Brent Guerra, photo: Paul Jeffers
Early on in my AFL career I'd go to the pub on the weekend with my mates for a couple of beers and we'd all put $20 or $50 in for a few bets together. It was a good way to catch up, and my betting was under control.
When I started playing for Hawthorn, there were guys who owned horses and guys who liked to bet, and I got sucked into that culture. I went to the races a lot after the footy season finished and started to bet more frequently.
Then in a single moment in 2011, it really got a hold. I put a bet on and ended up winning $30,000. At the time I thought it was the greatest thing, but in the long run it ended up being the worst thing that has ever happened to me.
The big win
We were playing Collingwood on a Saturday night and it's a long day when you wake up early in the morning and don't play until seven. So I decided to kill a bit of time in the morning and went down to the TAB and put a Big 6 on – where you choose the horses to win in six races. I outlaid $50 and sat at home watching the racing all day. I ended up winning the first five races.
By this time I needed to go to the footy, but on the way to the game, I thought I'd pull into the TAB and watch the last race I needed to win. I was standing in the TAB in my Hawthorn gear, watching the race when I was meant to be driving to the footy. But I was so caught up in the excitement I didn't care. My horse ended up winning that race, and I won about $30,000.
At the time I thought it was the greatest thing, but in the long run it ended up being the worst thing that has ever happened to me.
On the way to the game I felt invincible and I told a couple of boys when I arrived, but they knew something was up because I walked in with the biggest grin on my face. I felt on top of the world and ended up playing really well that night, getting two Brownlow votes. I began to think I could win that much every week.
When I got the winnings early the next week, I put $20,000 on my home loan and kept $10,000 to pay credit cards, buy clothes and have a little bit to punt with.
But by the end of that week I had punted all of the $10,000. Somehow I justified to myself that because I had won the $20,000 I put on the mortgage, I could withdraw it to bet and win back the $10,000 I'd just lost. Before I knew it, that money was gone too. After that, I just kept withdrawing money off my home loan to bet with, and it quickly disappeared.
After winning the $30,000 my bets increased to $100 to $200 per race, and that soon got up to $500 to $1000. At the time I didn't think it was a problem because I thought it was money I had won. But as the months went on, it definitely became a big problem. I just kept chasing another big win, and then started to chase my losses. I would see money in my bank account and automatically think I could change that into more money. It became a cycle, doing the same thing, week after week.
After that, I just kept withdrawing money off my home loan to bet with, and it quickly disappeared.
Every time I was in the TABs or casinos, I'd see the same people. I probably knew every TAB across Melbourne, because if people started to think I had a problem, I just changed TABs. I would sit in one for two to eight hours some days. I'd get to the end of the day and not know where the time went. There was also a stage where I'd be sitting up at one or two in the morning and betting on overseas races on my phone. They definitely were lonely times.
Secrets and lies
Football was an outlet for me. It was the only time I wouldn't think about betting. I was hungry to do my best at training and on game day, so I could keep playing and earning good money, so I could bet.
All through this, I kept the extent of my betting a secret from my friends and family. I went to great lengths to hide it. I'd have accounts on my phone and could bet from just about anywhere. It made it really easy to hide, because anyone with me would think I was just texting.
I tried to put limits on myself for about 15 months. I'd make promises I wasn't going to bet until the next weekend, or only bet a certain amount, but the very next day I'd be back at the TAB betting more than I could afford.
I probably knew every TAB across Melbourne, because if people started to think I had a problem, I just changed TABs.
Rachel was my girlfriend at the time, and she's now my wife. She'd ask why I didn't have any money and I'd say I had put it on the home loan, or I had bought clothes. She asked me a couple of times if I had a problem, but I denied it. The longer it went on, the more she started to think there was a problem.
My mood swings had a big impact on our relationship. If I lost, I'd be snappy and very impatient. She had to put up with a lot, and the fact she's still with me shows just how special she is. We've just had a little boy, and one of the things that gets me down the most is knowing what I have lost that could have been given to him.
Breaking the silence
One day I lost my last $50 and I was supposed to go out for dinner that night but had no money. I was in a bad place and realised I was going to have to do something to change. I had thought about it a thousand times, but never had the courage to tell someone. There were times where I just wanted to go away, and that was the saddest thing for me, how I managed to let myself get into that position. I decided I needed to tell someone.
I called my manager and sat down and told him everything. The first thing he said was I had to go home and tell Rachel. I knew that was going to be the hardest thing, but I did tell her everything and there were a lot of tears. She was relieved she finally knew all about it and wanted to help me make changes to break my betting routine. Once I did that, a massive weight came off my shoulders.
I knew that was going to be the hardest thing, but I did tell her everything and there were a lot of tears.
You can try to help yourself for so long, but sometimes you need to talk to someone and get help and support. I started to see a counsellor, and at first it was really tough to be open and honest so she could help me, but once I did she became integral to my recovery.
Speaking out to help others
The reason I spoke out about my problem was to help others. The path I went down wasn't great, and if I can help even just one other person avoid that, I'll get a lot of joy.
Footballers are everyday people. Everyone has issues in their lives, and mine was gambling. Being an AFL footballer, you're always in the public eye and people want to listen. When I went public in June, I was overwhelmed with support from friends and people I didn't know. A lot of people have contacted me and asked me how I did it, and that's made me feel good about myself.
Deciding to stop gambling was the best decision I ever made. To have a little boy now is just fantastic, and the last thing I feel like doing is having a bet. He keeps me busy and fills the time I used to gamble. I'm such a happier person now. I'm a better person to be around and I'm getting out and doing things instead of sitting inside a TAB all day.
One of the things that gets me down the most is knowing what I have lost that could have been given to him.
If I could change what I did in that four-year period, I would. I look back and see how much my personality changed over that time, the lies I told and the friendships I lost. To have put myself in that position and the people I have hurt along the way, close friends and family and my wife, I'd definitely trade one of my premiership medals to get all that back.
Champion of Responsible Gambling Awareness Week 2015
Brent is attending community forums during Responsible Gambling Awareness Week from 12 to 18 October, to share his story and educate young Victorians about the impact gambling can have on their lives.
To find out where Brent is speaking, visit the Responsible Gambling Awareness Week 2015 website.
You can also read about a panel discussion Brent took part in on sport and gambling in this edition of Inside gambling.