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Family tragedy motivates Watson's desire for change

NRL.com reporter Tanisha Stanton is a proud Gamilaroi Yuwaalaraay woman. She was born on Wiradjuri Country in Dubbo, Central-West NSW, and her family hail from Goodooga, North-West NSW. 

The intergenerational trauma of the stolen generation still lives among our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander brothers and sisters, causing feelings of shame and disconnect.

Connection to culture has been pivotal in our identity and a way for our young people to express themselves, their feelings and emotions.

For Newcastle Knights utility Connor Watson and his family - who lost their cousin, son, brother, nephew and grandchild - Parker, to suicide in 2017, they were determined to find a way to combat this serious issue among our community.

"It just didn't feel real. He was only a teenager," Watson said.

"He was a wild and outgoing kid. I just didn't think that something like that would happen to him.

The Newcastle jersey was designed by local Aboriginal artist Tyler Smith with feedback from Knights players Connor Watson, Edrick Lee and Gehamat Shibasaki. In creating a deeper bond to the region and its people, Smith enlisted the assistance of four young Indigenous detainees through his art program at Frank Baxter Youth Justice Centre. The design of the jersey represents the local landscape of Newcastle, the wider region and also incorporates the handprints of the three players. Central to the design is the implementation of three totems representing the three players - Goanna (Watson), Turtle (Shibasaki) and Saltwater Crocodile (Lee).
The Newcastle jersey was designed by local Aboriginal artist Tyler Smith with feedback from Knights players Connor Watson, Edrick Lee and Gehamat Shibasaki. In creating a deeper bond to the region and its people, Smith enlisted the assistance of four young Indigenous detainees through his art program at Frank Baxter Youth Justice Centre. The design of the jersey represents the local landscape of Newcastle, the wider region and also incorporates the handprints of the three players. Central to the design is the implementation of three totems representing the three players - Goanna (Watson), Turtle (Shibasaki) and Saltwater Crocodile (Lee).

"Indigenous youth are two-and-a-half times more likely to take their life than non-Indigenous kids. But this is the one that got me, for kids 14 years and under suicide is the second biggest cause of death – I thought to myself, how can this happen?"

Following Parker's death, the Cultural Choice Association group, founded by Connor's parents Jodie and Mark established the charity, "Boots for Brighter Futures", which focuses on assisting in the prevention of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth suicide.

"Latrell [Mitchell] was getting his cousins to paint his boots and Fergy [Blake Ferguson] might have got his done as well, so I hit my dad up. He'd been doing a bit of art so I was like, 'Do you want to do my boots for Indigenous round, it would be pretty cool if you did that'. He did it and they were amazing," he said.

"I came up here 2018, my first year at the Knights and I had a chat with Aidan Guerra about it and he asked me if I wouldn't mind if my dad painted his boots for the next year to play in.

"I guess it was just like, why don't we see if all of the boys want to get their boots painted so we can auction them off and raise some money to put toward suicide awareness and prevention.

"We auctioned all the boots off after the game and we made just shy of $30,000."

Fast forward two years, the charity is already doing more than they had first envisioned.

"I had the opportunity to speak in front of all the NRL clubs at the start of the year and present this idea to them," Watson said.

A pair of specially designed boots.
A pair of specially designed boots.

"The Warriors and the Wests Tigers have jumped on board and there are a few of the Titans players who are getting their boots done again this year, as well as us.

"The kids that are designing the boots are from Kirinari Hostel, The Glen Centre, ID Know Your Self and four Juvenile Justice Centres across New South Wales. And the Warriors are really cool, they’re getting their's sent back to New Zealand for their Rangatahi [youth] to design."

The proud Gamilaroi man said the most powerful element of this has been the act of the youth sitting down with a mentor and expressing how they are feeling through the artwork.

"The money and donations that have come to the charity already and to the cause of preventing Indigenous youth suicide and bringing awareness to it, that's one thing but I think the actual art brings out the positivity," Watson said.

"You actually get to see who these kids really are and it's pretty cool the detail that they go into with the boots.

"They do research on the players their painting - to see where they're from, where they grew up and to be able to tell their own story through the art.

"I think the real growth of them as a person I think is the most important thing because as you know, connection to culture is key for us.

Gagai: We have a long way to go

"Rugby league is in our culture, it's part of us so to have something as simple as painting their boots to be the outlet it's been pretty cool."

Sadly, Watson won't be lacing up his specially designed boots after suffering a season-ending Achilles tendon injury against the Canterbury Bulldogs last weekend.

Nevertheless, he will watch on with great pride when his teammates play the Storm at Sunshine Coast Stadium.

"Indigenous Round is massive for me and all of our Indigenous players," he said.

"I think it shows that the NRL really care about us. They care about us as the first nations people here in Australia and really going and representing that.

"It's massive for the community, it's such a proud moment to be able to go to an Indigenous round as an Indigenous people.

"It’s an opportunity for us to teach Indigenous and non-Indigenous people more about our culture and who we are and what we stand for."

 

Watch the games throughout Indigenous Round to see which players boots you think are the deadliest. You can also head to this link for more information about the charity or to show your support on the GoFundMe page.  

Help is available 24/7 for anyone who has mental health issues by calling Lifeline Australia on 13 11 14

For further information on the NRL State of Mind program, click here