Footy History: Aboriginal Players at Fitzroy

Aboriginal players at Fitzroy


[Thanks to Adam Muyt for his assistance with the research for this piece. Adam’s book Maroon and Blue is a terrific oral history of the Fitzroy FC, and his paper “Black, Maroon and Blue” is also worth reading – JTH]


This is National Reconciliation Week, when communities all over the Australian Continent remember our history, our diversity, and especially celebrate our Aboriginal culture. It is a very important time. It is scheduled to coincide with the commemoration of the May 27, 1967 referendum when the extraordinary and disgraceful law which until then had prevented Aboriginal people from being counted as members of the Australian population was changed.

Many cultural and events are held around Australia during National Reconciliation Week.

Because football has been such a big part of Aboriginal culture for many years Indigenous Round is an important part of that celebration both at AFL level and through other local senior and junior leagues.

Some of those leagues and carnivals are a long way from Fitzroy. Sometimes we forget how enormous this continent is.

In 2005 I went on an amazing journey which brought it home to me. On the Friday night of the first week of the AFL finals I went to the Footy Art Show at the Artists Garden in Brunswick Street Fitzroy. Then I watched the first final between  Port  and  North with friends at the Rose Hotel. Port always had a handful of Indigenous players which at that stage included the Burgoyne brothers (Mallee Park, Port Lincoln), Byron Pickett (Noongar), Elijah Ware (Central Districts), and Gavin Wanganeen (Port Lincoln, Adelaide)

The next morning, very early, I flew to Sydney, over the magnificent harbour where for thousands of years Aboriginal people lived, immersed in their own culture, independent of any European influence, the same harbour and land where Governor Phillip established a British settlement.

After landing in Sydney I caught a plane to Uluru. Then I was transported in a four wheel drive twelve hours west towards through the Northern Territory to the West Australian border. We camped under the stars and listened to West Coast play Sydney in another final. Sydney won. The next day we drove even further across the border into Western Australia to Wanarn to see an Aboriginal football carnival. Eleven sides from communities like Kintore, Warburton and Docker River met for a three day festival of football played on a red dirt footy oval – the biggest oval I have ever seen. It was simply amazing. And the football was magnificent. (So was the country rock music).

I was so far from anywhere.

Sometimes we forget how big this Continent is – and how diverse it is.

Thankfully we have shows like The Marngrook Footy Show to remind us. Gilbert McAdam is from central Australia. On Thursday night Che Cocaktoo-Collins was a guest – he grew up in Cairns.

I was one of only a handful of non-Aboriginal people among the many hundred gathered there. When one man saw I was a whitefella, he called out to me:

“Hey bloke,” he said. “You got Paul Roos phone number? I want to tell him some things about coachin’.”

We got talking. He had a huge grey beard, and he looked about 60. He was wearing a Sydney Swans jumper. He was coach of one of the sides – I think it was Tjurkala.

He was actually 39. The desert will age you. He had worn shoes for decades, perhaps since he had been in Melbourne for a short while in the 1980s.

He came to Melbourne to play football. Not for an AFL club, but for Melbourne’s Indigenous club, the Fitzroy Stars, which had been established in the 1970s. The club has been an important part of Melbourne Aboriginal culture, especially for those Aboriginal people living in the northern suburbs. It has been a place where Aboriginal people have been able to express their sense of identity, and to play a game they love.

Of course, over the years, Aboriginal footballers who have shown great talent have also played at VFL and AFL clubs. It is important to remember that this is not an exhaustive list as no doubt there were others. One of the reasons for this is that, given the social prejudices of the time, some people did not publicly identify with their Koori heritage.

Here are some of the stories of those who have played at Fitzroy:


Joe Johnson: 1904–06; 55 games (15 goals)

Joe Johnson is regarded as one of the first Aboriginal Australians to play at the top level. Born around Newcastle in 1883 he played at Brunswick before moving to Fitzroy FC. He was a very capable flanker – back and forward – who played in the premiership sides of 1904 and 1905. After playing in the losing 1906 Grand Final side he returned to Brunswick and then played at Northcote.

His son Percy played 50 games for North Melbourne during the 1950s and his grandson  (Percy?) played for Hawthorn in the 1960s.

Two grandsons, Robert and Trent Cummings also played with Fitzroy.


Doug Nicholls: 1932–37; 54 games (2 goals)

Doug Nicholls was a remarkable Australian. Of the Yorta Yorta people, he was born at Cummeragunja on the Murray near Barmah in 1906. While still a boy he worked on sheep stations, and as a labourer on river dredges.

He later played football in the Goulburn Valley League before moving to Melbourne. He was short (158cm) and very quick, and extremely skillful.

He tried out at Carlton but was rejected – some say on controversial racial grounds. But, being determined, he crossed Merri Creek to Northcote where he was known as ‘The Flying Abo’ (that was the terminology used then) and was the only Indigenous player in the VFA at the time. He played with Northcote until he went to Fitzroy in the VFL.

He played for six seasons with some of the Fitzroy greats such as Bunton, Ryan and Smallhorn.

He was also a professional runner – he won the Warracknabeal and Nyah Gifts – and fought in Jimmy Sharman’s boxing tents.

He also was a deeply religious man, and a man of social action. He became ‘Pastor Doug’, ordained in 1945. His ministry was centred on the Church of Christ in Gore Street, but he also travelled to places like Mooroopna

Later he was knighted and appointed Governor of South Australia.

