Sol Bellear, the renowned rights and welfare activist and chairman of the Aboriginal Medical Service in Redfern passed away on Wednesday, aged 66.
Bellear was also the founding chairman of the Aboriginal Legal Service, a member of an Aboriginal delegation to the UN General Assembly and was awarded an Order of Australia for his services to the Aboriginal community.
Premier Gladys Berejiklian said the Bundjalung man had left behind a legacy of tireless activism.
"Sol was one of Australia's greatest Aboriginal leaders," she said in a statement on Monday.
"He dedicated his whole life and energy to Aboriginal land rights and welfare, fighting for equality and improving the lives of future generations, and for that, we are very grateful to him."
NSW Aboriginal Land Council Chair Roy Ah-See hailed Bellear as one of the land rights network's "most respected and revered legends".
"Sol was courageous, determined, respected, trusted and generous with a great sense of humour," Mr Ah-See said in a statement.
"He was a fighter, a savvy political operator, skilled diplomat, mentor, a dear friend and family man.
"Despite playing such a crucial role in the history of Aboriginal Land Rights and the rights movement, Sol remained humble – always focused on the unfinished business of self- determination and improving the lives of Aboriginal people."
Passion for sport as well as activism
A skilled footballer, Bellear was graded by the Rabbitohs in the late 1970s, also representing the Redfern All Blacks at the first NSW Koori Knockout in 1971.
“Racism was rife in the 60s and 70s in Sydney, and in rugby league,” Bellear said in 2015, reflecting on a time when he, as a teen, was fascinated by the guts and glory of the game.
“We had a number of very good rugby league players in those days but we weren’t getting picked up by the Australian Rugby League, now known as the NRL. So to catch the eye of a selector, you had to be extraordinarily good if you were an Aboriginal person as a rugby league player: two or three times better than a non-Aboriginal player.
“That’s why most Aboriginal men elected to box as it was easier to make money out of boxing than be an elite football player. But I just loved the sport: it was all of that camaraderie and competitiveness.”
The proud Bundjalung man was a passionate advocate for the Knockout, missing only 10 carnivals.
He became a director of the South Sydney Football Club between 2002 and 2006, and was a mentor for the Rabbitohs’ Indigenous players and staff until the day he died.
NRL CEO Todd Greenberg described Bellear as a "big figure in the game" who would be missed.
“Sol never lost that passion for the game and was a key figure in the success of the Koori knockout tournament,” Mr Greenberg said.
“He was also a renowned mentor of young Indigenous players, many of who went on to play grade and for the Indigenous All Stars."
Additional reporting by AAP