Indigenous premier league footballers ‒ Australian Rules and soccer, 1860s–1980s
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The achievements of Aboriginal footballers are quite extraordinary. Just in the 1960s, the medal tally count in Australian Rules football speaks for itself. It was the Indigenous players who garnered the best player awards with a haul of Sandover, Simpson and the Tassie Medals.
Polly Farmer playing for Geelong, 1964. Courtesy of VFL, publicity photo.
The medals had special significance as they were hard earned; many of the award-winning players had some harsh experiences based on their race. Australians pride themselves on fair play in sport but this didn't necessarily apply to the Aboriginal sportsmen of this time.
All premier league Aboriginal footballers from the 1930s to the 1960s spent their early lives in institutions, having been removed from their families as children. On the training field, before, during and after games, they were usually taunted about their race. Despite, or perhaps because of this, these footballers developed their skills and became legends, men who dazzled and who became game-changers.
Part of this success story is that, in theory, the essence of sport is competition and opportunity. Yet Aborigines were playing football in a country where they were not citizens until 1967. It was from this experience of football, playing soccer in England, that Charles Perkins set out to change the standing of Aborigines as non-citizens.
Aborigines play sport in a white world: white games, venues, rules, directors, officials, selectors. Always players or performers, they are never partners in the sports enterprise.
Harry Williams, international soccer player
Football was seen as having more opportunity for Aborigines than athletics, boxing or cricket. Whilst professional Aboriginal athletes had excelled as world record holders from the 1880s, they had been denied prize money and lost out in status to amateur athletes. Despite comprising the first Test cricket team to tour England in 1867, latter day Aboriginal test qualifiers had been vilified.
In particular, football was regarded as less punishing and more rewarding than boxing where many champions ended their lives in poverty. Soccer was another form of football which offered opportunities and experiences which were less colonial and racist than other sporting experiences.
Australian Rules football also offered a rich symbiosis or shared connection for Indigenous players. Australian Rules had its origins in the Aboriginal football game of Marn Grook, and was played in Victoria and the nearby Riverina region in New South Wales.
Marn Grook and Australian Rules football 1860s
[Marn Grook] Aboriginal domestic scene from Blandowski's Australien in 142 Photographischen Abbildungen, 1857 [Cropped].
It has been argued by historians that the modern game of Australian Rules football is derived from the Aboriginal football game of Marn Grook. A Protector of Aborigines in Victoria, Mr Thomas describes Marn Grook as being played by Aboriginal men and boys in the 1840s who 'joyfully assembled' for games. A similar game was played in the Riverina region of New South Wales.
The ball was made up of a possum skim, firm and strong, which was not thrown but dropped and kicked. Tall men had the advantage as they leapt five feet or more into the air to catch the ball and secure it.
Marn-Grook, 1996, Film
Australian Rules football developed in Victoria in the 1860s after a first match was organised in 1858. Known first as Melbourne Rules this was a version of Marn Grook combined with the rules of Gaelic and other footballs. It was seen as an opportunity by Aborigines to compete on an equal footing with white people and to be judged on their sporting skills. Victorian Rules, as it was also known, started to become popular with Aboriginal players in Fremantle and Kalgoorlie in Western Australia in the 1890s. (Watch Aboriginal Rules - Japu Japu, excerpt)
The missions and athletics, 1860s–1940s
From the 1860s, reserves, missions and mission stations across Australia were established as a form of 'protection' for Aborigines. By 1939 there were 180 missions in New South Wales alone.
The effect of being 'protected' on the missions meant Aborigines' lives were restricted: their movement to and from the mission station, their freedom of association, including who they could marry, and their cultural practice, including the use of their language. Missions directed that Aborigines only work in a limited range of occupations which suited the mission environment. Any wages earned through mission station work were 'absorbed'; this left Aborigines with little or no cash.
Sports, along with trading artifacts, were seen as an opportunity to break out of this oppressive environment and an opportunity to earn money in the hand. For example Cummeragunga and Maloga Missions on the Murray River produced many excellent sprinters who won substantial prize money in running races.
