“‘Punderdelime’ the footy pioneer…………” by KB Hill

The waves gently lap the shore on this typically humid Darwin afternoon. It’s late September, 2000.

 

Thankfully, the relaxing sound of an air-conditioner and an uninterrupted, panoramic view across the Timor Sea extend some comfort to the occupant of the sparsely-furnished unit.

 

I’m in town on a flying visit and can’t resist the invitation to meet up with one of the Territory’s most cherished residents.

 

The old fellah invites me in. I detect that the idea of being cast as a ‘celebrity’ has worn a bit thin. But he recounts – with some prodding – the memories of an astounding life.

 

His name ?….. John Pye………..Or to be more precise: Brother John Pye MSC, OAM……….

 

He’s a Legend of the Top End.

 

As a missionary, author, teacher, historian, humanitarian, builder, wise counsel and great mate to the indigenous communities, he has made an enormous contribution to Territory life.

 

But I’m keen to tap into his famous passion for football, and his involvement in fostering the game…………

 

***

 

He was born in Mulwala. As his dad was a policeman, the family moved extensively around the Riverina, settling at Coolamon when John was about 10.

 

He recalled his first taste of Aussie Rules – and being instantly hooked.

 

Genuine pace was his asset (he was capable of running even-time) which made him an ideal candidate for a spot on the wing. When he went to boarding school at the Marist Brothers College in Wagga, they duly installed him as captain of the School’s First Eighteen.

 

He qualified as a Diesel Engineer, but eventually his calling was to join a Catholic Order, the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart. They appealed to him because of his desire to help disadvantaged people in the nation’s North.

 

His first 10 years with the MSC were spent at Toowoomba, but in 1941 he was transferred to Bathurst Island, and its sister island, Melville, two tiny specks in the Timor Sea, just 80km north of Darwin.

 

“Apart from a couple of old houses there was no sign of any people when I arrived there – until they slowly came out of the bush to see me. All they wore was a smile, and I remember looking around, wondering if, maybe, Captain Cook was visiting at the same time as me !” he joked.

 

“I saw them playing some sort of a 20-a-side game with a rolled-up rag on a rugby ground. The first team to get the ball over the line was the winner, regardless of whether you kicked, punched or carried it.”

 

“That’s when I said to myself: ‘Hang on, with my knowledge of Aussie Rules, maybe I can work on this’.”

 

His original efforts were thwarted by World War 2, but when he returned in peace-time, after a posting at Port Keats (Wadeye), he planted sticks (for the goals) at either end of one of the aerodromes left from the War. He then began to instruct them on the rudiments of the game.

 

“Each quarter would go from half an hour to an hour, because there were no watches. The prize for the winning team was usually a bag of flour or some tobacco.”

 

“Football unified people on the Tiwi Islands,” he said. “They’re all from different totems, but as soon as you pick a football team, they’re all in it together. It’s almost like a religion for them. They are an athletic, spritely, springy people and their brand of footy is, as you know, lightning fast.”

 

He started the Tiwi Islands Football League after a game between Imalu and a side from Bathurst Island. It has now evolved into a vibrant eight-team competition.

 

From these beginnings emerged some of the great identities of Australian Rules football – the Longs, the Riolis and countless others who were to become household names in the Top End, like the Virgonas, Puruntutamuris, Kerinaiuas, and Tungatalums.

 

The St. Mary’s team, which joined the NTFL in 1952, was originally made up almost entirely of expatriate islanders. Br Pye took on the task of sending players he considered capable enough over to play on the mainland, with the Saints.

 

Among them was Jack Long, whom he rated the pick of the talent he coached. Jack became an NTFL star, as did his offspring. One of the highlights of his life was watching all seven of his sons (Michael, Chris, Johnny, Patrick, Noel, Brian and Stephen) pull on the Green and Gold St. Mary’s guernsey in the 1988/89 Preliminary Final.

 

Another outstanding product was David Kantilla, a brilliant 196cm ruckman, who graduated from Bathurst, to St. Mary’s, and on to South Adelaide. ‘Soapy’, as they called him, was the first Tiwi product to play ‘big-time’ football, and went on to represent South Australia.

