Tony Walters told all the AFL clubs who enquired about Marlion Pickett exactly the same thing.
“I just kept on saying that you’ve got to get to know the person,” Walters told AFLPlayers.com.au.
“I was telling them: ‘You’ll love this bloke’ and fortunately for Richmond they did and now they absolutely love him.”
Walters would know better than most.
The then-South Fremantle reserves coach was part of the group who recruited Pickett to the club in 2013, after he had served a two-and-a-half year sentence in prison for a string of crimes committed during his teenage years.
Pickett’s brother Thomas was playing with Souths at the time and informed senior coach Paul Haselby and Walters that brother Marlion could “seriously play”.
So a South Fremantle party went and visited Pickett in prison to get to know him and sound him out about joining the club.
Swan Districts also showed interest in recruiting him, but South Fremantle was the only club that sent people to visit Pickett and eventually when he made the decision where to play they won out.
“His wife was pregnant with their second child while he was in prison,” Walters said of Pickett.
Walters played a considerable role in helping Pickett re-establish himself in society and make changes to his lifestyle.
The changes Pickett, a member of South Fremantle’s reserves team premiership in 2013, made were significant and his talent as one of the most versatile players in the WAFL competition soon became unquestioned.
Walters recalls one game in 2017 when South Fremantle was trailing Peel Thunder by 40 points in that year’s preliminary final.
Fremantle-listed players Jon Griffin and Sean Darcy were dominating in the ruck and Souths had to throw caution to the wind and take risks to try to get back in the game.
One of those risks saw Pickett, despite standing 184cm, go into the ruck.
“He singlehandedly dragged us back into that game,” Walters said.
“We got back to within 11 points and then we had to give him a rest and that’s when they got away from us again.”
Former South Fremantle teammate and ex-Docker Nick Suban always knew Pickett was a talented player when he would play against him. But it wasn’t until he played with him that Suban realised just how good a player Pickett was.
“Yeah he has that ‘X Factor’, but what he I found out pretty quickly was just how tough he was as a player,” Suban said.
“If there’s a 50/50 ball to win he’ll go hammer and tongs at it. I’m looking forward to seeing him on the big stage because that’s how Grand Finals are won with players who do that consistently and that’s what Marlion will do. I have little doubt about that.”
Despite being a consistently high performer at WAFL level, Pickett was continually overlooked by numerous AFL clubs in recent drafts.
“Over those seven years since 2013 there’s probably been 10 or 12 times where he’s wanted to quit and not pursue his AFL career,” Walters said.
“Certainly we’ve had discussions where he felt that people were remembering the Marlion Pickett that went to jail and not the person he is today.”
Gold Coast showed significant interest in Pickett in the lead up to last year’s AFL Draft, only to go cold at the last minute.
Walters is sure the fact the Suns decided not to recruit Pickett was due to his background, which he believes should not be the mark of Pickett’s character.
Chastened by again being overlooked, Pickett went back to the WAFL and played some exceptional football at the start of this season to float onto Richmond’s radar.
Despite undergoing surgery for a badly-broken finger just prior to the mid-season draft in May, the Tigers still decided to draft Pickett in the mid-year draft in the hope he would recover after a few months on the sidelines.
He finally made his VFL debut in early August and staked his claim for a senior berth with a best afield performance in Sunday’s VFL Grand Final win over Williamstown.
Pickett will become the sixth player in VFL/AFL history to make his debut in a Grand Final and just the first player in 67 years to achieve the feat.
Walters, now the assistant coach at South Fremantle under Todd Curley, is flying out from Perth on Friday evening and can’t wait to be at the MCG on Saturday to watch Pickett, the man he’s spent so much time with over the last seven years, achieve his long-standing dream.
That the 27-year-old will debut in a Grand Final won’t bother Pickett too much, according to Walters.
“There’s no bigger stage is there?” he said.
“I think he’ll be fine. He’s one of those characters that through his life experiences has done it pretty tough.
“But not much fazes him and he’ll just go out there and do whatever the team requires.”
Suban texted Pickett on Thursday and told him he was “super pumped” for what lay ahead.
“I just told him to back himself in,” Suban said.
Walters said sitting at the ground on Saturday would be a surreal moment for him.
“I’ll be pinching myself, absolutely,” Walters said.
“There’s no-one more deserving of this opportunity and I’ll probably shed a tear or too because I know how much he’s been through.”