castleford. The people over there impressed me the first time I went there and even more when I went back.

You went to the Roosters in 1997 but didn’t make your NRL debut until 2000. Was that hard for you?

It wasn’t a smooth ride. I went there as a young fella and I got some success straight away. I was player of the SG Ball comp and I got picked in the Junior Kangaroos. When I turned 19 I thought I was going to progress easy but I had a disappointing season.

Dean Widders started his career with the Sydney Roosters.
Dean Widders started his career with the Sydney Roosters. ©NRL Photos

At the end of that year the Roosters didn't offer me a contract to start with. So I went and trained down at Scots College with John Hutchinson, a bloke that helped me through my whole career.

He was the welfare man at the Roosters when I was there and he was with me at Parramatta and Souths. I went from a young kid that was going to fade out at reserve grade level to playing first grade with the Roosters that next season. 'Hutcho' showed me about hard work and helped me grow from a boy into a man.

Why did you join Parramatta?

It was because of one man. As soon as I met Brian Smith I wanted to be coached by him. It was just his knowledge and his interest...I knew he'd be a good fit for me. I signed with Parramatta for half of what I was on at the Roosters as a young bloke and it was the best decision I ever made with my footy.

You hardly missed a game in five seasons at the Eels. What stands out to you?

We probably blew our chances there against the Cowboys in the preliminary final of 2005 when we won the minor premiership. But we had a great tem and it was great times.

I have never played with a team that had so much fun playing footy...blokes like   Jamie Lyon, David Solomona, Adam Dykes and Nathan Hindmarsh.

Dean Widders was an integral part of Parramatta's finals teams of the mid 2000s.
Dean Widders was an integral part of Parramatta's finals teams of the mid 2000s. ©NRL Photos

I remember when Fuifui (Moimoi) came to the club and he was struggling with his fitness and the trainer Hayden Knowles asked him to do extras. He said, 'Did you go for a run on the weekend Fui?' And Fui  goes, 'Yeah. Saturday and Sunday'. Hayden asked how far he went and Fui said '20km Saturday and 20km Sunday'.  That from a bloke that couldn't run a lap of an oval!

A bloke that played a massive part in getting me fit at Parra was Craig Catterick I've got a treadmill named after me out there. I did that many kilometres on that thing, it was like I owned it!

He used to get me in at six o’clock every morning and we'd do a session on it. When I left he showed me how he'd written my name all over it!

Hindmarsh and Widders lay it on

How did you come to sign with Souths?

Smithy left and Parra had a lot of players off contract and they were trying to figure out how to keep everyone. I talked about it with my family and I had virtually decided that I was going to go to the Titans.

I was supposed to fly up to the Gold Coast on a Thursday but a massive fog cloud hit and all the flights in Sydney got grounded and I didn't end up going. I kept talking to the Titans on the phone but I hadn’t committed to anything.

Dean Widders finished his NRL career with the Rabbitohs.
Dean Widders finished his NRL career with the Rabbitohs. ©NRL Photos

Then I went to [Souths CEO] Shane Richardson's house on the Saturday to have a coffee and a chat. I walked in and 15 minutes later I'd walked out with a signed contract to play for the Rabbitohs.

 I still don't know to this day how he got me to do it. Richo’ is just one of those blokes. Everything he said was good. Souths offered me some great opportunities off the field…and then I met Russell Crowe.

What was Russell like?

He has just got a passion for life that not many people have got. He has that same passion for South Sydney footy club and rugby league in general.

He is a guy who has all those opportunities that come his way in America,  so for him to come back and do what he did for Souths when they were struggling was an inspiring thing.

He has just got a passion for life that not many people have got.

Dean Widders on Russell Crowe

I think the reason he fell in love with Souths to start with was because they were once the pride of the league and he wanted to get that back. Watch the boys play now and you can see the pride they have in the jersey.

I talked to Adam Peek once when I was at Parramatta and looking at other clubs and I remember him saying, 'I was never a Rabbitohs fan but the proudest thing I did was play for South Sydney'. That always stuck with me. I probably didn't play my best footy for Souths but to play for them was one of the proudest things that I have ever done, too.

You were a cult hero at Castleford. Did you enjoy your three years there?

Castelford is one of the smallest towns supporting a professional rugby league club. They haven’t got much money but the fans are so passionate and just love their team.

It was an honour to play for them. I made some great friends and I still stay in touch with them every week. The people there were so good to me and my family and they are rugby league people through and through. It is a real family game over there and it reminded me of why people play rugby league in the first place, especially in country towns.

Dean Widders at the NRL's 2017 Indigenous camp in Sydney.
Dean Widders at the NRL's 2017 Indigenous camp in Sydney. ©NRL Photos

Any other memories from over there?

It was great being coached by Terry Matterson over there. He is one of those blokes that wants to be involved in everything. He is the sort of coach who will clean the jerseys and mow the lawn.

That got him in trouble one day when he jumped a fence to get the footies that all the kids had kicked over it. But he got his hand caught and lost a finger.

Terry was just so good for the club because of his attitude of always doing more than just your job. That rubbed off on a lot of people. The gym is only the size of the toilets at South Sydney but everyone gets in and has a go.

You stood up against racism in 2005 when you were at the Eels and Souths captain Bryan Fletcher targeted you with a racial slur. Looking back, you must feel vindicated you handled it the right way?

I was pretty shocked because Fletch was a mate of mine at the Roosters and he was one of the guys that helped me out a lot when I was there. He rang me back that night and apologised.

Even when he first said it, I don’t think he could believe it himself. He also apologised to his team and everyone moved on from it.

NRL Indigenous Pathways manager Dean Widders.
NRL Indigenous Pathways manager Dean Widders. ©Nathan Hopkins/NRL Photos

I was standing up for our people who don't have the temperament to deal with it and I tried to show people how to handle it the right way. We also need to create an understanding within our cultures in Australia so that they respect us enough not to say those words.

A lot of footballers think that what is said on the field should stay on the field. It is a fiery game out there and people say things that they don't mean, but racism is crossing the line. You've got to make people understand that and credit to the NRL for doing that.