In the west: The Wanderers, Nalligo and George Blurton fastest, fairest and best 1914–15
The Wanderers football team, 1913. Courtesy of The Western Mail
In 1913 at New Norcia Mission, near Moora in Western Australia, an Aboriginal football team called 'The Wanderers' included Billy Wyatt, William Headland, Frank, Tom and Alex Narrier, and Melchoir Taylor. Several of these players also played with the Midland Junction League team. Brothers G and A Blurton were considered to be the two best runners and high jumpers in the state at that time. One of the Blurton brothers was seen to toss his boots aside soon after he ran on the field. The Wanderers played until 1914 when the First Word War started.
[The 1914 Captain,] Jim Gillespie [who was employed at Wicklow farm at Toodyay,] described the featherweight Nalligo as the fastest man he had ever seen at handling a football. He also remembered an occasion at Moora when his team (18 players} defeated a white team of 25 men.
Mr S P Markey of Toodyay, corres to Wally Foreman, Sports Diary, The Western Mail, 28 July, 1949
In 1915 George Blurton, a descendent of the New Norcia cricket player Johnny Blurton, won the Western Australian Football League's Cookson Trophy as a player with Midland Junction for being 'the most gentlemanly and fairest player for the season'.
Doug Nicholls – the 'Black Streak' 1929–1939
Doug Nicholls, recruited for Carlton Football Club in 1927, no source
After an early successful stint as a sprinter, Doug Nicholls from Cummeragunga Mission tried out and was recruited for Carlton Football Club in 1927. Nicholls was rejected because they thought he smelt. Consequently, for five years he played Association Rules football for Northcote and twice won their Best and Fairest, playing in the first ever Association versus League match.
In 1932, when Nicholls joined the Fitzroy Football Club to play Australian Rules, the Secretary had to secure his release from Jimmy Sharman's Boxing Troupe. Fitzroy Football Club agreed to Sharman's request that Nichols be paid a secure wage and gave him a grounds man's job, in addition to playing fees. In between matches Nicholls also earned money from taking part in the athletic Gift races. In 1935 Nicholls played for Victoria and retired in 1939.
Nicholls at Fitzroy
Doug Nicholls playing for Victoria, 1935. Courtesy of Herald and Weekly Times, Melbourne and Collin Tatz
The Fitzroy Football Club was the start of a legendary career of over 58 games for Nicholls. As a player, he was described in newspapers as 'brilliant', 'polished', 'spectacular', and 'scrupulously fair'. Apart from playing AFL, Nicholls maintained his careers in running, as well as boxing, which helped support him and his family during the summer months.
He thrilled the Melbourne crowd
With the big white Vee upon his chest
Became a champion.
He fought in the stadium at Fitzroy,
And in the boxing tents, this brown-skinned boy,
For Jimmy Sharman.
He was the fastest thing on legs in the State
Ted Egan, Pastor Doug, RCA Records Victor, 102016, APKM-0876)
When asked in an interview later in his life why he didn't play cricket, Nicholls said he chose not to play cricket at this time – he could not afford to buy the clothes and pads and wouldn't play otherwise.
Nicholls was playing Association Rules football in Melbourne in 1931 when there was great controversy over Umpire Barlow who no-balled the Aboriginal cricketer Eddie Gilbert.
Nicholls was the inaugural chairman of the National Aboriginal Sports Foundation, created in 1969 to encourage and finance Aboriginal sport. From being called the 'Black Streak' and 'Flying Abo', Nicholls' career progressed and he became the first Aborigine to be knighted. Ultimately he became Governor of South Australia in December 1976.
Eddie Jackson and Norm McDonald, 1947–1950s
It was eight years after Nicholls retired from football, before two more Aboriginal footballers, Eddie Jackson and Norm McDonald began their careers at League level in 1947. Jackson played for Melbourne until 1952 and McDonald played for Essendon until 1958.
Norm McDonald marking the ball for Essendon, 'when football becomes ballet'
Like Nicholls, Eddie Jackson was also seen as lightning quick. He was named Best First Year Player and played in both the 1948 Grand Final and the winning replay against Essendon. In total, Jackson played 64 games for Melbourne between 1947 and 1952.
