WHAT makes a footballer a Deadly footballer? Courage? Skill? Determination?
Ability to perform under pressure? Just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, perhaps the answer lies in all of these things with a good splash of X-factor thrown in.
With the Yokayi Footy's Deadliest competition reaching its finality, the selection (by popular vote) has determined that the winner is two-time Norm Smith medallist and Crows champion Andrew 'Bunji' McLeod over Geelong's revolutionary ruckman and Australian Football Legend Graham 'Polly Farmer'.
What can be said about McLeod that has not been written before?
The Wardaman/Wargamaygan man played 340 games, kicked 275 goals, was an Australian Football Hall of Fame inductee, two-time premiership player, five-time All-Australian and a member of the Indigenous Team of the Century.
But the list of achievements, while extensive, does not quite capture just how sublime McLeod was to watch.
The thing about McLeod was that he seemed to defy logic. He seemed to be able to do everything effortlessly. To watch him scoop up a ball cleanly while running at full tilt had all the cadence of a bird of prey as he surgically delivered the ball lace out.
It took one's breath away and he is a deserving winner of the AFL competition.
The genesis of the competition was devised as a regular segment for Yokayi Footy over the course of the 2020 season.
However, with the deadly pandemic, the Deadliest, came to represent something of a beacon of hope as it enabled us all to marvel at the amazing feats of the 16 players assembled with the fixture on hold.
The only criteria for the Deadliest was the player needed to be a First Nations footballer.
The final 16 were selected from a nomination process and a selection panel of 50 people from all over Australia.
This included some of the original selectors for the Indigenous Team of the Century, the recently formed Indigenous Players Alliance, the AFL's Aboriginal & Torres Strait Advisory
Council, past and current AFL players, senior coaches, umpires and senior figures within the AFL itself. The Deadliest by any measure is the crème de la crème of the code.
What is probably most surprising is those players that were overlooked in the nomination process. This included such fan favourites as Jim and Phil Krakouer, Darryl White, Jeff Farmer, Byron Pickett, Chris Johnson, Chris Lewis, David Wirrpanda, Derek Kickett and this year's Sir Doug Nicholls round nominee and Carlton premiership player Syd Jackson. The other surprise was how the footy-starved public cast their vote.
Nicky Winmar was beaten by Peter Matera. Michael Long was pipped by the late Maurice Rioli. The games Indigenous record holder Shaun Burgoyne was beaten by Cyril Rioli and the first Indigenous Brownlow Medal winner Gavin Wanganeen lost to Barry Cable. For me, the big four were Lance Franklin, Adam Goodes, Farmer and McLeod. Each has had a profound impact on the game both on and off the field.
So what does the Deadliest tell us and what does it represent?
For me it is elite ability and skill combined with compelling life stories and resilience.
Knowing some of the back stories of the players from writing the book Legends: The AFL's Indigenous Team of the Century the challenges that each player faced was immense.
Personal struggles mirrored bigger social and historical tensions that did not lend themselves easily to players coming from their communities, often interstate, with meagre support to play in the elite VFL/AFL.
As I wrote in a previous article this year, one only has to look at Polly Farmer's life story to know that he came close to being lost to the game because of the harsh government policy that existed in his formative football years.
Considered by many to be the greatest footballer the game has seen, Farmer's ability to play football made the broader society sit up and take notice of him. While not the first Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander footballer to play, Farmer was so good that not only did he change the way the game was played, but he created the pathway that allowed others to follow.
What has followed has been immense.
In terms of games played, the combined tally is 4602 and rising. Goals: 5608 and rising. Multiple Norm Smith Medals. Numerous premierships and Al- Australian selections. Throw in a few Brownlow Medals, a knighthood to Sir Doug (the only one to be given to a footballer), an Australian of the Year, the odd iconic jumper lifting moment, a number of key policy implementations, a few grandstands and a freeway named after you, a couple of hundred speccies, thousands of freaky snaps on goal, and there you pretty well have it. The Deadliest.
But what these things tell us is not just that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people love the game, it also tells us of the immensity of the contribution that they as people bring to the code, society and our lives simply by playing it.
At the end of the day a competition like the Deadliest is a bit of fun, especially when something as diabolical as COVID hits the fan.
For a small moment the Deadliest has helped distract us from our day-to-day lives and helped us celebrate the skill and beauty the Deadliest players have displayed time and again.
If football has given us anything, it is the ability to appreciate the contributions that First Nations Australians bring to the game. Ultimately, they are sharing themselves and their communities with us and, through that sharing, we see the possibility of something better.
We see a great game become greater.
Andrew McLeod Wardaman/Wargamaygan 1995-2010:
- Adelaide Football Club 340 games 275 goals
- Australian Football Hall of Fame Inductee
- Two-time premiership player (1997-98)
- Two-time Norm Smith medallist (1997-98)
- Five-time All-Australian (1998, 2000, 2001, 2006, 2007)
- Three-time Malcolm Blight medallist (1997, 2001, 2007)
- All-Australian Captain (2007) Indigenous Team of the Century
Dr Sean Gorman is an author, historian, and Indigenous AFL specialist. He currently works for the AFL and was the lead investigator in the AFL's review of its vilification laws.
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