Nicky Winmar: From bush kid to AFL legend

April 19, 2024
book cover with background of First Nations protest
Background photo: Peter Boyle

My story: From bush kid to AFL legend
By Nicky Winmar (with Matthew Hardy)
Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 2023

Just months after Prime Minister Paul Keating’s Redfern speech in April, 1993, Aboriginal AFL players Nicky “Elvis” Winmar and Gilbert McAdam were playing for St Kilda at rival team Collingwood’s home ground at Victoria Park. The pair was subjected to constant racist abuse during the game.

After Winmar and McAdam played a key role in St Kilda’s win that day, Winmar faced the racist crowd, lifted his jumper, pointed at his skin and declared: “I’m Black and proud”.

This led to an iconic photo and became a defining stand against racism.

Winmar, in collaboration with St Kilda supporter Mathew Hardy, author of the 2004 memoir Saturday Afternoon Fever, recounts this moment and many others in his 2023 autobiography, My Story: From Bush Kid to AFL Legend.

Winmar was born in 1965 and his family moved to Pingelly in Western Australia in 1967, where they lived on an Aboriginal reservation, under a form of Apartheid, in a corrugated iron shack with dirt floors and no windows. They had no running water or functional sewerage system.

1967 was the year of the referendum that finally gave First Nations people citizenship rights and counted them as people. However, Aboriginal people in Pingelly were subjected to a 6pm curfew.

When Winmar was two, a local magistrate sentenced an Aboriginal youth to six months’ detention for stealing lollies and cigarettes. “Whipping is the only punishment the Aboriginals fear,” the magistrate had said. “Physical pain is what makes these natives sit up and take notice.”

Winmar notes that the racism that existed while he was growing up is still alive and well in Australia, noting how in 2022, 15-year-old Aboriginal boy Cassius Turvey died after being beaten with an iron bar by a white man, on his way home from school. Prime Minister Anthony Albanese described it as a “clearly racially motivated attack”.

In spite of this, Winmar had many happy childhood memories, from playing footy with his siblings, emulating their idols, family trips to Perth to see the Narrows Bridge, to going to the Drive-In and listening to Elvis Presley.

Winmar’s father Neil was a shearer and played a trailblazing role for Noongar footballers in Western Australia’s South-West, helping form the Pingelly Tigers in 1967. The area’s first all-Aboriginal team would become a nursery of talent for Aboriginal footballers.

Neil played a huge role in training Winmar to be a footballer and got him a job as a shearer at age 14, a profession he would return to when he retired from professional football. All this would stand Winmar in good stead when at 17 he was recruited to play for WAFL club South Fremantle, making his debut in 1983.

After being rejected by the West Coast Eagles and Essendon clubs, Winmar made his debut with St Kilda in the then-Victorian Football League in 1987. At the time the Saints were struggling, having won the premiership only once in 1966 and having come last in the competition for four years in a row.

For Winmar, 1987 was the beginning of a glowing VFL/AFL career. Living in bayside Melbourne, he never saw other Aboriginal people, saying, “You were more likely to spot a Tasmanian tiger.”

Winmar formed an important duo with VFL/AFL all-time leading goal kicker Tony “Plugger” Lockett, and would be named a two-time All-Australian and become the first Aboriginal footballer to play 200 VFL/AFL games. He was inducted into the AFL Hall of Fame in 2022.

The only honour that would elude Winmar was an AFL Premiership. In 1997 the Saints topped the ladder, but a day before the 1997 Grand Final, Neil died from cancer. A devastated Winmar admitted he played poorly as the Saints lost the game to the Adelaide Crows.

After playing a final season at the Western Bulldogs in 1999, Winmar retired, having played 341 games and kicked 451 goals for South Fremantle, St Kilda and the Western Bulldogs between 1983‒99.

In My Story, Winmar describes how the tension of being a black man in a white man’s world led to the constant urge to self-sabotage his career. There were plenty of low points in his life during and after his football career, but he describes April 17, 1993 as the worst day of his life. He retells the horrendous treatment he and McAdam endured that day at Victoria Park, which was so bad that McAdam’s father left the ground upset, at quarter time.

When the Western Australian government unveiled a statue of Winmar outside Perth’s Optus Stadium in 2019, for NAIDOC, he said that while feels pride at what he did, he hates being reminded of that day.

In My Story, Winmar describes the racism that Indigenous and other non-white people face in Australia both on and off the field while praising Indigenous and other artists who have played a significant role in Australian public life, such as the Warumpi band, Yothu Yindi, Cathy Freeman and Baker Boy.

My Story also shows Winmar’s willingness to forgive, including the Collingwood Football club in 2023, on the 30th anniversary of the game. It also has many humorous moments such as when Winmar wonders aloud why Aboriginal people, who have lived in Australia for more than 60,000 years, are never accorded the same respect as Australian icons such as Sydney’s Man’O’War pub, Arnott’s biscuits and Akubra hats.

More importantly, Winmar describes his stand documented in Wayne Ludbey’s famous photo as a moment that has drawn attention to the fight against racism and therefore as the proudest moment of his life.

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