Like both Nicholls and Jackson, Norm McDonald was a professional sprinter and was nicknamed 'the black bullet'. McDonald won the Crichton medal in 1951 for his tremendous speed, kicking and marking abilities. McDonald debuted as best player and as one of the best players in premierships in 1948 (replayed), 1949 and 1950. He won his club's Best and Fairest award in 1951 and played 128 games for Essendon before playing for Victoria in 1952.
... McDonald ... is league football's best half back flanker; a veritable Mandrake at the business of befuddling and bewitching rival half forwards. Football becomes ballet when interpreted by this fleet footed will-o'-the-wisp. There's the rhythm and grace of the ballerina in his weaving evasive manoeuvres.
Ben Kerville in 'The Sporting Globe', Australian Football
Michael Long (the 'father' of modern Indigenous Australian AFL) chose number four as his original number, the same one that McDonald wore. It was his inspiration against the oppression of Aboriginal players in Australian Rules football.
1950s Soccer – Charlie Perkins, Gordon Briscoe, John Moriarty and Harry Williams
Charles Perkins - Soccer's 'Mr. Unique'
Charles Perkins, a great driving force in soccer in the 1950s. Courtesy of Australian Soccer Weekly and Colin Tatz.
After growing up in the Bungalow children's home in Alice Springs, Charles Perkins (1936-2000) began playing soccer in 1950 with Adelaide. In 1957 Perkins was invited to trial with English first division team Liverpool Football Club but ended up at trials and training with Liverpool's city rival Everton FC where, at training, he was called a 'kangaroo bastard'. Perkins then played two seasons for leading English amateur team Bishop Auckland F.C. between 1957 and 1959, and then was invited to trials with Manchester United.
In mid-1959 Perkins decided to return to Australia. In England playing soccer, Perkins had experienced a freedom that he did not have in Australia where he was a non-citizen, and was inspired to go to university. In 1965, Perkins graduated from the University of Sydney as the first Indigenous Australian to graduate from university. After this, Perkins set out to change the status of Aboriginal people and their standing as non-citizens.
After the Freedom Ride of 1965 which overturned a 40 year ban on Aborigines being allowed to enter the swimming pools in NSW, Perkins later helped manage the campaign for the Yes Vote for the 1967 Referendum which allowed Aborigines to become citizens. In 1969, Perkins, along with Nicholls, was instrumental in setting up the National Aboriginal Sports Foundation. In 2009, the Charlie Perkins Trust instituted two scholarships per year to allow indigenous Australians to study for up to three years at the University of Oxford.
John Moriarty and Gordon Briscoe
Like his cousin Charles Perkins, John Moriarty began his soccer career with Port Thistle, moving on to Port Adelaide, and Croatia where he played alongside Perkins and another notable player, Gordon Briscoe. Also from the Bungalow children's home in Alice Springs, Briscoe had travelled to England to play soccer with Perkins. Moriarty represented South Australia seventeen times.
Harry Williams with 'his flying feet' was the first Aborigine to play soccer for Australia. Courtesy of Aussie Sports and Colin Tatz.
In 1961 Moriarty won national recognition when chosen to play for Australia on an Asian tour but didn't end up playing due to Australia being banned from internationals by the Federation Internationale du Football Association (FIFA). Recommended to three English clubs, Moriarty travelled to England in 1963, 'looked at soccer, looked at the world' and concluded that football 'was but a passing phase' and returned home to graduate from Flinders University.
Harry Williams – international soccer career
Harry Williams was the first Aborigine to actually play for Australia....in 1970… he moved into the national side that toured the world. His performances at left back were brilliant. He had tremendous acceleration - so much so that he was still running professionally in the mid-80s. 'His flying feet, his ability to outpace his opponents, made him one of the personalities of Australian soccer.'
Keith Gilmour, Australian Soccer Weekly in Colin Tatz, Aborigines in Sport (PDF 3.76MB), p. 18
Williams went on to a career of seventeen full internationals and 26 other representative games for Australia. In 1977 he played six World Cup games. However, injuries hampered him and in 1978 he transferred to Canberra City club.
