IN the 1870s football was at a crossroads.
Initially played by the rich and well-to-do lads of the squattocracy, young men from more humble beginnings started to take their place in the white man’s sport, which many believe had its roots in the indigenous game marn grook.
While the AFL officially says Joe Johnson was the first Aboriginal footballer to play at a senior level when he debuted for Fitzroy in 1904, researchers disprove the claim.
In 1872, a speedy young bloke from Framlingham became the first Koori to play in Victoria’s “senior” football competition with the all-white Geelong team.
By all accounts, Albert “Pompey” Austin was an athlete of unparalleled ability — a runner, jumper, hurdler, boxer and cricketer.
Few sportsmen had the prowess of the man with the mutton-chop whiskers and flowing black hair.
According to researchers Trevor Ruddell, Jan Critchett and Ian Clarke, Austin was born in the mid-1840s. He grew up on the Framlingham Mission Station and went on to be the first Aborigine to play top level senior football.
Austin’s career with Geelong Football Club was short-lived, playing just one senior match — a vital game against Carlton in may of 1872 at the Argyle Ground — and proving to be less than brilliant, according to newspaper reports.
“Pompey, the Aboriginal, played for Geelong; but after the first fall he did not appear to see any fun in the game and was of no use whatever, except to afford amusement to the spectators,’’ the Geelong Advertiser wrote on May 27, 1872.
According to a December, 3, 2010 report on the Demonland website, champion indigenous player Adam Goodes once wrote that Austin and fellow indigenous player “Colac Sammy’’ experienced a lack of respect on the senior footy field.
“The former (Austin) played barefooted for Geelong in May 1872 against reigning premier Carlton,’’ the Melbourne Demons forum site says.
“He came from Framlingham Mission which was established by the Church of England in 1865 for the Giraiwurung people of south-west Victoria, with a good reputation as a local athlete.
“Goodes says one might have thought that this ‘earned him some sense of respect’. Not so. He was treated as a figure of the crowd’s derision — more like a circus act.
“The same fate befell Sammy when he ran out for Colac against Geelong in 1877. The Geelong Advertiser of 10 September, 1877 reported that the game caused great amusement at times, Colac Sammy in particular, creating roars of laughter.”
Yet Victoria University professor of history Robert Pascoe said Austin really came into his own on the local footy fields.
Professor Pascoe and Queensland University of Technology historian Mark Pennings are compiling a database of stories of the 7000 men who played for the 26 teams that formed the “senior” competition from 1858 to the start of the VFL in 1897.
Professor Pascoe said Austin’s skills as a runner helped bring him to the attention of Geelong.
“The athlete often spent many hours travelling by horse and cart to the fledgling city to take part in running races,’’ he said.
“We know that he (Austin) was supremely athletic because we have records of his jumping, hurdling and running but his football skills, at least to begin with when he played with Geelong, were not particularly good,’’ Professor Pascoe said.
“He was very quick because he was a runner.
“In those days a lot of footballers were sprinters.
“He was one of the fastest runners in the local competitions.
“When he played for Framlingham, which was five years later — he was 32 years of age — he was then described as an outstanding footballer. Not when he was playing for Geelong.’’
Professor Pascoe said Austin’s initial poor skills as a footballer tended to refute the idea that the game was derived from marn grook.
“Obviously Pompey Austin was a good runner and what’s clear from the records was that he wasn’t particularly skilled in football so that leads us to the debate whether Australian rules football was descended from marn grook,’’ he said.
“So in some ways the story of Pompey Austin is kind of evidence against that theory because he wasn’t as good as some of the white players at the time.
“And so there was some speculation that he was brought in as a curiosity, as a performer, rather than as a genuine sportsman.
“What our research has shown is that about the same time he was brought in they were starting to widen the recruitment base of the footy club and that’s what led to Geelong’s success in the late 1870s.
“Our evidence would suggest he was picked fair and square on the basis of his potential but not just as a curiosity.’’
Professor Pascoe said the Framlingham man struggled at times in the white man’s world but “as far as we know he was accepted by the white players”.
“White officials tried to take Aboriginal players back to Geelong but they didn’t want to go because it wasn’t their territory or their clan,’’ Professor Pascoe said.
“So there’s one story told in an article by (Trevor) Ruddell where Austin is taken to Geelong and he flees the whites and runs all the way back to Warrnambool because he’s not playing with his kin, he’s not playing with his friends or his community.
“That was an occasion when he was running — running was important because it was a way of making money.
“When he’s playing for Framlingham later in the 1870s, Trevor Ruddell makes the point that at that point he would have felt more comfortable because he was playing with his own people.’’
The database of early football players will be uploaded to the National Sports Museum website, where the public can access it. The information will also be published in a book.