Big time unna?

I VIVIDLY RECALL how I felt in the middle of 1984, the moment my father came home from work and announced we were going to be leaving Albany and moving to Northam. Albany is on the south coast of Western Australia, the jewel of Minang territory. Northam is in the heart of the WA Wheatbelt in Nyaki-Nyaki country. Dad worked for Elders WA as a stock agent. He was a loyal and proud company man. He even drank Fosters because Elders owned Carlton & United Breweries, which made the beer. In parochial and staunch Swan Lager heartland, to sup on eastern states’ muck was nothing short of sacrilegious. It could poison you. 

I loved Albany. I loved my friends there. I loved the high school. I loved its quirky meteorological rhythms. I was socially at ease and fitted in. I loved Albany’s squeaking white beaches. I had just learnt how to surf… I could go on. 

My uncle, Dad’s younger brother, lived in Northam and worked for rival stock agents Wesfarmers. He drank Swan Lager. I remember visiting Uncle Bill and Aunty Lynn in Northam in the early 1980s, in the middle of summer. The heat was mind-numbing. With this first-hand knowledge I pulled every conceivable trick I could to stay in Albany. In the end, Dad’s Catholic will prevailed. Moving under sufferance is never good when you are fifteen. Mediocre school marks suffered. I did not give a shit about anything. 

There was one exception: football.

In 1985, I played colts in the under-17s competition in Northam. There were only four sides in the Avon Valley U17s: Cunderdin Agricultural College; the Northam hostel team, or ‘the Hut’ as it was called; town team Railways and their cross-town arch rival Federals. I played for Federals, or ‘Fightin Feddies’ as they were known. Four sides might not seem like anything much but the potency of a four-team competition was significant. Andrew Quin, (Quiny) was our coach. Quiny was only a few years older than us. He had his licence and a car, a gold XB Falcon. Quiny was an apprentice butcher. As coaches go, Quiny kept it simple. 

Our 1985 season did not start well. We lost every game until about halfway through the season. This was not to say we did not have a good side, we did. It was just that the other three teams were better. As a means to try and spark a winning streak, Quiny got us all together one night at training. As we huddled together he promised us an eighteen-gallon keg (of Swan) if we won the premiership. We all started hollering like bastards, but deep in our hearts we knew that the contents of that keg were never going to pass our lips. 

Soon after, perhaps it was the following week, the football gods started to smile on us. Two young Noongar footballers came to training. Hank Yarran, a superbly gifted and athletic ruck, and Charlie Dick, a small, lightning-fast dynamo who became our number-one rover. It was Dick who changed my perception of football forever. The reason was simple: he was the best footballer I have ever played alongside. 

As in some weird Disney film the fortunes of Fightin Feddies U17s changed. We started winning. Everything. Those few months were a revelation to me. I had grown up watching Aboriginal players in the WA Football League (WAFL) and on ABC shows like The Winners. There were amazing footballers in both the WAFL and the Victorian Football League (VFL) but I had no inkling they were Noongar, just Aboriginal. Players such as Stephen Michael, Jim and Phil Krakouer, Derek Kickett, Barry Cable, Phil and Keith Narkle and Nicky Winmar were all superstars. But with Charlie Dick I saw it up close, intimately. It took my breath away. 

As time progressed and the wins kept coming the inevitable occurred, a traditional grand final derby: Railways versus Federals. On the phone to Quiny at his butcher shop in Northam, he remembers it was blowing and cold. I recall it was warm. The local paper in 1985 reported that at three-quarter time, each side had five goals and eight points: 

Railways were being brilliantly served by Danny Taylor and Davis on the ball but the Federals defence, led by a strong Sean Gorman held firm… Federals came home very strongly and ran out premiers with a 3.5 to no score final term to finish 23-point winners, 8.13 to 5.8. The Robbie O’Driscoll medal for fairest and best on the ground was won by brilliant Charlie Dick from Federals. 

With that, Quiny was down to the pub to pick up a keg that cost him $180 and, in his words, ‘nearly did him in’. We partied like it was 1985. I never saw Charlie Dick again, except for a very brief encounter outside an office in the main street of Northam. Charlie was handing out Potter’s House flyers. He had found God. I had found drugs and girls. 

THERE ARE TWO things that can heal a nation haunted by the ghosts of the past and a fiercely contested history: a cup of tea and Australian Rules football. People generally stare at me blankly or smirk when I say this, but there is something mysterious about the restorative qualities in a well-made cup of tea. Problems are solved. Differences are ironed out. Similarly, I have seen the redemptive power of football in bringing communities together and literally saving lives. Football in particular has an incredible ability to disarm. Through this ideas can take root, and if an idea can take root then that is more powerful than any legislation, policy white paper or politician wanting to save Aboriginal Australians. 

Imagine if Aboriginal people did not play Australian football. I am not asking you to imagine that Aboriginal people did not exist and therefore could not play, but what the world would be like if Aboriginal people did not participate in Australian football (AFL). They have changed the game, and in the process changed the nation. Because Aboriginal Australians love it and play it so brilliantly, they are central to the Australian game. (By comparison, Jason Gillespie is the only test cricketer to have played for Australia who identifies as being Indigenous – Kaurna, from South Australia.)