1960s – Aboriginal players return to Australian Rules, especially the West Australians
Less threatening to the social order, less punishing than boxing, and a chance to showcase extraordinary athletic and ball skills was the opportunity of AFL.
Richard Broome, Professional Aboriginal Boxers in Eastern Australia 1930–1979, in Aboriginal History, vol 4, June 1980, p 67.
In the 1960s, Indigenous footballers from Western Australia became the outstanding players of Australian Rules in Victoria. Polly Farmer won two Sandover Medals (for the best and fairest in the season's League matches) in 1956 and 1960. Ted ('Square') Kilmurray won in 1958, and another West Australian, Brian Peake, in 1977. In addition to Farmer, Bill Dempsey also won the Simpson medal in 1969.
Other Indigenous Australian Rules players in the 1960s were Syd Jackson who played for Carlton from 1969 to 1976; Bert Johnson for North Melbourne from 1965 to 1968; Derek Peardon for Richmond from 1968 to 1971; and Elkin Reilly, who played for South Melbourne from 1962 to 1966.
Graham 'Polly' Farmer
Graham 'Polly' Farmer marking ball for Geelong, 1960s, VFL publicity photo
Born in Perth in 1935, Polly Farmer was placed in Sister Kate's Orphanage and yet became one of the best of the truly great Australian Rules players. He was described as the greatest ruck man to ever pull on a pair of boots.
Farmer played 392 senior League games: 176 with East Perth, 79 with West Perth, 101 with Geelong, and 36 state games (31 for WA). Farmer was with Geelong Football Club from 1962 to 1967. In 1968, he returned to Western Australia as captain-coach of West Perth and led them to a premiership in 1969 and again in 1971.
Polly Farmer won four Simpson Medals (for the best player in a grand final or interstate match) in 1956, 1958, 1959, 1969 with the Tiwi player, Bill Dempsey who also won the Simpson in 1969. (Dempsey was raised in the Retta Dixon home in Darwin, an institute for orphans and children removed from their parents. He joined St Mary's team and was then selected for West Perth.) Farmer also won the highest accolade of all, the Tassie Medal, for the best player in any Australian National Football League Championship in 1956.
Nicknamed the 'Steel Cat', Polly Farmer was seen as a brilliant ruckman and kicker and revolutionised modern footy with his accurate long and short distance hand-passing. Farmer finished his career without ever receiving a suspension. Farmer was awarded an MBE in 1971.
Syd Jackson began playing league football for East Perth in 1961, before moving on to Carlton for eight seasons.
Syd Jackson playing for Carlton, 1970 Grand Final. Courtesy of Herald and Weekly Times, Melbourne and Colin Tatz.
Syd Jackson was enigmatic and volatile … He starred in the Blues' grand final loss to Richmond in 1969 and was in the winning Carlton team in 1970 and 1972. His clashes with coach Ron Barrassi were legendary. In the 1970 second semi-final against Collingwood he was reported for striking Lee Adamson. He pleaded guilty but claimed the provocation of racist insults.
Colin Tatz, Aborigines in Sport (PDF 3.76MB), p. 83
At the age of two Jackson was taken from his parents in Leonora and sent to Moore River Native Settlement, then to Carrolup Native Boys School near Katanning, before being settled at Roelands Native Mission (near Bunbury) 'to be saved'. He was not reunited with his mother until 1981, some 37 years later.
At a sports history conference at the MCG in May 1987, Jackson explained his experience of racism as well as the opportunity in sport, 'the West Australian racism, was no better than the Queensland variety'.
South Fremantle … rejected him because he was black … When he came onto the sacred turf at the MCG in the 1970 grand final, his feeling was that all 121,696 spectators were aware of his blackness: the 60,000 Collingwood fans made that awareness only too plain; the Carlton-lovers showed him the required Carlton loyalty. The Collingwood bar wouldn't serve him after the match.
Colin Tatz, Aborigines in Sport (PDF 3.76MB), p.137
South Australia: Rigney, Morey and Graham
Indigenous Australian Rules players in South Australia were notable for their commitment to and their success in the sport from the mid-1960s. Roger Rigney played 212 games for Sturt, including the team's five consecutive premierships from 1966 to 1970. Sony Morey played 215 games for Central Districts and was runner-up in 1972 for the Magery Medal (for the fairest and most brilliant player in the League). Michael Graham, runner-up for the Magery Medal in 1973 played 282 games for Sturt and 11 for South Australia.
