Thank you, Joe Johnson

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

IN all likelihood, and like many a young man of his time, Joe Johnson may have just wanted to play a game of football. But when he first laced up his boots, donned the famous maroon and blue for the old Fitzroy Football Club in 1904, thereby becoming the first known Indigenous Australian to do so in the then fledgling Victorian Football League (VFL), little did he realise that his actions were a small yet crucial step in the history of the game.

Joe's debut came at an interesting juncture in Australian social history; it came 50-or-so years after Victorian Tom Wills and his cousin H.A. Harrison first drew up the rules and regulations of this new Australian game – influenced as he was from Marngrook, and a host of other ball sports he knew and played as a young man.

It was also 63 years before Indigenous Australians were officially regarded as citizens of this nation. Society's restrictions on our people in this period are well-known and documented. Only our grandparents, great-uncles and great-aunties can speak first-hand with any authority of that time in history, but we're losing them fast.

This was the period when Joe lived and played footy.

Later on, however, others would emerge. Doug Nicholls came from obscurity to make a famous and lasting name for himself, first at Fitzroy, then politically and socially.

In the 1924 season, George Simmonds played a handful of games for Melbourne. In 1929 Norm le Brun played with Essendon and South Melbourne. In the 1940s, Eddie Jackson's (Melbourne) and Norm McDonald's (Essendon) football careers went head-to-head over a nearly 10-year period which included 3 grand finals, 1 of them most famously drawn.

As the game flourished outside its native Victoria, so did the numbers of Aboriginal players in the game. West Australian, South Australian, Tasmanian and Northern Territorian Aboriginal footballers would go on to make the game their own and add more excitement to what is often described as one of the most spectacular team sports in the world. (The other States and Territory would soon follow with numbers increasing over time.)

In the 1960s, Graham 'Polly' Farmer (Geelong) and Syd Jackson (Carlton) were lured east from the west to see for themselves what the fuss was all about. They shared in half-a-dozen grand finals and near that many premierships between them by the time their playing days were over.

They were joined in this time also by Elkin Reilly and Reuben Cooper (South Melbourne) and Percy Cummings (Hawthorn -- Joe's grandson) as Aboriginal footballers making their way in football.

Those early decades of the 20th century are sprinkled with Indigenous footballers across the country who overcame some of society's most ridiculous social restrictions to form part of the legacy that we as a society draw strength from today.

It is incomprehensible to think what the game would be like without the contribution of Aboriginal players, and not only for their on-field exploits, for they can fill pages and pages of copy, and hours upon hours of talk, but what they have done for society in general; offering glimpses of where they, we, come from to a largely ignorant yet curious white society.

This month's AFL Indigenous Team of the Century, therefore, was a celebration of this contribution of Aboriginal footballers to the game, some of whose style of play remain today as signature moments in the game's history.

As AFL chairman Ron Evans tells it, it is estimated that 60,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are participating in the game today. Maybe just some of those 60,000 can now look upon this first 100-year team and perhaps learn a little more about its Aboriginal magicians, and what this game of Australian football means to our people.

And in a quiet moment, they could perhaps reflect that when Joe Johnson crossed that white line and took up his position across half-back in his first game for the old Roy Boys -- and perhaps knowingly in the back of his mind -- he also did it for us.

* Formal competition in the VFL began in 1897. Between then and the glimmerings of a golden era in the 1960s, only seven (7) identified Aboriginal players appeared in the league. Joe Johnson was the first at the start of the 20th century: he is the grandfather, or godfather, of the Aboriginal talent that is now virtually synonymous with the game. Johnson was born near Newcastle in NSW in 1883. He played for Northcote in the VFA competition in 1902 and 1903, then joined Fitzroy in the VFL in 1904 and 1905 premiership sides. From 1907 to 1991 he was player-coach of Brunswick in the VFA, then rejoined Northcote as playing coach from the 1912-14 seasons. His son Percy played 52 games for North Melbourne in the 1950s; his grandson Percy Cummings was with Hawthorn in the 1960s and great-grandsons Trent and Robert Cummings played for Fitzroy in the 1990s. -- Colin Tatz, Black Gold


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