Noongar players like Nicky Winmar, Barry Cable, Polly Farmer, Derek and Dale Kickett, Byron Pickett, Chance Bateman, Leon Davis, Winston Abraham, the Materas, Des Headland, Jeff Farmer and the Krakouers turned football into a space where one can investigate both positive and negative historical issues about race relations in Australia. In this way, football ceases to be a game but becomes a teacher. Through its lessons we become, as Australians, a better team. 

Just under a tenth of the current AFL players are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians. This is a significant statistic, but has been as high as 11 per cent. It bucks the trend of every other social and economic indicator. Of the 262 known Aboriginal players to have played in the VFL–AFL from 1897 to 2014, Noongar footballers make up just under a quarter. That is a massive figure. But like many boring whitefella way of measuring things, it cannot measure the most important things – the excitement and joy those players have provided and what they have brought to the game. 

If you open Steve Hawke’s book Polly Farmer: A Biography (The Slattery Media Group, 2014) onto page ninety-six, you will see a photograph of Polly Farmer taking a mark over his archrival Jack Clarke of East Fremantle in the 1957 grand final. Stare at the photograph long enough and you can be hypnotised. Unlike that other famous Western Australian mark by John Gerovich, which has been forever immortalised in bronze outside Fremantle Oval, Farmer’s mark draws and holds your gaze – he seems to be hovering. The ball has yet to reach his grasp, a tantalisingly incomplete task. But unlike the Gerovich mark, it is replete with poise and timing. It is an intriguing shot as Clarke seems to have run in and been knocked off balance by Farmer. The potentiality gives this picture its great power: ‘What will Farmer do?’ ‘What can he do?’ ‘What will be his next play?’ 

IN THIS WAY, football ceases to be about the game and becomes much more important. Farmer is still considered one of the most influential and gifted players of all time. His story hints at the importance of football for Noongar people. As a child, Graham Farmer lived at Sister Kate’s Children’s Cottage Home. As policy at the time dictated, when those living at Sister Kate’s turned sixteen they were sent into the country to work on farms, severing any chance to thrive in the city. The Native Welfare Department had been sending them to work as labourers and domestics for years. As Farmer told Steve Hawke: ‘The only thing I did not want to be in was farming.’ 

The Sunday Times rallied to the support of this outstanding young footballer and asked its readers to send in letters of protest to the government stating, as Hawke records, ‘it smacks of slavery’. This had been happening for years in WA and would continue for those with less football skill. Without football, Farmer would have been banished to the backblocks. His only ticket out was that he could play football, and play it better than almost anyone. The institutional and everyday racism that has pervaded the Western Australian political psyche for decades probably means that other great sportsmen were lost. 

Today, it seems almost normal that there are so many first-grade Aboriginal AFL players. For many years though, there was an unspoken but active belief in the VFL (which became the AFL in 1990) that too many Aboriginal players would weaken a team. The rationale was that they gave you flare, but were not disciplined enough. With too many they would become a ghetto within the team and the club. Quite possibly ‘go walkabout’. Why risk it? 

It does seem incredible now but I have heard enough accounts to know this idea was a reality. I vividly recall a conversation with a lawyer at a ‘Sportsman’s Lunch’ in Melbourne, who had seen internal recruiting memos where decisions were made about the viability of recruiting Aboriginal players from WA in the 1980s. No doubt many genuinely talented players were never selected. 

Then AFL changed. 

FOR MANY PEOPLE, the name ‘Krakouer’ epitomises much of what is celebrated about Aboriginal footballers. Seamless play, timing, skill and speed, and what has become known as ‘the X factor’. Jim and Phillip Krakouer’s came to the WAFL in the late 1970s and the VFL in the early 1980s, and changed the way the game was played. While there had been Aboriginal players in the WAFL before, none had played in a way that was so complimentary or so devastating. When they moved to the VFL this became even more pronounced – it was the first time two Aboriginal players had been recruited as a package to play in the same team. When they arrived in Melbourne in 1982, they literally exploded onto the football scene. Today it is not unusual to see a cohort of Aboriginal players on an AFL list, but before 1982 two players had never been recruited together. North Melbourne’s recruitment manger Ron Joseph recalls: ‘As I kept watching you could see their understanding of one another as brothers, but you could see Phillip’s absolute class as a finisher and you could see Jim’s hardness.’ 

The novelty of the Krakouers was pronounced by their complimentary skills. Football reporters in Melbourne made sure people appreciated what they were watching even if it was, as the senior football journalist Martin Flanagan called it, ‘anarchy and art’: 

Their vision…at times seems to transcend what is understood by that term and suggests another sort of awareness. Who can forget the first time they made mayhem in Victoria after coming from Western Australia, running where no one had run, handballs hooping and looping between the pair of them and the Fitzroy defence utterly perplexed and unnerved as a new version of a hundred-year-old game unfolded before their eyes? It was anarchy and art rolled into one.

There are athletes in every sport who defy the limitations which both nature and the rules of their sport impose on them. To watch them perform is, in the true sense of the word, a transcendental experience for they push back the boundaries of what we believe was possible... They [the Krakouers] are the Pele and Maradona of the VFL.