David Kantilla, a Tiwi man from Bathurst Island, played 113 games for South Adelaide, won their best and fairest in 1961 and 1962, and represented South Australia in 1964.
Northern Territory and Yuendumu: Ted Egan and St Mary's
Australian Rules being played at Yuendumu 'the Black Olympics'. Courtesy of Aussie Sports and Colin Tatz
In the 1960s, nearly all Australian Rules football Indigenous players from the Northern Territory came under the influence of Ted Egan who was the inaugural captain and coach of the St Mary's (Darwin) Rules team. In the first 1950–1951 season there were only two white men in the team. One was Ted Egan, the rest were Tiwi.
From 1958 to 1962 Ted Egan was the superintendent at Yuendumu, a remote settlement some 300 km north-west of Alice Springs. By 1961 he ran regular football competitions between Yuendumu, nearby Papunya, and distant Warrabri (now Ali Curung) settlement. Egan was followed by a head teacher, George McClure, who in 1962
turned the original football carnival for three communities into what is now a major vehicle of Aboriginal identity for some 30 communities. Crowds of between 3,000 and 5,000 travel enormous distances, even from South and West Australia, to join the Walpiri people for the four day celebration. The major sports are Aussie Rules, softball, basketball, and athletics.
Colin Tatz, Aborigines in Sport (PDF 3.76MB), p. 117
Martin Flanagan, reporting on the 1987 'Aboriginal Olympics' at Yuendumu for The Age, perceived the essence of this event as a focus of contemporary Aboriginal culture, a time for initiation and 'tribal business', an occasion where Rules football parallels the corroboree – 'the elements of flight and grace, an emphasis on ritual'.
David Kantilla, a Tiwi man from Bathurst Island, represented South Australia in 1964. Courtesy of Advertiser, Adelaide and Colin Tatz.
One hundred years later after Aborigines were recorded playing Marn Grook, the Yuendumu carnival is witness to Indigenous footballers 'joyfully assembled' for ball games of dropping and kicking, leaping and high marking of the ball.
Football: a ticket out – temporarily, a legacy for the 1980s and beyond
Unfortunately the atmosphere of joyful assembly at the Yuendumu Games is not repeated in the white venues.
In 1982 Michael Gawenda of the Age reported that every time Jim Krakouer went near the boundary line he could clearly hear the chorus of voices singing out, 'you black bastard'. The taunts came not only from fans: players were as guilty. Five years later the Age's Martin Flanagan described how the MCG crowds 'bayed for the blood' of Jim Krakouer.
This has not deterred the Indigenous players of the 1980s upholding the legacy of Doug Nicholls, Eddie Jackson, Norm McDonald, Polly Farmer and Syd Jackson. Between 1982 and 1984 there were another nine Indigenous footballers playing for the Victorian Football League.
Brian Peake, Sandover medallist 1980 and All-Australian captain in 1979. AFL National Hall of Fame
Notably the Sandover Medal was won by West Australians: the Krakouer brothers, Phil Narkle, Nicky Winmar, and Brian Peake, along with other Indigenous players Stephen Michael in 1980 and 1981, and Phil Narkle in 1982.
In 1986 and 1987, Brian Peake and Stephen Michael (playing in Perth) were rated as the two best footballers in Australia with Peake winning the title of the All-Australian captain in 1979. Stephen Michael won the Tassie Medal, for the best player in any Australian National Football League Championship in 1983.
Maurice Rioli (whose father Cyril Rioli played with Ted Egan as a St Mary's player) was from Melville Island, part of the Tiwi Islands. He went to play in Western Australia at age 17, before heading to Victoria where he won the Simpson medal in 1980, 1981 and 1983, sharing it with Stephen Michael in 1983, and Jim Krakouer in 1981.
In Western Australia, the Stephen Michael Cup, named in honour of the South Fremantle legend, is played as part of AFL Indigenous Round. This celebrates the contribution of Indigenous players to the game of Australian Rules football.
