With paintbrushes in hand – and spots of paint on arms, shoes, hair and walls – Richmond quartet Ricky Petterd, Anthony Miles, Sam Lloyd and Nathan Gordon stand in Ladder on Hoddle Street, cracking jokes with another group of four across the room.
At first glance, the lives of the four AFL players seem a world apart from the four who live at Ladder, a not-for-profit organisation that houses young people aged 16-25 who would otherwise be homeless.
“The one thing I didn’t want to do was to come in and be like, ‘I’m a footballer, you’ve got to listen to what I say because I’ve done everything right,’ because that’s just not the case” – Ricky Petterd
The four Tigers live their lives in the public eye, are seen by many as role models – whether they like it or not – and have access to a large network of resources and opportunities. But as Ladder’s National Program Manager, David White points out, AFL players also know more about pressure, disappointment, making mistakes and the feeling of letting people down than most.
“There’s definitely a connection between these young people and footballers”, White says.
While the Tigers are aiming to have a positive influence, Petterd says they want to avoid being put on a pedestal.
“The one thing I didn’t want to do was to come in and be like, ‘I’m a footballer, you’ve got to listen to what I say because I’ve done everything right,’ because that’s just not the case.
“We’re not perfect either and we’ve got to earn their trust as much as they’ve got to earn ours. That’s why I didn’t want to come in and be a mentor straight away. I wanted to get to know them a bit first and then maybe they can open up a little bit to you.”
Rather than putting their hands up to mentor a tenant at Ladder, the Richmond boys spoke to former Sydney and Western Bulldogs player – now Ladder employee – Ed Barlow about other ways they could get involved.
“Ed plays in our VFL side, and I knew him at the Sydney Swans, which is how we’ve got that relationship”, Gordon explains.
“The hands-on stuff appealed to us a little bit more than coming down and talking to kids who don’t know us, and trying to gain their trust [straight away], which would be pretty hard,” Petterd adds.
“The idea of painting a room with some mates sounded like good fun to us and we’ve had a good day today.”
The players have been around footy long enough to know the positive impact community work can have for their wellbeing, though Petterd says “doing it off your own bat a little bit, not just through the footy club… still strikes home a bit when you see what the kids are going through.”
“It takes your mind away from footy and puts it into perspective,” Gordon says.
“I like the development side of footy and always think I’d probably make a better coach than I do a player” – Ricky Petterd
“It’s pretty rewarding seeing the kids coming in here and helping us out.”
“They’re all having a crack – they’re good kids”, Lloyd adds.
While the Richmond players’ experiences with the young people at Ladder are yet to extend into deep conversation, White says their presence can have a profound effect.
“For most of these young people, everyone who exists in their life is being paid to be there. To have players come down and spend time with them, for no other reason than they want to, is a very powerful thing.”
As the young Tigers are maturing on-field, having last year made finals in consecutive seasons for the first time since 1975, developing away from the game remains a strong focus.
Petterd is currently studying criminology, which he says is “pretty hard but pretty interesting”, but is also open to the possibility of working in the football industry when his playing days are over.
“I love footy and love watching it,” he says.
“I like the development side of footy and always think I’d probably make a better coach than I do a player, but I did a bit of coaching stuff and it wasn’t really for me.
“So I went and had a chat to the recruiters and they’ve been happy enough to help me, give me some vision to watch and I’ll go and watch some TAC Cup games with them on the weekend as well.
“I’m just trying to branch out a little bit and see what I enjoy and where I can take my next step after footy.”
Miles, who is currently studying teaching, shares the same mindset.
“I’m pretty similar to Rick – I’m not really sure what I want to get into post-footy but [teaching] is a pretty solid degree to have, so I just thought I’d do some teaching.
“I’ve got a lot of study left, because I’m doing a part-time load at the moment and the pracs are pretty much impossible with footy, but I’m slowly chipping away at it.”
Should Miles continue to help out at Ladder, his teaching experience is sure to come in handy. But he’s not the only Tiger to have experience when it comes to educating others.
“We’ve started having our own mentoring system at the club,” Lloyd explains.
“A few older, more experienced guys are mentoring young kids at the club. It’s good to do it inside the footy club and outside the footy club.
“Hopefully in the future we can take some of the stuff we learn in there and bring it here.”