This year’s Sir Doug Nicholls Round will also recognise Australian Football Legend Syd Jackson and his contribution to the game and the community.
Playing 136 games for the Carlton Football Club from 1969-76, the dual-premiership player has worked tirelessly to create opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, including supporting the Blues Foundation with the Syd Jackson Program named in his honour. This is the Syd Jackson story, as told by historian Dr Sean Gorman
I FIRST came across Syd Jackson in Martin Flanagan’s book 1970. I was undertaking a PhD on the Krakouer brothers, sitting in the State Library for four straight months going through the microfilm archive. It was here I read Flanagan’s football reports in The Age during the 80s which led me to his books. Ostensibly, 1970 is about the Grand Final of that year between arch rivals Collingwood and Carlton. It is seen as the genesis of the modern game.
It was when Carlton coach Ron Barassi implored his side, trailing Collingwood by 44 points at half-time, to handball and play on at all costs in the second half. According to football myth, the champagne was being supped with fierce abandon by the Pies personnel as the inexplicable hubris bubbled over with the fizz.
Football, however, has a way of flipping the script. Carlton won by 10 points. From 1970, Jackson became a person of real interest to me, not just because of his football prowess. His back story was the most compelling I had ever heard.
Fast-forward several years, I was travelling around Australia having secured seed funding from the University of Melbourne where I was working to write the biographies of all the members of the AFL’s Indigenous team of the Century. This was an opportunity of a lifetime, as I got to interview some of my heroes. Sitting in the offices of the Sarina Russo Group in Collingwood, Jackson’s story unfurled before me like some epic historical tapestry. What he told me left me slack-jawed and in awe. From a NAIDOC ball speech in Perth in 2008, he explained:
For me, if it wasn’t for my football, I know my life as part of Australia’s Stolen Generation could have been starkly different. There was a lot that I lost in terms of my family, my culture, my language. I had a lot of help from people and I worked hard to reward them by not failing.
After being recruited by Carlton in 1968, Jackson was set to go on a trip of a lifetime. Unable to play because of a clearance wrangle from WAFL club East Perth, he was hoping to show his skill on an international stage with a football trip to end all trips, the Touring Galahs. Organised by Barassi and Harry Beitzel, the tour was set to take in Ireland, England and North America. There was only one thing Jackson needed, a passport.
Jackson went down to an agency in Melbourne and filled out forms, but left the section of his birth details blank. He handed the forms to a clerk, who instructed Jackson that without his birth details they would not be able to issue the bona fides. Jackson instructed the clerk to ring the Office of Births and Marriages in Perth.
Emerging from his office some minutes later, the clerk had a pained look. There was no record of Jackson being born, hence the passport could not be issued. Weeks later a letter was supplied by Mr Frank Gare, Western Australia’s last Commissioner of Native Welfare. It said, “records for the period 1940 to 1951 state that no reference to the birth of Sydney Jackson can be found.” Technically, Jackson did not exist.
The reason for Jackson being unable to locate his birth details were simple, yet complex. Taken away by a formal arrest warrant when he was three years old, he was separated from his family for 20 years and would meet his parents only twice before they died. The reason for this was what the colour of his skin represented. He was a ‘half-caste’, a blunt descriptor that the authorities at the time did not view favourably.
The arm of the Native Affairs Department was powerful, and eventually Syd’s family were tracked down at Tarmoola station near Leonora in the WA Goldfields. Initially, Jackson was to be transferred ‘under escort’ to Sister Kate’s Home but ended up at Moore River (Rabbit Proof Fence) with his sisters. He was removed from his siblings to Carrolup Native Boys School near Katanning and then finally to Roelands Native mission between Collie and Bunbury.
f this was not traumatic enough, it would be years later that the pieces to Jackson’s personal puzzle could start to be put into place. He explains:
For a long time, I thought I was a Noongar because I was bought up at Roelands. When I caught up with my sisters, I learnt that I was born in Leonora and part of the Wongi people out of the Goldfields. I had very mixed feelings about that.
To put this in context, it is like growing up thinking you are German, but you are actually French. It was in the heart of Noongar Country (south-west WA).
Jackson would come to learn what it meant to be an Aboriginal in a white society. Despite the picture-postcard setting of Roelands Mission, the lifestyle of the inmates (Jackson’s words) was geared around religious discipline, education and hard work. Days started at 5am and saw children involved in work designed to ‘train’ them for the rigours of farm life, and was strictly enforced.
For Jackson, this period is not recalled fondly as he stated in his 2008 NAIDOC speech, “In the Missions we were used as slave labour to work the farms that kept the white mission owners in the lifestyle to which they were accustomed”. Football helped him escape the drudgery of his existence:
My first recollection of football was all in the mission with about 15 other kids. The local mayor of one of the local football clubs heard about us and recruited three or four of us. We were picked up every Sunday to play for South Bunbury.
