East Perth Royals Football Club honoured Royals and Carlton champion Syd Jackson with a special ceremony as part of the WAFL’s Indigenous Round over the weekend.
Jackson, who was also honoured in the AFL Sir Doug Nicholls Round, was a star at East Perth before winning two VFL premierships with Carlton.
East Perth and first grade cricket champion John McGuire spoke at the ceremony before delivering the Welcome to Country before the Royals’ game against Swan Districts.
McGuire, a Noongar man from Northam who scored over 10,000 first grade runs, said it was “amazing” to be in the same room as Syd Jackson.
“He was my hero growing up. I wanted number nine when I came to East Perth (Jackson’s number), but I got 25—Polly Farmer’s number,” he said with a grin.
Now, his nephew Ben McGuire wears the number 25 for East Perth.
McGuire said he “absolutely” experienced racist abuse in football, from the very beginning.
“It was like it was normal—it was what happened. I was called n*****, c**n … I handled it reasonably well. It hurt… but I learnt,” he said.
“I was playing in front of 25,000-30,000 people against West Perth here, and one guy was racially abusing me … I said to him, ‘You’re not very smart—you’re just reiterating what the rest of them are saying, you can’t come up with anything new to say, and there are 30,000 people at this game and they are watching a black man kick your arse’.”
McGuire said he had been blessed with an upbringing and home life that gave him “the confidence and self-esteem … that got [him] through this stuff”.
“My father said, ‘Always know that you are as good as the next bloke’,” he said.
East Perth board member Kim Farmer, the daughter of football legend and philanthropist, the late Polly Farmer, noted that her father, Jackson and many other prominent Aboriginal footballers were taken from their families and raised in institutions.
“There was adversity … they grew up with other kids who became their family, and found a family at their club as well,” she said.
Jackson told the audience about his abduction as a very young boy from his home in Leonora by government officials.
“We were running around playing as kids do, a truck arrived and they said, ‘We are taking you all for an ice cream in town’. Well, we got the ice cream but they never brought us home,” he said.
His sisters were taken to different missions and he never saw them again.
“It is a sad story … it has taken strength and courage … East Perth became a family of sorts. The players I saw every day, and trained with, became my family. It gave me stability.”
Jackson’s debut for Carlton in 1969 was sensational, with the star racking up 25 kicks and two goals against St Kilda.
For some time, he was the only Indigenous player in the VFL.
“At the 1970 grand final there was the biggest crowd of all time, 121,696 people … You felt the racism there. When 60,000 Collingwood supporters are yelling out ‘black bastard’ you know who they are talking about,” Jackson said.
“I never got angry. I thought, ‘I’ll show these bastards’. Every time I heard that I made sure I kicked another goal.”
Farmer also noted the racist abuse of Aboriginal players continues to this day.
“It is time to get angry [about racism], it is 30 to 40 years overtime, these lovely gentlemen are having to endure abuse, online you see the most vile comments directed at these boys,” she said, noting players including Liam Ryan and Elijah Taylor were targeted this year.
“It’s time [to stop these attacks], we need to do it now.”
Jackson praised the current Indigenous players in the AFL, saying they were “fantastic”.
“They know their space, they know where they are going, where they need to go and where they need not to go. I always knew where not to go—it was quite easy for me.”
He said Carlton and East Perth meant “the world” to him.
“Carlton gave me the opportunity to play on the biggest stage, in Melbourne, and with the great coach Ron Barassi … he got the best out of us, he frightened the shit out of us actually,” he said.
“I was quite comfortable out on the field, it was my home.”
Jackson’s daughter, Nic Merson, said her father had taught her to “be focussed, be determined—determine your own future, create your own story”.
“He worked out very quickly that his magic was a pathway out of where he was,” she said.
Before the game, Farmer joined Jackson and McGuire on the field, with Jackson tossing the coin.
Royals player Ben McGuire read the players’ statement. He acknowledged the legacy of the great Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander players that had come before him.
“We will not tolerate racism in our game … We are united and stand together against racism and injustice,” he said.
East Perth Football Club runs a community engagement program, Yaakiny Royals, for Aboriginal boys and girls aged ten to 16, in collaboration with the Polly Farmer Foundation.
By Giovanni Torre