He died in 1988, after a remarkable contribution to Australian life.



Shadrach James: 1940–41; 18 games (20 goals)

Not much is known about Shadrach James who played two seasons for the Roys during the Second World War. However it seems he was the grandson of Shadrach James who was an educator and activist, and significant figure of the Yorta Yorta people. More research needs to be done here.


Edward ‘Ted’ Lovett: 1963–64; 9 games (2 goals)

Ted Lovett is a Gunditjara man from the Ballarat area. He played a handful of games before returning to Ballarat where he won the League’s Henderson Medal. He is related to the Egan family (his father was an Egan) and both Nathan Lovett-Murray and Chris Johnson are also relatives.


Kevin Taylor: 1984; 1 game (1 goal)

About one quarter of Western Australians identify with Noongar heritage. Once Melbourne VFL clubs realized how strong Perth and country Western Ausralian football were, they started recruiting. Kevin Taylor was a nippy rover from East Fremantle who knew where the goals were. He kicked 102 one season. He was recruited by South Melbourne who then went to Sydney and then across to Fitzroy for the 1984 season.


Wally Matera:  1989–90; 32 games (39 goals)

The Materas are a famous footy family and Wally is the oldest. He played in the first-ever West Coast Eagles side in 1987 and then for Fitzroy for two seasons.


Kevin Caton:  1989; 9 games (8 goals)

Kevin Caton is not a household name but he is remembered by Fitzroy fans as the guy who kicked the point to beat the strong Geelong side in a celebrated victory – Round 5, 1989. He had also been at the Eagles.


Dale Kickett:  1990; 15 games (13 goals)

The Kicketts are a famous Western Australian family and numerous members have played top-level WAFL and VFL/AFL footy. Dale made a name for himself at Freo, but had previously played at Fitzroy. He has been involved in the Clontarf Foundation, an important organization which supports young Aboriginal footballers.


Robert Cummings: 1990; 1 game (no goals)

Robert is the great grandson of Joe Johnson. He was recruited from Norwood in the SANFL.


Chris Johnson: 1994–96; 59 games (67 goals)

Chris Johnson is a favourite son of Fitzroy, and a member of the Indigenous Team of the Century. Very young when Fitzroy merged with the Brisbane Bears, Johnno was one of eight Royboys to become part of the new Brisbane Lions list. He was a magnificent attacking backman who could take a mark, kick a goal, and bring other players into the game. He played in all three Brisbane Lions premierships. He is a panelist on The Marngrook Footy Show and also has a development role with the AFL.


Trent Cummings: 1994–96; 27 games (18 goals)

Trent is the younger brother of Robert so is also a great grandson of Joe Johnson. He was picked up at No 6 in the 1993 draft. Immensely talented, the rangy forward had no luck with injuries, succumbing to a knee after three seasons.


Peter Bird: 1995–96; 15 games (7 goals)

Peter came up through the Geelong Falcons and played two seasons with Fitzroy before the merge.


These are the players of Aboriginal to have played for Fitzroy. No doubt there were others.

They form a key part of the history of the Fitzroy club.





About John Harms

JTH is a writer, publisher, speaker, historian. He is publisher and contributing editor of The Footy Almanac and He has written columns and features for numerous publications. His books include Confessions of a Thirteenth Man, Memoirs of a Mug Punter, Loose Men Everywhere, Play On, The Pearl: Steve Renouf's Story and Life As I Know It (with Michelle Payne). He appears (appeared?) on ABCTV's Offsiders. He can be contacted [email protected] He is married to The Handicapper and has three school-age kids - Theo, Anna, Evie. He might not be the worst putter in the world but he's in the worst four. His ambition was to lunch for Australia but it clashed with his other ambition - to shoot his age.


  1. Mathilde de Hauteclocque says

    Why isn’t the press awash with stories like this during Indigenous round?
    What a trip!

  2. Patrick O'Brien says

    Great stuff, John.

    Most of know the names Long, Winmar and now Adam ‘Watch Out for the Pretend Spear!!!!’ Goodes. It’s great that we can keep these names alive as well.

    Those with a strong stomach may like to note that this has been a sensational week of letter writing in the Hun. The number of deranged boofheads in our midst seems to have skyrocketed since September 2013.

  3. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    According to Sean Gorman’s “Legends” (p93), a Thomas Shadrach James was Glenn James’ grandfather.

  4. Very interesting talk, John, I would have loved to have been there. From memory, Chris Johnson was the last Fitzroy player standing when he retired at the end of 2007 (I enjoy Chris’s match special comments on radio). I can certainly endorse your comments about Adam Muyt’s book – it’s a ripper.

  5. Great write up on the Lion’s indigenous players.

    Re Shadrach James- I know a little of him. Nicknamed ‘Shady’, played for Mooroopna before heading down to play for the Lions. A very long kick- once won a contest at the Wangaratta ground for kicking the ball from the centre, through the goals and over the fence. Played against Jack Dyer whom he allegedly stirred up during the game- only to get cleaned up by him and break some ribs. Very fast and skilful- enjoyed using the ‘banana’ kick before it was mainstream and had a strong overhead mark. Relative of the aboriginal activists Thomas and Shadrach James and uncle of umpire Glenn James.

  6. Jeff Kingwell says

    Chris Johnson was one of my favourite AFL players. Should have been a captain or coach or president. Wold like to see a similar summary of West Coast Eagles AFL greats. They had a terrible time in Melbourne.

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