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INDIGENE - PART TWO

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When the Victorian Football League was formed late in 1896, not a single one of its initial eight clubs was home to an Indigenous Australian. It took until 1904 for Fitzroy's Joe Johnson to arrive on the scene and to become the only recorded instance of an Aboriginal player in the competition's first two decades. He was followed by Norm Byron who had two games with the Maroons in 1918.

The Melbourne Football Club became the home to the competition's third Indigenous Australian in 1924 when George "Nugget" Simmonds came down from Kerang and played the first of his four games for the club on 19 July, 1924 - three days after his 29th birthday. Little is known about his time at the club. He wore the number 27 and kicked four goals in his brief career but he was the forerunner of what is now developing into a proud tradition among his people at Melbourne.

Over the next two decades we saw few indigenous footballers. Norm Lebrun started out at South Melbourne in 1929 and played at three other clubs. He was later killed in action in New Guinea during World War II. Doug Nicholls (who was previously covered in the first part of this series) made his VFL debut in 1932 and not long after his retirement five years later, James Shadrach joined his club Fitzroy in 1940 for 18 games making it a total of only six Aboriginals in the entirety of the VFL's first half century.

How is it possible that in the span of 50 years only six Indigenous Australians were able to play the game at its highest level and, of those who made it into these august ranks, only one was a regular player for what could be regarded as a reasonable period of time?

If we go back to the game's early days (and I mean the game in its current form under the earliest written down rules) there are indications that the early Indigenous Australian footballers were treated as objects of curiosity and contempt.

Current day champion Adam Goodes once wrote of early players Albert "Pompey" Austin and Colac Sammy. The former played barefooted for Geelong in May 1872 against reigning premier Carlton. He came from Framlington Mission which was established by the Church of England in 1865 for the Giraiwurung people of south-west Victoria with a good reputation as a local athlete. Goodes says one might have thought that this "earned him some sense of respect. Not so." He was treated as figure of the crowd's derision - more like a circus act. The same fate befell Sammy when he ran out for Colac against Geelong in 1877. The Geelong Advertiser of 10 September, 1877 reported that: "The game caused great amusement at times, 'Colac Sammy' in particular creating roars of laughter."

There were other reports from different parts of the country of teams of Aboriginals taking part in exhibition games but it's little wonder that many simply preferred to stay at home, uncomfortable with the thought of life in the big smoke. People with black skins were not often welcomed or treated with respect in White Australia and this continued for decades.

And then came Eddie Jackson and Norm McDonald.

Eddie Jackson was born on 16 March, 1925 and played for Echuca East Football Club in Northern Victoria in the footsteps of his father, also Eddie, who coached at that club. It had been his dream to play for the then working class Richmond Football Club but thanks to some keen recruitment from Demon legend Jack Mueller who hailed from the same area, Jackson came to the "silvertail" club Melbourne in 1947.

Standing 175cm tall and weighing just 70kg the magnificent ball handler fitted in well at the Melbourne Football Club and made his debut on 3 May 1947 beating Essendon great Norm McDonald by a week. Both were to become premiership players for their respective clubs.

Playing mainly on the wing, Jackson's catlike movement and pinpoint disposal were features of his game. His daughter tells a story of how, in one of his early games, Eddie picked up the ball on a wing and kicked a great goal but instead of congratulations, he received a stern message from the runner to the effect that "we have forwards for that, son!"

It was just his second season at the club, when Eddie Jackson played in two grand finals. He was the 19th man in Melbourne's sixth premiership in 1948 wearing the number seven (now worn by young Demon Jamie Bennell). One of the opposition playing for the Bombers was Norm McDonald and the stories of the mutual respect these foes had for each other are heartwarming.

Jackson went on to play 84 games (8 goals) to the end of 1952 and his magical play continues to be remembered by many long after he retired from the club.

Speaking about him recently on the Marngrook Footy Show, Demon great Noel McMahen said that his good friend Eddie had a great sense of humour and everybody loved him. McMahen told of the night when Geoff McGivern was awarded the 1952 "Bluey" Truscott Memorial Trophy, he came out onto the town hall stage and pointed to Eddie,

"Eddie, you should be up here getting this. If it wasn't for you I wouldn't be up here. Your passes to me at centre half forward made me a player!"

Jackson continued to play and then to coach at a number of clubs after he left the Demons and, in his first year as coach of Thornton in 1961, he led the club to its one and only premiership. The clubrooms at Thornton are now named after the great Eddie Jackson.

Jackson and McDonald broke new ground for Aboriginal footballers. They were loved by the footballing public and were well respected by all. Yet, it took until the late 1960s for the list of known Indigenous Australians to have played in the nation's elite competition to reach 20 in number when Carlton champion Syd Jackson made his debut in April 1969.

That number has now reached 200. Among those who followed Eddie Jackson and Norm McDonald were the descendants of Joe Johnson. His son Percy played 52 games for North Melbourne in the 1950s and a grandson Percy Cummings was with Hawthorn in the 1960s. The sad irony of this story of a great footballing dynasty is that it took until the 1990s for a member of the family to play the game at its highest level as a citizen of this country. That was when Joe Johnson's great-grandsons Trent and Robert Cummings joined his old club Fitzroy.

TO BE CONTINUED

This series is written in honour of the late Matthew Wonaeamirri, father of current Melbourne player Austin. Our hearts go out to all of the family.

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Norm Le Brun was not an Indigenous Australian. His Mother was of Cape Verdean / Jamaican background. His father's parents cam from Jersey and Scotland.

It's nice when history is accurate :)

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Norm Le Brun was not an Indigenous Australian. His Mother was of Cape Verdean / Jamaican background. His father's parents cam from Jersey and Scotland.

It's nice when history is accurate :)

He was listed at the time as being an indigenous Australian but we'll get down to checking and correcting that at some stage.

Winder if he was related to Usain Bolt?

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Normie is my first cousin twice removed i.e: My grandfathers cousin. Norm's Uncle Billy Albress also played a handful of senior games for Richmond in 1917/18.

In the past year Glenn McFarlane has written some nice pieces about him for his books and the Collingwood web site. I fell across them on Friday, pity that the bit about him being Collingwood's first ever indigenous player is not true. I am happy to say though that after making a bit of noise, I can't locate the same articles on Collingwoods site today.

I suspect someone at Collingwood wanted to be able to say they had an indigenous player proir to the 80's and he was conveniently a bit dark.

It's not hard to trace his heritage from sites such as Ancestry.com and the National Archives etc. I can point anyone interested in the right direction if required.

Unfortunately not aware of any relationship to Bolt.

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