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Ken Stephen Medal: Watson making futures brighter

A season-ending injury prevented Connor Watson from playing in the 2020 Indigenous Round, but the Newcastle utility still had an enormous impact.

Through the Cultural Choice Association charity, founded by his parents Mark and Jodie, the proud Gamilaroi man drove his Boots for Bright Futures initiative to new heights.

With the aim to increase awareness about Indigenous youth suicide rates, $24,000 was raised from auctioning 56 pairs of specially-painted boots worn by Knights, Tigers, Titans and Warriors players.

Indigenous kids from various youth justice centres were involved in designing the footwear. More than $50,000 has been raised through Boots for Brighter futures in the past two seasons.

Watson, 24, is nominated for the Ken Stephen Medal, brought to you by My Property Consultants, for a second straight year.

"It's something that we've spoken about as a family and that we're really passionate about," Watson said of Boots for Brighter Futures.

"It's been awesome to see other clubs, other players jump on board and it is something that they're really passionate about as well."

Knights utility Connor Watson.
Knights utility Connor Watson. ©Shane Myers/NRL Photos

Tragedy inspired Watson's family to dedicate themselves to the fight against Indigenous youth suicide after the Newcastle star's teenage cousin, Parker, took his own life in 2017.

According to the Cultural Choice Association website, suicide is the second leading cause of death for Aboriginal children aged 14 and under, while the suicide rate for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is at least 2.5 times the national average.

"[Indigenous youth suicide] is obviously a big issue here in Australia and New Zealand as well. The more people that we can get to jump on board, the more change that we can make," Watson said.

"I think the biggest thing is we set out with this program to use it as a way to bring awareness to the issue and then raise funds so we could run some [more] programs for the issue.

"But I think Boots For Brighter Futures has been one of the most impressive things, just the way the community has responded to it.

"All the artists ... you know, some of these people are the most at-risk people in this space and are just looking for the opportunity to paint some their idols' boots.

"Just to see the growth in their personalities. A lot of them started as closed off, didn't really talk, shy.

"After doing this program, connecting with their culture and being able to see one of their idols with boots they've done themselves, it's definitely helped a lot of them with their growth and rehabilitation." 

As for suffering an Achilles injury the weekend before Indigenous Round, which means he won't feature in his club's first finals campaign in seven years, Watson has maintained a broad perspective.

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"In 2020, there's a lot worse things happening than an injury," he said.

"People are at risk of getting coronavirus, people are locked down, some people don't have jobs. For me, I still get to do what I love."

Watson is always generous in spending time immersed in community programs but insisted he gains as often as he gives.

"It's a really good way for me to go and connect with people. I really enjoy it," he said.

"I've said it about when I go to the Kirinari Hostel before. You go out there and the kids help you as much as you help them.

"I can go out there and clear my mind. It's our responsibility to be in the community and go and do those things.

"Once upon a time we were those kids. I was one of those kids looking up to an NRL player who'd come to my school or ran a program for me. I think it's important that I give back in some way."

He described his Ken Stephen recognition as a massive honour. "But I think, especially this year, it's sort of a team nomination," he added.

"I've got my Mum, my Dad, my brother who are also helping along this journey with the charity. There's plenty of people that have contributed to the stuff that I'm doing."


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.