GROWN men cried – the same men who once looked at football’s angriest, ugliest, and most brutal in the face, stared it down, and ran through it without a blink.
But the mere mention of their own name being spoken in the same breath as those gone before them could barely find the words to express their gratitude after learning they now stand shoulder to shoulder with their sporting heroes in the Northern Territory’s first 100-year football team,
It currently stands as the greatest selection of talent the NT has ever seen and on Friday night, we bore witness to the AFLNT’s Team of the Century (1916-2017). The Northern Territory celebrates its 100th year of organised competition this season (2016/17). It is the only major State/Territory league to be played in the summer months, something that hasn’t changed in a century. The naming of its Team of the Century marks the first of many centenary celebrations this season.
The majority of the team’s 22 selected players are Indigenous Territorians; a reflection of the Territory’s Indigenous population (approx. 30% -2011 Census data) and the sheer talent the Australian game is blessed with.
Adelaide Crows games record-holder, dual premiership and Norm Smith medalist Andrew McLeod was named captain of the celebrated side. Tiwi Islander David Kantilla (snr), who made his name in the South Australia National Football League as a premiership player with South Adelaide, is vice-captain.
Both men were earlier selected in the AFL’s Indigenous Team of the Century (1904-2005). The pair are two of 10 players in the Territory team also in the AFL’s 100-year team.
AFLNT CEO Michael Solomon, a relative newcomer to Territory football, told the National Indigenous Times that, in 100 years’ time, we will be hearing some of the same names being read out for the NT’s second team of the century.
“Football’s fabric is so healthy and so tightly inter-woven into the lives of so many families in the Northern Territory that it would not surprise me that the same names announced on Friday night will be announced three generations later. My expectations are that will hear of the Riolis, the Longs, the Lew-Fatts, all being named,” he said.
“What I’ve learnt from the outset is the depth of community and family that sits within Northern Territory football, and the pride through generation upon generation, that deep and rich history, that just leaves me gob smacked. Here’s an example: my babysitter on the night was the grand-daughter of Joe Bonson (named at centre half-forward), and she plays for St Mary’s.
“I would say that I feel pretty privileged as (non-voting) chair of selectors. There was footy royalty at every table and to see grown men cry was humbling.”
One-time Brisbane team-mates Darryl White and Gilbert McAdam were two of three Central Australians in the team. They were joined by fellow Centralian Jowl Bowden.
Long-time Territory sports broadcaster Charlie King said that not one player in the final 22 would be out of place among the country’s best ever teams.
“This side accurately reflects the greatest footballers we’ve seen over 100 years here; it’s a fantastic side, no doubt about that,” he said.
“These names have echoed on down the years, and that marks them as great players. There have been thousands of players who have played the game here – some are remembered, talked about and revered to this day.
“The high Indigenous numbers, I think, reflects how strongly Indigenous people have supported football in the NT. I think we have had some of the best footballers the country has ever seen. These players would get in on any team, of any era, anywhere.
“During the awards ceremony I have never seen so many man tears in my life; there was barely a player that didn’t have tears in his eyes, they were so emotionally moved with the accolade, so honored and proud of their achievements. Nobody anywhere can say we got it wrong. I mean, look at this team, there’s not a player in that team that you would take out. It was a proud moment for footballers in the Territory and we will be talking about this 100 years from now.”
The man most considered unlucky in missing out on the full-back spot in the AFL’s 100-year team, Russell Jeffrey, finally got the call in his favored position in the backline. Jeffrey is old-school full-back: tough, hard at the ball, hard at the man with the ball, no-nonsense football. Jeffrey is the only player in the side to represent Victoria in State of Origin football.
To his left in a back pocket is the great Bill Dempsey, the man who played over 300 games for West Perth in the WAFL when that league was at the top of its game. His was the era of Graham ‘Polly’ Farmer’.
The late, great Maurice Rioli was named on a wing. His feats with South Fremantle in the WAFL and Richmond in the then-VFL is legion and whose legacy continues to this day with his nephew, four-time premiership player and Norm Smith medalist Cyril Rioli (jnr) named in the middle.
Maurice Rioli and Dempsey are both WA State of Origin representatives.
Rioli’s opposite number on the other wing is Michael Graham, the man whose brilliance shone in a celebrated career with Sturt in the SANFL.
“This side is the benchmark. And a lot of those selected on the night said exactly that. That ‘My name is alongside Maurice Rioli’s, Nathan Buckley’s, Michael Athanasiou’s, Michael McLean’s…’ And they would say that it wasn’t just about themselves but about the great players around them,” said King.
“It wasn’t just a club fairest & best, this was 100 years of football. Many of those players have connections to the game that remain to this day, and there they were in front of an adoring crowd. It was those moments like this that moved many a man to tears.
“It was just a beautiful moment for Northern Territory football.”
The AFLNT Northern Territory Team of the Century:
B: Joel Bowden, Russell Jeffrey, Bill Dempsey
HB: Nathan Buckley, Michael Athanasiou, Michael McLean
C: Michael Long, Andrew McLeod (C), John Tye
HF: Michael Graham, Joe Bonson, Maurice Rioli
F: Darryl White, Dennis Dunn, Gympie LewFatt
R&R: David Kantilla (VC), Reuben Cooper, Cyril Rioli Jr
INT: Walter LewFatt Gilbert McAdam Cyril Rioli Snr Jimmy Anderson
Coach: John Taylor