Essendon enjoys a well-deserved reputation for its commitment to the recruitment and mentoring of Indigenous players and for the various partnerships it has with the broader Indigenous communities both in Victoria and in the Northern Territory.

Successful and popular early players Michael Long and Gavin Wanganeen have helped to provide the club with a high profile among Indigenous Australians who for many Essendon has become their football club.

As the AFL prepares for this week’s Indigenous Round, and the flagship Essendon v Richmond Dreamtime game on Saturday night, let’s take a look at some of Essendon’s Indigenous players.

Essendon’s association with Aboriginal players dates from the 1940s when Norm McDonald arrived at the club from Belmont. McDonald had first approached Geelong but he later said that the Cats showed no interest so he headed up the highway to Windy Hill. McDonald had blistering speed and great skills and ended up playing 127 games for the club between 1947 and 1953. He was the club’s best first year player, was on the half-back flank in the 1949 and 1950 premiership teams and won the club’s best and fairest award in 1951, no mean feat  in a team that included Team of the Century greats Bill Hutchison, John Coleman and Harold Lambert.

But it would be another 40 years before a second Indigenous player made his debut for Essendon. Many would say it was worth the wait for the next player was the great Michael Long.

“I just asked the board ‘Is there any reason we’ve never had an Aboriginal player here for 40 years?’ And I think Ken Fraser said ‘Look, there’s been no player ever put up to say yes or no.’ So in the end I said ‘I think it is about time we went to see if we could get one.’”

Kevin Sheedy recounting a 1980s board meeting in 2007.

Michael Long arrived from Darwin via West Torrens in Adelaide and made his debut in round one 1989. He played 24 of 25 games in his debut season and like Norm McDonald four decades earlier won the club’s best first year player award. ‘Longy’ was quick, elusive and had great skills, exciting teammates and fans alike with his weaving runs. 

But knee injuries blighted his output and nearly led to his retirement from the game. Long  missed all of the 1994 after he required a knee reconstruction but he was back to his best the following year running equal fourth in the Brownlow. A second knee injury in 1996 restricted him to just 16 games over the following three seasons but he did return to play 20 games in 1999 and played in a second premiership in 2000. By the time ‘Longy’ retired on the eve of the 2001 grand final, he too had won two premiership medals. He’d also won a Norm Smith Medal and earned All-Australian selection. In a 190-game career over 13 seasons, Long had marked himself as a Bomber great.

“A fabulous player with the skills and vision to make something out of nothing.”

Teammate and Essendon captain Gary O’Donnell

Perhaps his greatest legacy was not on the field at all but the stand he took after an incident in the Anzac day game in 1995 that became the catalyst for a change in the League’s rules.   

After years of enduring racist abuse from players and opposition supporters Long decided to speak out after being racially abused by an opponent. Enough was enough. Long took his complaint to the AFL but the incident was poorly handled and exposed the League’s inadequate process for dealing with racial abuse on the ground. In June that year the League introduced a new rule to deal with on-field racial and religious vilification. Over years the code has been expanded and today all clubs are required to conduct annual education programs for all players. 

 “I just got sick of it, I don’t think it’s part of the game.”

Michael Long speaking in 1997 about racial abuse in football

Since then football’s attitudes towards racism and intolerance have undergone a significant shift, in no small part owing to the stand Long took in 1995.

In 2000 the Football Record nominated Michael Long as one of the 10 most influential football figures in the previous century.

Today Michael Long is well-known for his walk to Canberra in 2004 to speak to then-Prime Minister John Howard about indigenous welfare and The Long Walk charity that resulted from it and named in his honour. 

After only two Indigenous players debuting in 40 years the club recruited eight players in the 1990s and 11 players in the 2000s, Derek Kickett, Gavin Wanganeen (the 1993 Brownlow medallist), Che Cockatoo-Collins and Dean Rioli among them.

In all, 22 Indigenous players have donned the sash playing 1372 games and counting. Seven have played 100 games or more and two, Courtenay Dempsey and Leroy Jetta, have both played over 90 games and are still playing.

Of these 22 players Kevin Sheedy recruited 19 of them between 1989 and 2007. No coach in the competition’s history has recruited or coached more Indigenous footballers than Sheedy. He was quoted in a TV interview in 2007 as saying that his promotion of Indigenous football players was a 20 year long process of education and reconciliation. That process continues today.

Today there are four Indigenous players on the Essendon list: Patrick Ryder, Leroy Jetta, Courtenay Dempsey and Shaun Edwards.

Today Essendon supports the Wadeye Magic and Tiwi Bombers Football Clubs and their communities. Essendon was the first sporting club in Australia to have a Reconciliation Action Plan and also runs the Bombers Bright Futures employment program with the Victorian State Government.


Essendon’s Indigenous players

1Norm McDonald1947-53128 games
2Michael Long       1989-01 190 games
3Derek Kickett                     1990-93    77 games
4Gavin Wanganeen1991-96127 games
5Willie Dick19927 games
6Lachlan Ross1994      2 games
7Russell Williams1994      3 games
8Dale Kickett                       19948 games
9Che Cockatoo Collins1994-9885 games
10Shawn Lewfatt19953 games
11Dean Rioli1999-06100 games
12Cory McGrath      2001-0328 games
13Justin Murphy                   2004-05    40 games
14Nathan Lovett-Murray2004-2013           145 games
15Andrew Lovett2005-0988 games
16Richard Cole2006-077 games
17Patrick Ryder2006-156 games to rd 10 2014
18Courtney Dempsey2006-    92 games to rd 10 2014
19Alwyn Davey2007-2013100 games
20Leroy Jetta           2007-93 games to rd 10 2014
21Jarrod Atkinson                 2008-10   17 games
22Mark Williams                    20104 games