One of the game’s all-time greats, Peter Matera, discusses his fascinating journey into the AFL
THE NAME Matera in Australian football is synonymous with blue-chip football.
WATCH ‘EM NOW More from the Deadliest Files ON DEMAND right here
In Western Australia, Peter Matera holds a special place in the hearts of West Coast Eagles supporters but, in reality, this extends out across the nation.
With both Noongar and Italian heritage, Peter Matera was selected in both the Indigenous and Italian teams of the Century which is testament to his and his families standing in the game.
Mum met Dad when he migrated from Italy. He and a few of his mates come to Australia because they thought there was work. They just pretty much worked on farms just doing odd jobs. I was born and raised in Wagin which is a Noongar region, Mum’s Noongar.
Growing up in a family of seven in the small wheatbelt town of Wagin, Matera’s recollections are very vivid in terms of football.
We played on the bitumen. The trees and telephone poles were goals. Playing on the road, you didn’t want to get tackled so you run a bit faster and you keep your feet. Maybe that’s where I got my speed from?
Matera’s heroes when he was growing up were the South Fremantle champions of the day: Stephen Michael (Noongar) and Maurice Rioli (Tiwi).
Stephen Michael’s relations lived across the road from us and he was a superstar for South. When he’d come down and visit, it was a big deal. Maurice Rioli was big too.
As Wagin was the recruitment zone for South Fremantle, Matera’s older brother Wally played at the Bulldogs in 1986, eventually going on to be an inaugural Eagle. Wally’s transition into the WAFL proved to be somewhat of a spur for Peter to follow in his footsteps.
Because Wally was up playing footy, I thought I’d have a crack. I thought if Wally can do it, I can do it too. It was a shock seeing my brother there and seeing all the fame that he got. It just inspired me.
Playing for three seasons with South Fremantle in the WAFL, Matera was coming onto the VFL radar as a quality wing in the late 80s.
He was drafted in 1989 and in 1990, the commencement of the Australian Football League, Matera made his debut for the Eagles in round one against Collingwood at Subiaco Oval.
For Matera, the transitioning into the game took some getting used to.
When I first went down to the Eagles, there were big names like Worsfold, Hart, Mainwaring, Turley, Lamb and, all of a sudden, I’m their teammate. I knew I had pace so it was more trying to fit in playing in a professional team that had team goals and team structures. It was another league, another level. I had a lot of support I just needed to put it together.
As the Eagles were building as a football powerhouse in the early 90s, Matera too was improving each season to the point he was becoming one of the most damaging players in the League.
By 1992, having lost the 1991 Grand Final to Hawthorn, the Eagles took out their first premiership against Geelong to become the first non-Victorian team to wrest the cup away from the football heartland. Matera won the Norm Smith Medal, cementing his name forever in football history. But, dealing with the fame was a challenge.
It was a one team town and we pretty much got the keys to the city. Wherever you went you were rock stars. It was hard because you could not go anywhere without getting hassled. We were in our early 20s most of us, and we were on notice by the club. It was hard.
The Eagles level of professionalism in this era paid dividends as they set the standards for other football clubs to follow in the 1990s. Winning another premiership in 1994 meant the Eagles players were the most recognised players in the land.
Yet this on-field success only made Matera more of a target on the field as opposition players tried to break down his composure.
They would say ‘you’re not Aboriginal. You think you’re Aboriginal but you’re not. You’re not black. Chris Lewis and me we’re pretty close and he used to get a fair bit.
There were also challenges of dealing with injuries and playing at the highest level.
I tried to train as hard as I could to set an example to the younger blokes coming through. I knew they were watching me like I did when I first came in. Once the young blokes start asking you questions you have to be prepared to do stuff and not just talk about it.
It is from these experiences in football that Matera understands the challenges that face young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people today and has tried to take that football into his business of the Matera Foundation.
I think the biggest thing for young Blackfellas is trying to further their careers as individuals. I think the biggest challenge is for them to realise that they need a job and security because without a job you are going to be just doing the same thing day in, day out.
As the first Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander to be selected to be on the AFL Tribunal, Matera understands the challenges regarding First Nations Australians and the game. For him it is about education.
Having come through a time when issues around racism were not understood, it took players like Chris Lewis, Troy Ugle, Phil Narkle and me to educate the Eagles about these things. We were trying to tell them about our history and they were like, ‘Really?’. Today in business and elsewhere, there is that understanding, but it has taken a while.
These days Matera loves watching Lewis Jetta and Liam Ryan especially in the 2018 Grand Final. Buddy Franklin is also a stand out for Matera. Watching these contemporary champions makes Matera reflect on his glittering career. What would he say to himself as a young eighteen year old?
I wish I was fitter and had the knowledge of playing outside of WA. The biggest thing I would advise anyone is to try and find someone at the club and get to know early on what the team and club is like. Someone who you can be close to and ask questions. If it gets tough, keep trying.