Joe Johnson was player #92 on the all-time Fitzroy playing list. A dashing half back turned half forward who starred in defence in the club’s 1904 premiership side and in attack when they won the flag again in 1905.
But he was much, much more. He was a footballing pioneer. The AFL’s first Indigenous player.
As legend has it, Johnson was born in Newcastle, NSW, on 19 January 1883 to a family originally from Melbourne. They moved back south when he was still young and he did what so many young boys did. He played football. For fun.
In 1903 at 20 he joined with Northcote in the Victorian Football Association, a rival and lesser competition to the more prestigious Victorian Football League. There he caught the eye of recruiters from VFL powerhouse Fitzroy.
Fitzroy was a founding member of the VFL, an eight-team breakaway competition formed in 1897. It also included Carlton, Collingwood, Essendon, Geelong, Melbourne, South Melbourne and St Kilda.
Then known as the ‘Maroons’, they were premiers in 1898-99, grand finalists in 1900, semi-finalists in 1901, preliminary finalists in 1902 and grand finalists in 1903.
On 7 May 1904 a 21-year-old Johnson debuted with Fitzroy in the Round 1 match against Carlton at Princes Park. He was one of three first-gamers in a side headed by Bill McSperrin and Ern Jenkins, who had played in Fitzroy’s very first VFL match also against Carlton at Brunswick St Oval in 1897.
McSperrin had been a member of the 1898-99 premiership sides. He captained Fitzroy in 1901, became the club’s first 100-game player in 1903 and retired after the 1904 grand final win.
Jenkins, part of the 1899 flag, was later to play in Fitzroy’s 1904-05 premiership sides, captain the club in 1906-07 and coach Richmond in 1913 before an umpiring career that included five grand finals.
Johnson would go on to grab a place in football history.
He was a quietly spoken fella who kept to himself. He just played. Every week. After a 94-point win on debut he played all 17 home-and-away games as Fitzroy topped the 1904 ladder with 12 wins. After a semi-final win over Collingwood they met Carlton in the grand final on 17 September in front of a crowd of 32,688.
As reports put it, Johnson was ‘crudely flattened’ by Carlton full forward George Topping in the first quarter but recovered to play a key role in a 24-point win. He was judged second best player on the ground, according to the press.
He played 16 of 17 home-and-away games in 1905, plus a semi-final win over Essendon and a preliminary final win over Carlton in which for the first time he kicked two goals and was judged best afield.
In the grand final against Collingwood at the MCG on 30 September 1905 he had less influence playing in defence but at 22, after 38 of a possible 39 games in two years, he was a dual premiership player.
Writing later in an historical publication ‘Grand Finals Volume 1 – 1897-1938’, Adam McNicol noted: “An often smiling young man, Johnson boasted a muscular build and was referred to in a number of newspaper reports as being ‘a very smart player’.”
In his 55th and final game a 23-year-old Johnson was a member of a Fitzroy side beaten by 49 points in front of a then record crowd of 44,437 on 22 September 1906.
Stepping away from the big time he returned to the VFA as Brunswick captain-coach, taking them to the 1909 premiership before finishing his career back at Northcote.
In 1916 he enlisted in the Australian Army and saw action in the First World War in Egypt and France. His health reportedly suffered in Europe and he was given a medical discharge in 1917.
Returning to Australia, he slipped off the radar. Little is known of his time post-war, although his passing in 1934 was recorded in the local press.
But 100 years later, when the AFL named the Indigenous Team of the Century, the man who blazed the game’s Indigenous trail was front of mind. A key figure in football history.
Johnson’s own family played an extended role in the Indigenous football journey. His son Percy played for North Melbourne, his grandson Percy Jnr played with Hawthorn, and great grandsons Robert and Trent played with Fitzroy. Trent also played with West Coast.
Johnson Snr was one of 12 Indigenous players to wear Fitzroy colors. A further 19, including two double-ups, have played for Brisbane.
The extended Lions family has featured some of the game’s most decorated Indigenous players. Chris Johnson, a 264-game veteran and favorite with both sides of the merger family, was named in the Indigenous Team of the Century with Darryl White, a 268-game triple premiership teammate with Brisbane, and Michael McLean, a dual Brisbane club champion.
White and Johnson rank in the top 10 Indigenous games list which includes Shaun Burgoyne (395), Adam Goodes (372), Andrew McLeod (340), Eddie Betts (339), Lance Franklin (306), Michael O’Loughlin (303), Gavin Wanganeen (300) and Shane Edwards (273).
Sir Doug Nicholls, a church pastor, Governor of South Australia and the man after whom the annual Indigenous Round is named, was a Fitzroy player. He played 54 games for the club from 1932-37 and represented Victoria four times.
Full list of Fitzroy Indigenous players:
Joe Johnson – 5 games Fitzroy 1904-06
Norm Byron – 2 games Fitzroy 1918
Doug Nicholls- 54 games Fitzroy 1932-37
Shadrack James – 19 games Fitzroy 1940-41
Ted Lovett – 9 games Fitzroy 1963-64
Kevin Taylor – 14 games South Melbourne 1981, 1 games Fitzroy 1984
Wally Matera- 24 games West Coast 1987-88, 32 games Fitzroy 1989-90
Kevin Caton – 1 game West Coast 1988, 9 games Fitzroy 1989, 8 games Brisbane 1990
Dale Kickett – 15 games Fitzroy 1990, 2 games West Coast 1991, 21 games StKilda 1992,
8 games Essendon 1994, 135 games Fremantle 1995-2002
Robert Cummings – 1 game Fitzroy 1990
Chris Johnson – 59 games Fitzroy 1994-96, 205 games Brisbane 1997-2007
Trent Cummings – 27 games Fitzroy 1994-96, 2 games West Coast.
Caton and Johnson are two of 21 Indigenous players to play for Brisbane.