Friday, May 31, 2013

The First Indigenous VFL Player

As this weekend's 'Indigenous Round' round plays out in the AFL, it seems like an ideal time to highlight the first Indigenous footballer to play at the highest level in Victoria.

His name was Joe Johnson, and he was a dashing flanker who played for Fitzroy just after the turn of last century. And, perhaps most remarkably, contemporary accounts of his playing career make almost no mention of his pioneering role, or even that he was Indigenous at all.

He clearly occupies a unique, and complex, place in the game's history.

Joe Johnson

Australia in the first decade of the 1900's was a very different place to today.

Our recently formed Federal Government sat in the Exhibition Building in Melbourne, motion pictures and automobiles were newly invented novelties, and the White Australia policy prevented anyone not from an Anglo background from settling here permanently.

Similarly, Australian Rules Football was a very different sport.

There was no interchange bench, and no free kicks for booting the ball out of bounds on the full. Every time the ball crossed the line, on the full or not, it was thrown in, and the boundary umpires (introduced in 1903) tossed it in rugby style, whilst facing the players.

There were also no Indigenous players at the highest level of competition.

And perhaps this is not surprising. In the early 1900's, Indigenous Australians were not only denied the right to vote, but were not even considered to be citizens (a status they were not granted until the 1960's).

Enter Joe Johnson.

Johnson was born in Newcastle, in New South Wales, in 1883. His parents were originally from Melbourne, and the family returned to the city when Johnson was young. He played footy as a child, and debuted in the Victorian Football Association (the VFA, a rival comp to the VFL) for Northcote, in the 1903 season.

He quickly made an impression and was recruited by VFL team Fitzroy, switching clubs for the 1904 season. Fitzroy were one of the strongest clubs in Melbourne at the time, and Johnson thrived in the competitive atmosphere, impressiing with his dash and physicality:

Playing off the half back flank, Johnson starred throughout the season and enjoyed a memorable day in that year's Grand Final, against Carlton.

Crudely flattened by Carlton full forward George Topping in the first quarter, Johnson recovered to play a key roll in Fitzroy's eventual victory. After an even first half, Carlton threatened to overwhelm their opponents in the third quarter, but Fitzroy's defence repelled a number of attacks. The Roys then regathered themselves and ran away with the game in the final term. Winners by 24 points, Johnson was judged second best on the ground by the local press.

The 1904 Fitzroy Premiership team. Johnson is
second row from the back, at the left hand end.
Johnson showed his versatility in the following season, when he alternated between playing half back and half forward. He starred as a forward in Fitzroy's Preliminary Final win in that year, kicking two goals and being named best on ground, before having a quieter Grand Final as Fitzroy won back to back flags, losing to Collingwood in a low scoring game (only 6 goals were kicked for the match).

Johnson played the 1906 season, largely as a forward, before returning to the VFA as captain-coach of Brunswick. He lead the Brunswick side to the 1909 VFA Premiership, their first, before returning to Northcote for the rest of his career.

In 1916, Johnson enlisted in the Army and saw action in the First World War in Egypt and France. His health suffered in Europe and he was given a medical discharge in 1917, after which he returned to Australia.

Very little information is available regarding how Johnson spent the post wars years, although his passing in 1934 was recorded in the local press:

Johnson's passing, recorded in The Argus.

His memory was revived in a major, public way only recently.

With growing numbers of Indigenous players now gracing the AFL stage, and a greater focus on the part Indigenous football has played in the history of the sport, Joe Johnson's role as the first Indigenous VFL footballer has increasingly been highlighted. When the AFL named an Indigenous 'Team of the Century', they did so in 2004, on the 100th anniversary of Johnson's first season with Fitzroy.

Past and present Indigenous players at the launch of the
AFL's Indigenous 'Team of the Century.'

Considering this attention, some other elements of Johnson's career then take on a curious aspect.

Contemporary reports from his playing days make no mention of his Indigenous heritage. This is reflected in his entry in the  Encyclopedia of League Players, which makes no mention of it either:

This seems strange, when you'd have to think that an Indigenous footballer at that point in Australian history would have drawn an enormous amount of attention. Consider a story that Adam Goodes recounts, in a chapter he contributed to the book The Australian Game of Football about the history of Indigenous footballers:

It seems unlikely then that Joe Johnson, playing only 25 years after this event, would not have had his own heritage commented upon. One possible explanation for this is provided by Melbourne academic Barry Judd,  in his paper 'Australian Game, Australian Identity':

While I feel insufficiently expert to draw any conclusions myself, if Joe Johnson's cultural identity were somehow subsumed during his playing career, then this seems heartbreakingly tragic.

It can only be hoped that instruments like Indigenous Round are helping to put an end to this forever.

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