Dr Ern Manea, the mayor, was a prominent Bunbury physician, and president of the South Bunbury Football Club. Manea made enquiries about the Roelands boys and, with his influence, he was able to place the older boys into employment.
Manea organised a carpentry apprenticeship for Jackson and he boarded at the Manea house. This produced dividends for Jackson and reflected in his football where he won the South West Football leagues fairest and best award, the Hayward Medal, becoming the youngest player to do so. He also was able to meet football royalty in Barassi, who was raising money for charity and stayed with the Manea’s when he came to Bunbury, sharing a bedroom no less.
It was in the early 60s that interest from metropolitan football clubs started to increase. Jackson explains:
After winning two Hayward Medals, East Perth approached Dr Manea. East Perth saw me play but it took some time because South Bunbury footy club didn’t want me to be exploited. So, I ended up where Polly Farmer and Ted Kilmurray were playing.
Jackson commenced his debut season for East Perth in 1963. Despite getting a two-week suspension and being ineligible, he tied in the Sandover Medal. In five seasons, Jackson made two Grand Finals with the Royals, an earned a State guernsey in 1967. These successes enabled him to build a profile which attracted the recruitment scouts from the east.
Sitting out of the 1968 VFL season, Jackson became the Carlton runner that year which enabled him to acclimatise to the crowds of the VFL. It was with the Touring Galahs that the passport issue needed resolution. Jackson called Manea, and as luck would have it Prime Minister John Gorton was in Bunbury on official business. Manea approached the PM complaining that it was the year after the 1967 Referendum which promised to ameliorate Indigenous subjugation. Manea’s argument was so convincing that Gorton organised for Jackson to get a passport the next day.
Once in Melbourne, Jackson needed to acclimatise on many levels:
I was out of sorts because it took me probably two years to fully settle and the winters were winters then. I had to work and find a job in those days. It was difficult because the discipline of the VFL football was a step up. Training, fitness, punctuality, I was under more scrutiny. There was also heaps of racism when I played. I got, “You black bastard”. “Go back to the desert!” “Midnight.” It actually fired me up, by playing a lot better and focusing.
Despite the hardships and the torment, it was through playing football that Jackson was able to deal with alienation and discrimination. “I got so comfortable playing football that I was more comfortable in the middle of the MCG than sitting in my lounge at home.” [i]
Another way that Jackson dealt with things was through humour. Barassi, trying to get an increased effort out of Jackson’s on-field performance during the 1970 season, said he wanted more endeavour from his half-forward. “Endeavour?” Jackson replied, “That was the boat Cook came here on and he was the bloke who took all our land.”
Despite having a semi-rocky relationship with Barassi, Jackson acknowledges his deft guidance in the 1970 Grand Final in front of 121,696 people:
Barassi and I had a bit of a stormy relationship, but his coaching on that day was inspirational. Seven goals down at half-time meant there was no point in his usual withering tirades. Instead he stayed positive and gave us a simple plan. It’s got me many a free meal since then.[ii]
Despite his journey in football, Jackson does not forget his humble beginnings. He still remembers many of his ‘brothers and sisters’ who have not made it. “Today, people look at me walking around in my suit and doing my work and wouldn’t get close to understanding the grief I carry around in my head every day.”[iii]
For Jackson, the issue is about history and the way we need to remember what happened:
Displacement was the biggest thing our people faced. The biggest challenge was the prospect of never reconnecting and never knowing where they came from or who their parents were. That leads to the challenge of them surviving. Discrimination leads to a lot of depression, and they see that there’s no life for them in this great country of theirs.
If Jackson’s story teaches us anything, it is the potentiality of the human spirit. The combination of will and opportunity can enable great things to happen and, in many ways, the 1970 premiership is an allegorical mirror to Jackson’s life, where against huge odds the challenge was met and then some, creating the pathway so that others may follow. It is a marker of him as a footballer, but more importantly as a person. A mighty person with a mighty story to tell.
SYD JACKSON’S FOOTY RECORD
1963-67 East Perth, 1969-76 Carlton 240 games (104 East Perth, 136 Carlton) 243 goals (78 goals East Perth, 165 goals Carlton) 1 match WA 1966 Fairest and Best East Perth 1970, 1972 Premiership Carlton Life member of South Bunbury Football Club, East Perth Football and Carlton Football Club Team of the Century member South Bunbury Football Club, East Perth Football and Carlton Football Club Member South West Sports Hall of Fame, WA Football Hall of Fame, South Bunbury Football Hall of Fame