5 May 2009: Essendon legend Kevin Sheedy AM was awarded Australian Catholic University’s (ACU) highest honour today, Doctor of the University, in recognition of his contributions to community and youth work in sport - particularly for his work with Indigenous Australians.
One of AFL’s most enduring figures, Kevin has been a player and coach for more than five decades, with an unsurpassed record of involvement in 1,000 games and eight premierships.
Playing first for Prahran in 1964, he later transferred to Richmond, with whom he played 251 games and three winning grand finals. He was a state representative on eight occasions.
After a highly decorated playing career, “Sheeds” went on to an outstanding period as coach of Essendon (1981-2007), where he coached a record 635 games with a success ratio of 61 per cent - winning four grand finals. He was All Australian coach on four separate occasions, twice State of Origin coach and coach of the International Rules Team in 2005 and 2006.
The Park Orchards resident has received numerous accolades over the years - including the Advance Australia Award in 1993, an Order of Australia (AM) in 1998, an Australian Sports Medal in 2000 and induction into the Australian Football League’s Hall of Fame in 2008.
However Kevin is perhaps best known as the AFL coach who has most promoted and nurtured Indigenous talent.
In the early 1980s, shortly after his appointment as the coach of Essendon, Kevin asked the board if there was any reason why there hadn’t been an Indigenous player, and decided it was about time there was.
Essendon, under Kevin Sheedy, led the way in talent-spotting and attracting young Indigenous players, and other clubs soon followed. Today, 83 players on the AFL lists, out of about 600, are Indigenous footballers - the greatest participation rate for Indigenous Australians in any sport.
“It has lifted the spirits of Indigenous kids, and there is a huge bridge being built here,” Kevin said. “If we can work together and build a better country through sport, then we’ll never go back to where we were, we’ll go forward.”
Two highly successful initiatives of Sheedy, with the late Ron Evans and Bill Kelty, are the AFL Traineeship Program and Kickstart camps. The Traineeship Program offers properly paid, sporting apprenticeships to 500 young people each year, of which 100 are Indigenous players.
Kickstart camps are held annually in Melbourne for élite Indigenous footballers, aged 14-15, from all over Australia. The emphasis is just as much on building good leaders as on developing footballers -and one of the pre-requisites for camp selection is that the boys are attending school.
Jason Lifsud, AFL Indigenous Program manager, said that Indigenous males are 11 times more likely to be caught in the justice system.
“However in football the statistics are different,” he said. “While Indigenous people make up 2 per cent of Australians, they make up more than 10 per cent of AFL lists.”
Kevin said his inspiration to help others had stemmed from his parents who were models of affection and hard work, the teachers and football coaches who instructed him throughout his youth, and the Catholic Church.
“Human people are vulnerable – they need Christ’s help,” he said.
Michael Long, perhaps Kevin’s most famous Indigenous AFL recruit is among countless to have paid tribute to the footballing great.
“To me he is a father of reconciliation, for what he has personally done for me and the game and for other Indigenous kids,” he said.
Vice-Chancellor of ACU, Professor Greg Craven, congratulated Kevin for a lifetime contribution to community and youth work through sport.
“Kevin Sheedy has proven to be not only a great sportsman, but someone who has used his success to give genuine help to others,” he said.