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Seeds of Fitzroy's Aboriginal icon implanted into Brisbane Lions' spirit

Andrew Mathieson -

In a respectful acknowledgement that traces down its Aboriginal roots back 150 years, Brisbane has cultivated an overlooked piece of Fitzroy folklore to prosper growth that by chance is as much a feature of Queensland than the Lions roar heard at the Gabba.

However, it is not the club's home ground that is benefitting from the historical reveal to honour the joint venture's legacy, but its other home turf from transplanting half a dozen saplings from a single tree of cultural standing to the $80 million training hub.

"During the process of thinking about what we were going to do with our new home, we were considering different ways of celebrating the Fitzroy history and connection to the Brisbane Lions in the project and we have done that in various ways," Jake Anson, the Lions' mastermind behind the ground's design, explains.

The identical red bricks laid down throughout the facility including in the design of its grandstand that resembles the club's former historical home to symbolise their early glories in the halcyon days was a nice touch.

As was the feature Indigenous artwork to display an "interpretative journey" that was heat sealed into the pavement of the concourse alongside the nearby creek line which connects up to a dedicated Indigenous college.

But from the edge of an UNESCO World Heritage-listed park in inner-city Melbourne, the decision to have arborists intricately replicate the DNA of a Moreton Bay fig long associated with one of the club's most revered figures was the club's most ambitious.

"It was a bit of an odd request to put to a council, and they had to get Department of Premier approval and Aboriginal Victoria approval for us to even contemplate it," Anson says.

The relevance of the Carlton Gardens site, a few torpedo punts from the famous old Brunswick Street Oval in the defunct AFL side's heartland, was where the local mob would gather beneath to listen to Sir Doug Nicholls deliver his faithful sermons.

A few blocks away from the fig's sprawling canopy, the Aboriginal Church of Christ is named in the honour of the respected man of God, but the true spirit of the words of Nicholls is about preserving an important narrative about his people.

Before reading verses from the bible, the merit of the spot comes from the birthplace of the original Aboriginal rights' movement that Nicholls, as a social just campaigner, continued to spread the righteous messages from their origins dating back to 1873.

"The Brisbane Lions were always very aware and have long celebrated, not only Sir Doug's association with the football club, but what this tree was to Aboriginal people in the Fitzroy community," Anson says.

The process of how a range of seeds and cuttings came to coming home was the most exhaustive project.

They were imbedded into a Melbourne nursery environment for a couple of months first before being driven up to a lush valley in the Sunshine Coast hinterland.

The juvenile figs still had a lot more growing to do and it took the best part of two and a half years to propagate them to ensure the Springfield ground, about 30 kilometres from the Gabba, had enough of them in case they failed to thrive among the seedlings.

"Now we've got six of these figs that have been planted and are thriving alongside the creek," Anson says.

"They will certainly outlive me, but the idea is that in 50 or 100 years we have this big, mature Moreton Bay fig trees that shape the concourse, that are living in their native environment, but most importantly are a living link to Sir Doug and to Fitzroy.

"We think it's a story to tell and a different way to celebrate a life and a club without just naming a grandstand – but we do have a room there named after him anyway."

The Yorta Yorta footy pioneer was not only their voice of the Koori Community, but he defied racial attitudes at the time, first for the club – monikered the Maroons before Queensland was – and then for Victoria in 1935 as its first bona fide Aboriginal star.

To illustrate the enormity of his interstate debut, the first of his four matches wearing the Big V, Nicholls and the game was a quarter of a century ahead of rugby league and pioneer Lionel Morgan, who passed away last weekend, in representing Queensland.

The accomplishment of Nicholls went beyond football and the ministry of the church, though having the AFL Indigenous round named in his honour ensures that his story is told for generations to come.

The pint-sized rover became a Sir in 1972, while that knighthood was bestowed four years prior to a stint as Governor of South Australia after being raised near Shepparton in country Victoria.

For a man who could crumb a ball off a pack marking contest and hit the leading forward on the chest with precision, Nicholls proved to be equally as good crouching on the starting blocks sprinting or pulling on the gloves boxing.

"There is, of course, that very heartwarming but sad story of either Sir Doug's signing or training with Carlton, and just feeling excluded from that club environment before coming across to Fitzroy," Anson says.

"I remember hearing how he came into the Fitzroy changeroom, first sat across from all the other players, where you had Haydn Bunton then crossing the room as captain, and sitting right down next to him to get changed alongside Sir Doug as a gesture and a symbol of acceptance."

That was a moral compass that Brisbane wanted to embrace when the former Fitzroy spirit moved north in 1997.

The Lions appointed esteemed Indigenous filmmaker Dean Gibson onto the board this year and Anson says the Guugu Yimithirr storyteller has provided a voice to the club's past archives.

"He's always keen to espouse to the people in our organisation how rich the tradition of First (Nations) people have been involved with Fitzroy over the journey and how the football club was quite a progressive club in its attitude and with the recruitment of Aboriginal players in Victoria, who were probably much maligned in their ability to be represented at the top level," Anson says.

While Nicholls remained most infamous for his standing outside of the boundary line, the club has produced 44 Indigenous players over time, including 13 from Fitzroy, and growing more since having an AFL side.

Joe Johnson's name is another standout to the sizeable contribution of Nicholls, as the Indigenous game's first Aboriginal player with 55 appearances from 1904 until 1906.

Across four generations, his son Percy Johnson, maternal grandson Percy Cummings and great-grandsons Robert and Trent Cummings followed a remarkable path over 90 years.

Johnson's namesake, Chris, a triple premiership hero for Brisbane after first debuting for Fitzroy was arguably the best of the mob in his 264 matches.

"We've been fortunate at the Brisbane Lions to have a number of Indigenous players from both the Fitzroy and Bears strand post-merger that has made celebrating their contributions to our footy club," Anson says.

"So, we are always looking for opportunities to acknowledge those contributions and celebrate our connections."

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