Chris Johnson spent his holidays in idyllic surrounds on a Queensland beach, but more often than not he could be found hunched over a sketch pad, scribbling furiously.
The triple premiership Lions hero had gratefully accepted the task of designing the Club’s 2021 Indigenous guernsey in the 20th anniversary of the historic 2001 premiership triumph over Essendon, and he wanted to get it right.
Johnson is a proud Gunditjmara man from South West Victoria. He was the last of the Fitzroy Lions and the first of the Brisbane Lions. He played with courage and incredible flair in 264 games for the Club in an era where the only nod to his ancestry came through his selection in the backline of the class-packed Indigenous Team of the Century.
While the opportunity to weave the parts of his own incredible story into a guernsey was “a huge honour”, the responsibility of capturing the histories of the two Clubs he loved and the many players who represented them weighed heavily.
In the years following the merger between the two Clubs the last of the old Roy Boys, one by one, dropped out of the AFL until “Johnno” was the last one standing.
“I never had an opportunity to wear an Indigenous guernsey and there has never been a Fitzroy Indigenous guernsey, so this is really special to me,’’ he said.
“It was a whirlwind for me and an incredibly emotional time. I spent my entire holidays thinking about what I was going to, jotting down ideas or trying little sketches.
“It was a huge responsibility as it was the first ever Fitzroy Indigenous guernsey and I wanted to represent every Indigenous player that represented Fitzroy.
“It was important to me that the FFC logo be in the middle and that the story of the guernsey circled around that, I wanted to do that for all the Fitzroy people.
“And given it is the 20th anniversary of the Lions first premiership I wanted to acknowledge the significant position that holds in our Club’s history also.’’
The resulting home and away guernseys will be worn when the Lions take on GWS at the Gabba on May 29 and Melbourne in Alice Springs on June 4, over the two weekends of the 2021 Sir Doug Nicholls Rounds.
Fitzroy’s history is celebrated by the semi-circle shapes arched beneath the Club logo, each a tribute to the 13 Indigenous players to have represented the Club.
Below them are six bold red circles that symbolize the grounds the Club has called home throughout its 138-year-history.
Johnson explains the three yellow symbols spaced around the Fitzroy logo represent the Brisbane Lions premierships and the seven red circles, each with four figures surrounding them pays tribute to the 28 teammates who played in the grand final triumphs.
“In this story the premierships are a meeting place, and the Kangaroo tracks around them ties them all together which is the three peat,’’ he said.
“Each of those red circles are a campfire or a waterhole or any place where people would traditionally gather together, in this case it can also represent the MCG, and the figures sitting around them are the 28 players I played alongside in those Grand Final triumphs.’’
Johnson’s own story is also depicted with some traditional Aboriginal imagery.
“I’m from the Gunditjmara people and the turtle is my totem, there are four long neck turtles one for each of my children’’ he said.
“My father Lloyd made boomerangs and they appear on the guernsey to honour him and tell the story of my own upbringing.’’
Across the back, hovering over the guernsey number like photos on a mantlepiece, are the Totems or tribal names of the Club’s current Indigenous stars.
The Kangaroo is the Totem for Blake and Keidean Coleman from the Dalabon tribe, the Wallaby represents Callum Ah Chee who is Nyoongar, Yawuru and Nyikina, Cam Ellis-Yolmen is from the Kokatha tribe and his Totem is the sleepy lizard and Charlie Cameron is a Lardil and Waanyi man whose Totem is the shovel-nosed shark.
New recruit Nakia Cockatoo traces his ancestry to the Yalanji, Ganggalida, Thanakwithi, Yupungathi and Iwaidja tribes.
Johnson is delighted that designing the Indigenous guernsey has become a much-cherished responsibility for modern players and something their teammates wear with pride.
“Players are lucky they get to wear them, I wish I had that opportunity,’’ he said.
“It is great how AFL Clubs have embraced the Indigenous culture and modern Indigenous players are given a voice.
“I was grateful for the chance to do this and enjoyed the opportunity to meet the current Indigenous players a little while ago and talk them through what this means to me and the Indigenous players from our Club that came before them.’’
The 44-year-old says the generational culture shift in the shift in the AFL was not only a powerful tool in educating white Australians and creating a more inclusive society, it was also helping connect many young Indigenous players with their personal histories.
He admits throughout his own playing career he knew very little about the history of his own people.
It was only in retirement, when his love of the game appeared to be leading him towards a career in coaching, that he began to hear the stories that would set him on a different path.
“I just found I wanted to know more, and I guess the more I learned I realised it was stuff I wish I knew at a much younger age,’’ he said.
Johnson is now employed as the Head of Engagement for the 31-member First Peoples’ Assembly of Victoria, working towards a treaty between Aboriginal groups and the Victorian government.
This year the Yoo-Rrook Justice Commision will begin hearings aimed at using stories of Victoria’s colonial past to shape its Governance in the future.
Johnson manages a team that spreads information between the elected members and their communities in regional Victoria, each day he hears stories that fuel his belief that the way brightest future for his people can only be achieved by the change to decision making on Aboriginal affairs a Treaty would provide.
“It gives us a voice,” he said.
Replica Home and Away Indigenous Guernsey’s are now available to buy via shop.lions.com.au.
All match worn Indigenous Guernsey’s will be auctioned at lions.aflauctions.com.au
Home Guernsey Auction Saturday 29 May 2:10pm – Thursday 3 June 8pm AEST
Away Guernsey Auction Friday 4 June 7:50pm – Thursday 10 June 8pm AEST