 

His brothers Bertram and Saturninus were also members of the initial St. Mary’s side.

 

Maurice Rioli, like so many others, grew up with a football in his hands at Garden Point Orphanage on Melville Island. Playing with St. Mary’s, he was spotted by South Fremantle, where he played under the coaching of hard-man Mal Brown. He won dual Simpson Medals as best-afield in consecutive WAFL Grand Finals.

 

The following season, after being lured to Richmond, he was adjudged the Norm Smith Medallist, despite the Tigers losing the 1982 Grand Final to Carlton……………

 

***

 

Br Pye formed a strong relationship with the late Teddy Whitten. “Ted Snr was just like a mate to me,” he said.

 

“He used to say to his mates down south: ‘If you want to see real football, have a look at a game on the Tiwi Islands’.”

 

EJ used to make an annual pilgrimage to present the E. J. Whitten Medal for best afield in the Tiwi Grand Final. (His son Ted Jnr now performs the role).

 

The Islands became Br Pye’s home. He was regarded as genuine family by people with whom he had been closely associated for decades.

 

“They’re the best people you’d want to meet,” he said. “Fiercely proud, and with tremendous sporting ability.”

 

When he retired, and settled into this unit at Nightcliff, he still maintained a hefty involvement with the Tiwi people. They call him ‘Punderdelime’, which means ‘Crocodile’s Tail’, signifying strength and age.

 

“Basically, it means I’m an old bloke who never gets sick, and helps win football matches for them,” he said.

 

 

 

He remains on the Board of the Tiwi Island Football League. The league’s Best and Fairest Award is called the John Pye Medal.

 

A keen historian, he has a huge football archive, which he likes to keep up-to-date. His enthusiasm for the game of football certainly hadn’t dimmed.

 

In October 1999, he was presented with the National Humanitarian Award.

 

 

 

The brief report of the citation said: “There were many stories told, and it became quite evident that Brother’s promotion of Australian Rules was the least of his accomplishments.”

 

“Rather, it was quite obvious that he had given his life, for sixty years, to the aboriginal people. It was also obvious that they loved him.”

 

“They, as we all did, listened intently to his talk and its humour, which showed that he still has the wit and wisdom, undimmed by his advancing years.”……………

 

***

 

As a parting gift, Br. John hands me copies of four booklets he’s produced, relating to Catholic Missions in the Territory: ‘The Port Keats Story’, ‘The Daly River Story’, ‘The Tiwi Islands’ and ‘The Santa Teresa and East Arunda History’.

 

Tomorrow he’ll pull up his chair near the telly and excitedly prepare for the AFL Grand Final between Melbourne and Essendon.

 

His leaning will be towards the Bombers – not surprisingly – and he’ll take particular interest in the player wearing No. 13 in the Red and Black.

 

For without the influence of this 93 year-old we may have been robbed of the exquisite talents of Michael Long and his ilk………………..

 

***

 

Postscript:

 

Brother John Pye passed away nine years later, in 2009, aged 102.

 

Acknowledged as the ‘Father of Football’ on the Tiwi Islands, and the other outlying missions he served, he was among the first batch of inductees admitted to the Northern Territory Football League Hall of Fame in 2010.

 

His continuing legacy to the game is shown by perusing the records of Tiwi products such as Norm Smith Medallists Maurice Rioli, Michael Long (1993) and Cyril Rioli (2015), and others who have made the big-time: Dean and Willie Rioli, Austin Wonaeamirri, Anthony McDonald-Tipungwiti, Ben Long, Sebastian Rioli, Adam Kerinauia, Malcolm Lynch, Ronnie Burns and Alan Christensen.

 

The greatest step forward for Tiwi football came in 2008, when the ‘Tiwi Bombers’ gained admittance to the NTFL, just a year before the departure of their staunchest advocate…………

 

 

This story first appeared on KB Hill’s website On Reflection and appears here with permission.

All photos from KB Hill’s collection.

To read more of KB Hill’s great stories, click HERE.

 

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Comments

  1. Fabulous story KB. Fabulous bloke too.

  2. Thanks for this tribute, KB! It’s an important piece of documentation.

  3. Lovely portrait of dedication and character.

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