It was Round 1 of season 1932, Saturday 30 April. Fitzroy debuted five players against Carlton at Brunswick Street. Three of them played a largely unspectacular 93 games between them for 35 wins, one was a Fitzroy champion, and the other was an Australian treasure.
Making up the three-man ‘undercard’ were Len Stott, who played 62 games over six years, Jack Sexton, who captained the club after moving from South Australia but played only 29 games in three years, and Laurie Plunkett, who backed up in Round 2 and was done.
The Fitzroy champion was fullback/ruckman Frank Curcio, the first player to post 200 games for the club. Captain from 1938-41, he missed the 1944 premiership due to military service but played 249 games to sit fourth on the all-time games list and was a member of the Team of the Century.
Also a bass violinist of some repute, Curcio stood out of football in 1937 to concentrate on his music and once famously told a North Melbourne opponent “hit me as hard as you like, but don’t hurt my fingers”.
But, as good as he was on and off the field, even Curcio has to accept second billing here to the unlikely 25-year-old who completed the debut quintet in a 16-point Fitzroy win 70 years ago.
Wearing the #13 jumper, all of 157cm and 65kg, he was tiny in statue but a giant among the Indigenous community then and now.
Doug Nicholls, the man after whom this week’s AFL Indigenous Round is named, played the first of 54 games for Fitzroy in a career that looked for a long time like it would never happen.
Having begun his football with Tongala in the Goulburn Valley, he had tried out unsuccessfully with then VFL clubs North Melbourne and Carlton before the 1927 season, and later joined Northcote in the VFA.
Described as “an energetic and speedy wingman capable of spectacular feats”, he was a member of the Northcote premiership side in 1929 and in 1931 finished third in the Recorder Cup, later to become the Liston Trophy for the competition’s best player.
The best wingman in the VFA at the time, he joined Fitzroy in a last-ditch effort to play at the highest level without having any idea of the impact he would have on and off the field.
Born on 9 December 1906 on the Cummeragunja Reserve in New South Wales, he was the youngest of five children from the Yorta Yorta people. Raised on a mission where strict religious principles were upheld, he was schooled only to Grade 3 standard.
He was eight when he saw his 16-year-old sister Hilda forcibly taken from his family by the police and sent to the Cootamundra Domestic Training Home for Aboriginal Girls, where she was trained as a domestic servant.
At 13 Nicholls worked with his uncle as a tar boy and general hand on sheep stations and lived with the adult shearers. As legend has it, he was a hard-working lad of cheerful disposition who did it tough but was made of the right stuff.
He needed to be because in his early days at Fitzroy he was subjected to taunts by spectators and ostracised by teammates because of his color. Often he would sit by himself in the dressing rooms, and not until he was befriended by Haydn Bunton Snr, father of the triple Brownlow Medallist of the same name, was he made to feel welcome.
In 1935, in his fourth season with Fitzroy, Nicholls was the first Indigenous player to represent Victoria. He played four times for the State team in what would later be recognised as a defining moment for Indigenous Australians not just in football but everyday life.
He was also a capable sprinter and competed in gift races across Victoria during athletics seasons. In 1928 he won the Nyah and Warracknabeal Gifts after which race organisers paid him an appearance fee, board and expenses to enter races.
He was also a handy boxer, and to earn a living outside football and athletics seasons he was part of a travelling sideshow in which the promoter offered his fighters for challenge against all comers.
And during World War Two he taught members of the US military based in Melbourne the art of throwing a boomerang – as is evidenced by a photograph in the Australian War Memorial archives – and organised Indigenous football teams for fund-raising matches often played against Northcote.
By 1935, still playing football while serving as secretary of the Australian Aborigines League, he helped drive a campaign for reconciliation.
It was the beginning of a long, hard road that in 1967 would see a change to the Australian Constitution via a referendum that included Indigenous Australians in the census.
Along the way Nicholls was called up to join the Australian war effort in 1941 and joined the 29th Battalion of the Australian Army. But in ’42, following a request from the Fitzroy police, he was released to water as a social worker in the Fitzroy Aboriginal community.
He cared for people with alcohol and gambling problems, among other social issues. Indigenous people flocked to him and eventually the group was so large that he became the pastor of the first Aboriginal Church of Christ in Australia. He was ordained as a minister.
In recognition of his service over almost 40 years Nicholls was the first Indigenous Australian to be knighted in 1972, and the first and only Indigenous Australian appointed to vice-regal office. He served as Governor of South Australia from 1 December 1976 until his resignation due to ill health on 30 April 1977, and died in Mooroopna, near Shepparton, on 4 June 1988 aged 81.
So, after the inception of the AFL ‘Dream Time at the MCG’ game in 2005 the AFL adopted an annual Indigenous Round to celebrate the history of First Nation’s cultures across Australia.
And when in 2016 the League was looking for an appropriate name for Indigenous Round there was only one choice. It became the Sir Douglas Nicholls Round.
This year it will be spread across Rounds 10-11 to coincide with National Reconcilliation Week from 27 May to 3 June. The Lions will play Hawthorn in Launceston on Sunday afternoon this week and the GWS Giants on Saturday afternoon, 28 May.
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