The best to play the game: NAIDOC Week 2020 - Part 1

NAIDOC Week in Australia is a celebration of all things Indigenous culture, the great achievements of Indigenous Australians and a time to reflect on the history of our nation. What better time to celebrate some of the great Indigenous footballers of the AFL modern era?

Sir Doug Nicholls Indigenous Round offers another great opportunity to celebrate the great Indigenous footballers, as well as the fantastic Dreamtime game, which for the first time this year was held in Darwin.

While I’m a bit too young to remember some of the greats of the VFL era, players like Graham ‘Polly’ Farmer, Maurice Rioli, Robbie Muir, Nicky Winmar, Barry Cable and Jim Krakouer are remembered fondly by footy fans of all ages.

Even more recent players (and Bombers legends) like Michael Long and Gavin Wanganeen were just before my time, though watching replays from the illustrious 1993 and 2000 seasons has given me plenty of appreciation for their unmatchable skill.

Andrew McLeod

The first player to win two Norm Smith medals in a row for a best on ground performance in a Grand Final (a record which he alone held until this year) and one of only four players to win more than one Norm Smith, McLeod stands in a league above for big game performers.

McLeod’s list of accolades is longer than the 2020 season. Having already been inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2014 (and could very well gain Legend status), he was a 5x All Australian including one AA captaincy, 2x premiership player, 3x Adelaide best and fairest winner, AFL MVP winner and Showdown medallist.

McLeod additionally represented Australia three times in the international rules series and is the current Adelaide Crows games record holder, at 340 games played. Furthermore he is a part of the Indigenous Team of the Century. I haven’t even touched on his skills on field yet!

Running through the midfield and the half-back line later in his career, McLeod had pace to burn and skill to rival it, despite initial concerns around his ‘chubbiness’ as an 18 year-old draftee. It’s a testament to his endurance and diligence that McLeod is one of the few players who looks like he could still pull on a Crows jumper when he plays in the All-Star matches, at 44 years-old. His incredible humility despite his accomplishments doesn’t hurt either.

Adam Goodes

Not many more players have been more versatile across the span of their entire careers than Goodes. In 2003, he won his first Brownlow Medal as a ruckman, the most recent player to do so, a position which he hadn’t even played full time until halfway through the year before. He was also named as All-Australian ruck in his debut in the AA side.

Goodes would go on to win another Brownlow in 2006, this time as a winger, win two premierships, three Sydney best and fairests, three more All Australian selections and win the Swans goalkicking three times late in his career. This saw him named on the bench and the forward pocket in the AA team, finishing his career being an All Australian player across three lines of the ground. Oh, and he also holds the Swans’ games record.

A slew of off-field honours followed Goodes both throughout and after his playing career, the most notable of which being the Australian of the Year Award in 2014 for his contributions to the Indigenous communities of Australia as a leader and spokesperson.

Cyril Rioli

The Rioli name is synonymous with football history. Sibby and Maurice are both NTFL and WAFL legends, with Maurice also making his mark on the VFL in his six years at Richmond. Dean was a solid contributor to a star-studded Essendon side in the early 2000s, and current players Willie, Daniel as well as Ben Long and Danielle Ponter all have relation of some kind into the eternally talented Rioli family tree.

Cyril was a special talent. He’s possibly the best player to never reach 200 games, retiring at only 28 years-old. I envy anyone who lives in Darwin that has been able to watch Cyril pull on the St. Mary’s jumper every week, watching a great of the game for free.

A marvel of a goalsneak, Cyril kicked 275 goals in 189 games, including a two goal, twelve mark, eleven score involvement game in the 2015 Grand Final, earning him a Norm Smith Medal. The man was renowned for making every single touch of the footy matter, one of the most resourceful players in the league at this peak. Hawks fans will forever dream about him coming out of retirement for one last game.

Jeff Farmer

Speaking of goalsneaks, there haven’t been many better than The Wizard. His nickname was truly fitting, being able to work the footy beautifully anywhere within 50 metres of the goalposts.

Unbelievably, Farmer was only named in the All-Australian team once, in 2000, his career-best season. He kicked 76 goals, finishing in 2nd place in the Coleman Medal tally and was leagues of any other small forward. The only man he couldn’t catch was the Velvet Sledgehammer himself, as Matthew Lloyd took out the medal by an over 30 goal margin.

Over his 249 games at both Melbourne and Fremantle, Farmer kicked 483 magical goals and cemented his status as one of the all-time great small forwards. There are still not many that can do the wonderful things that The Wizard could do with the Sherrin.

Shaun Burgoyne

The man named Silk hasn’t given up the threads yet, signing on with the Hawks at the end of this season to play a 20th season. Eyeing off 400 games, Burgoyne would become just the fifth player to do so, and would become the first Indigenous player to hold the honour. Having played 48 out of a possible 63 games over the past three games, you’d think he’d be every chance to get there, with only 11 to go.

Burgoyne isn’t called Silk for nothing. Beautiful skills, precise by hand and foot, and an extremely consistent performer, even a move into the forward line in 2020 hasn’t lessened his impact on field. Some say if you look up the dictionary definition for ‘consistent’, there’s Burgoyne’s player portrait in the Merriam-Webster.

He’s an All-Australian, became a premiership player at just 21 years old, and has been an essential part of three more elite premiership teams at Hawthorn. Burgoyne is one of those players that I’ll be telling my grandchildren about.

Continued in part 2.

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