When asked by journalists to explain what the special ingredient they brought to the game was, Jim would simply shrug his shoulders and say ‘confidence’. Phil would speak of kicking a football through the forks of trees, of rolled up socks kicked down passageways, or handballing a football to see how close they could get to their father Eric’s nose as he sat eating his tea after a full day shearing. 

Given the number of Aboriginal players who have played at the top level (especially in the last ten years), what becomes painfully obvious from the discussions I have had with many of them is the immense role football plays in these young men’s lives. For the Noongar players in particular there is a special understanding and pride that they have contributed greatly to the code. Their legacy is strong. This is a weight-of-numbers thing, but can also be appreciated by watching the fantastic 1988 documentary Black Magic, by Paul Roberts and Frank Rijavec, which looks at the social, historical and political barriers that Noongars have faced. Fortunately, it has been through those tough pursuits of boxing, athletics (running) and football that Noongar men have been able to show their talents and transcend social and political obstacles. 

WHICH BRINGS US back to the question: what if Aboriginal people did not play football? From a localised context, if this awful reality was indeed the case we would not currently be able to watch players like Buddy Franklin (Sydney Swans), Chris Yarran (Carlton), Jeff Garlett (Melbourne), Harley Bennell (Gold Coast), Michael Johnson (Fremantle), Stephen Hill (Fremantle), Brad Hill (Hawthorn), Michael Walters (Fremantle) and Lewis Jetta (Sydney Swans). 

It was in a spirit of validation and celebration that I decided to track down the player who had changed my experience on the field but, alas, did not go on to play at the elite level. 

Through a series of contacts I managed to speak with Charlie Dick. He had only just moved back to Broome after living in Alice Springs for ten years. He was working for the Department of Training and Workforce Development. Charlie had a patrilineal connection to Broome: his father was Bardi, his mother Noongar. His sense of connection was for Yuat country around the northern Wheatbelt town of Moora and Moore River. Growing up mainly in Goomalling, his first football memory was of valuable advice from his junior coach. ‘Going to training we always tried to be fairly flashy. I recall we did this drill where we would be turning and twisting and the coach pulled me over and said, “Why are you wasting your time doing all that when you should just run straight?” That helped me because when I got the ball I started to move in straight lines and look for options going forward rather than trying to look good. I became more team focused and positive with the football for the team.’ 

Football was particularly important to regional Aboriginal people. Charlie Dick remembers getting lifts from Goomalling in the bread truck down to Northam to play with his brother-in-law Hank Yarran. We reminisced about the ’85 grand final where we were teammates. He recalls the game, and said at times he had two taggers on him to try and quell his influence. I sent him the news article of the game report, we laughed that the tag did not seem to work. Dick said that this was the last season he would play until 1991 because he turned, in his words, ‘churchy’. He wishes he could turn the clock back and regrets not pursuing his dream of playing football at the elite level, which I believe he could have done and so does he. 

But the obstacles were too great. Simple things like not having a car or enough money for fuel cost him such chances as participating in the final stages of the Teal Cup squad, or the state U18s team, in 1985. When his cousin Willie Dick returned from playing with Essendon in 1993, and went to the Perth Demons in the WAFL, twenty-four-year-old Charlie went along to test his luck. But the extra cash his country team Goomalling paid, and their lack of a demanding training regime, tempted him back. A few hundred dollars extra a week compared to being paid next to nothing for busting your arse was all it took to curtail any WAFL success he may have hoped for. Besides, he would be among family and friends and starring every Sunday, as opposed to pitting his skills against hungry eighteen and nineteen-year-olds in front of crowds who could not care less. Now, he thinks that more recognition needs to be paid to develop and support the many Aboriginal players who go on to administrative and coaching roles. Charlie was president and coach of the Broome Pearlers in the Masters competition in 2014: ‘What needs to be recognised is the amount of participation that happens outside the playing arena. That needs to be recognised a bit more. Here in the West Kimberley we had eight teams and five or six Indigenous coaches.’

I hang up the phone and reflect on my days playing football and, what it taught me. It taught me application and teamwork, but the biggest thing I learned was to empathise and accept people (even West Coast supporters). I still filter much of my working and family life through the maxims of football – common maxims that don’t seem to have translated to the telling of Aboriginal history and the schism it still creates. Things like being fair and equitable, accepting the decision of the umpires and not moving the goal posts. One only has to recall the federal political scene under Howard, where he wound back land rights, rejected every key recommendation of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, refused to offer an apology to the Stolen Generations or negotiate a treaty and, when he saw his chance, dismantled the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission just as it was becoming a force. Furthermore, has there been a more disgraceful rant by any federal leader in Australian history as Howard’s, when he hammered the lectern at the Australian Reconciliation Convention in Melbourne in May 1997, where he reduced child removal and dispossession to mere ‘blemishes’?

Perhaps we should be very grateful that football has helped bring these stories to light, great stories of endurance, survival and success. Because for two hours every winter weekend ,we can celebrate how Aboriginal sportsmen have helped create the most exciting game in the world. 

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