2023 Queensland Football Hall of Fame – Rod Willet

It’s a rare football specimen who plays on the big opposition key forwards as a teenager in the QAFL, heads across the country to become a key forward himself in the WAFL and captain of one of the most successful clubs in Australia, represents Queensland and Western Australia, and ends up writing a kids football book. But Rod Willet is a rarity.

Born and bred in Brisbane, a Morningside junior star and two-time Sydney Swans triallist turned Subiaco stalwart, Willet is the only Queenslander to captain a WAFL side and win a WAFL best and fairest award.

They were highlights of a long and varied career in football full of unlikely twists and turns, and chapters in AFL recruiting, media, Indigenous welfare and the trials and tribulations of two fictitious brothers who learn the good and bad of Diabetes in the ‘Simon Swan’.

In ‘Simon Swan’, a Diabetes fund-raiser and educational book for primary school children, he tells the story of one young boy who looks after himself, always eating healthily, and his brother who doesn’t and gets sick. The ‘bad brother’ learns the error of his ways and eventually the pair play together in a football grand final.

The book, sponsored by BHP, who were also sponsors of WA Diabetes, was an unlikely add-on to a career that saw Willet, born and bred in Brisbane, begin his football journey at Coorparoo, play in an Under 12s Queensland side with Jason Dunstall, and wear state colours at the 1981 Teal Cup Under-17 carnival.

He played 43 times for Morningside, including the 1982-83 QAFL grand finals, and once found himself playing on the great Alex Jesaulenko when the ex-Carlton legend was at Sandgate. The next week it might have been Mick Nolan in the opposition. Or Carl Ditterich. Or Frank Gumbleton. Or any of a host of ex-VFL stars who headed north during that time.

In 1982 he starred for Queensland against NSW in Sydney, played in the Commonwealth Games Exhibition Match against ACT at the Gabba, and wore Maroon at the 1988 Bi-Centennial State of Origin carnival in Adelaide.

Yet it could so easily have been different. He trialled with the Swans twice on the recommendation of Morningside coach John Blair and QAFL Talent Manager Mark Browning, both former Swans players, and admits he probably didn’t do himself any favors when a then VFL career beckoned. Perhaps, even, like ‘bad brother’ in his book.

It could have been different if Morningside had won the 1983 grand final because if so he would most likely have won the Joe Grant Medal and caught the attention of the scouts.

If he’d been born 10 or 20 years later he could have been a Brisbane Lion instead of the outstanding Subiaco Lion he became. But he’s more than comfortable with the outstanding career and life he’s put together on the other side of the country.

He played 188 games for Subiaco from 1984-95, and after winning a Reserves premiership in his first season in Perth he won the WAFL flag in 1986-88, played in losing grand finals in 1987-91 and in his last game in 1995, and didn’t miss the finals in 14 years. He captained Subiaco in 1992, when Haydn Bunton Jnr was in his 14th and final year as coach, and won the best and fairest in 1993. 

In 1993, he represented Western Australia against South Australia at the WACA, when the Sandgropers, coached by the late great Ken Judge, broke a six-year losing drought against the Croweaters.

In retirement, he worked for 15 years as a boundary rider with ABC radio in Perth, and produced his own half-time show in which he’d interview stars of WA football. He’s done some work for Channel 7 and produced his own WAFL podcast. A walking, talking media identity who is popular across the industry because he’s a straight-up, no-rubbish guy.

Having travelled to Kalgoorlie with long-time Eagles CEO Trevor Nisbett on promotional duties, he became passionate about Indigenous children and schooling, and used his own promotional/marketing company to help. Another BHP sponsorship allowed him to travel throughout the Pilbara and Kimberley regions of WA with ex-Eagles star Chris Lewis to educate young Indigenous children about Diabetes and develop a ‘Kicks4Kidz’ Indigenous program aimed at improving numeracy, literacy and attendance at school.

He’s also had an important although largely anonymous role in AFL recruiting since 1996, working as a Perth-based scout first for Brisbane, Western Bulldogs and for the past 10 years Gold Coast. If we let him claim any part of Lions WA draftees Simon Black and Des Headland, or the SUNS’ David Swallow, Jack Martin, Harley Bennell and Jack Martin, we’d have to include Llane Spaanderman, a first-round Lions pick in 2003 who played only three games. “That’s recruiting – you win some, you lose some,” he joked.

Now 58, married 13 years to Tanya, father to Jessica (35) and Matthew (32), he lives a couple of good torpedos from the water at Hillarys, north of Perth, can still go for a run along the foreshore, and is a self-confessed ‘mad fisherman’ who ‘loves a beer and a chat’.

Indeed, while enjoying a beer and a chat recently with good mate Nisbett, he answered a life-long question when he identified the one good thing about growing old – grandchildren. A doting grandfather to Charlotte (4) and Will (3), he will always be a Queenslander at heart, even if he’s an adopted favorite son of football in Perth.

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