Nicky Winmar, playing for St Kilda responding to racist taunts, proclaiming I'm proud to be black, 1993, Wayne Ludbey
In Melbourne, the Long Walk, inspired by Indigenous footballer Michael Long's walk to Canberra, celebrates and considers the lives and achievements of many Indigenous sports people. It recognises footballer Nicky Winmar's experience in 1993 in St Kilda, when a hostile crowd hurled racist abuse at him and fellow Indigenous player Gilbert McAdam from the start of the game. When St Kilda won Winmar found himself near the Collingwood cheer squad, and instinctively, spontaneously, raised his arms over his head before lifting his St Kilda guernsey, pointed to his bare brown skin and declared:
'I'm black – and I'm proud to be black!'
The Age, 16 April 2013
In 1987, at a conference at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, Syd Jackson observed that
Only at the Yuendumu Games, is there the satisfaction of coming together, being together, of not having to bother about this double awareness.
Colin Tatz, Aborigines in Sport, p. 137
Look, listen and play
- Watch Marn Grook - the Indigenous name of a game very similar to AFL
- Watch Doug Nicholls, film clip
- Listen to Mission Voices - Hear Elders tell of their lives on missions and reserves
- Watch or listen to Gordon Briscoe Remembers His Friend Charlie Perkins - 2009 Charlie Perkins memorial oration
- Watch The Krakouer brothers highlights - Jim and Phil Krakouer, YouTube
- Watch Anangu All Stars vs Yuendemu, YouTube
- Watch History of Tiwi Football - Footy on the Tiwi Islands, YouTube
- Watch Aboriginal Rules - Japu Japu (excerpt), YouTube
- Watch Aboriginal Rules - The Rules of football! (excerpt), YouTube
- Freedom Ride, a four-episode documentary by Rachel Perkins and Ned Lander, available through Screen Australia
- Fire Talker: The Life and Times of Charlie Perkins - This film by Ivan Sen uses archival footage from early 1960s to 2001 - Screen Australia listing
- Indigenous actor David Ngoombujarra won an AFI Award for his role as the gifted but feckless footballer 'Pretty Boy' Floyd in the 1993 film 'Blackfellas', shot and set in Perth, Western Australia.
- The art house films Yolngu Boy (2001) and Australian Rules (2002), inspired by Phillip Gwynne's 1998 novel Deadly Unna? explore the connection between Indigenous youth and Australian football.
- Warlpiri Media Association, Aboriginal Rules, 2007 - documentary follows the Indigenous Yuendumu Magpies Football Club over the course of a year in preparation for the Central Australian Football League.
- The Wanderers, New Norcia, Moora, Western Australia 1914 team:
George Blurton and his brothers John and Kylie, Jim and Martin Gillespie, Paddy Yappo, W.Nalligo, F Egan, Bob and Ted Snack, Billy Etlin, Bill Bolton, F Anderson, M Jackamarra, Looking Glass Bob Martin, Stephen Wally, E Farrell, Alex and Ted Narrier.
Captain: Jim Gillespie
- Norm McDonald
- WA Football Hall of Fame, Polly Farmer
- WA Football Hall of Fame, Syd Jackson
- WA Football Hall of Fame, Phil Narkle
- WA Football Hall of Fame, Nicky Winmar
- WA Football Hall of Fame, Brian Peake
- WA Football Hall of Champions, Stephen Michael
- Norm McDonald
- Anthony J. Barker, Behind the Play…: A History of Football in Western Australia from 1868, Perth: West Australian Football Commission
- Richard Broome, Professional Aboriginal Boxers in Eastern Australia 1930-1979, in Aboriginal History, vol four, June 1980
- Sean Gorman, Syd Jackson, AFL Legends, AIATSIS, 2011
- Sean Gorman, Brotherboys - The Story of Jim and Phillip Krakouer, ABC Books
- Jim Poulter, Marn-Grook - original Aussie Rules, Melbourne, 2003
- Roy L Stanley, Sport, Leisure, Class and Community at the Swan River Colony 1829-1890, Thesis, Murdoch University, 2012
Last updated: 6 June 2013
Creators: Kathryn Wells