Vale Polly Farmer: a true football trailblazer
Please note, this story contains the image and name of someone who has died.
It’s hard to put into words what the passing of Polly Farmer means to me personally and for the broader community.
He was the best of the best. The one that great players mention. The one that champions talk about as to who they modelled themselves on.
Polly was a trailblazer, one who lit the way when the pathway was not so visible. But this was not just about football, but what the colour of his skin represented.
Polly and I share a heritage. We are both Noongar men. But for me, and that of my family, my experiences are quite different from that of Polly Farmer.
Polly was given up to the welfare system at a time when to be born Aboriginal meant that you were at risk. For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, this remains the case.
However, to be born in the 1930s, at a time of great social and political control, where ideas regarding the absorption of Aboriginal peoples into the white population were significant, it’s here that Polly’s life takes on a level of complication that is hard to fully understand.
Polly dealt with it by falling in love with a game that he was custom built for. Where the brave are rewarded. Where the skilful are recognised. Where the innovative are revered.
Polly played football so well that it assured he would be forever etched in the history books as the champions’ champion.
This is not to say he was able to do what he wanted or that things came easy.
He honed his skills living by the mantra of perfect practice makes perfect play. He would spend hours watching others and learning opponents’ weaknesses and strengths.
Polly constantly studied the way a ball would track through the air, or how it would pop up when it rolled a certain way.
He never flirted with his craft and like all artists he found a way to improve what he saw.
For Polly this was handball.
With handballing, often seen at the time as a device players would use only as a last resort, Polly would use it to create play.
He flipped the script. He gave us another way forward, another option to improve the game. He was like David Unaipon, the Indigenous inventor of the mechanical shearing handpiece. He made it better so that all might use it and benefit from it.
Today when we think of ruckmen in the game, it is possibly Western Australia that has created the greatest legacy of ruckmen ever seen.
Graham Moss, Aaron Sandilands, Nic Naitanui, Dean Cox, Laurie Keen, Paddy Ryder and Stephen Michael. All these players would have at some time crossed the pathway of Polly Farmer and all of them would have learnt from him.
Speaking with All Australian Ruckman Paddy Ryder, it becomes easy to see the impact of Farmer was significant.
“Growing up there wasn’t too many Indigenous ruckmen to watch,” Mr Ryder said.
“When I first saw the vision of Mr Farmer in my late teens, I realised what the art of ruck work was. His touch was beautifully soft and his precision on another level to the rest.”
For All Australian Stephen Michael, considered by many to be the best player not to head East, his recollections of Farmer are equally heartfelt.
“From an opponent to a role model – I had the opportunity to play against my idol. To play against him was difficult because of the respect I had for him and his legacy,” Mr Michael said.
“One of my fondest memories was when we were both named in the Indigenous Team of the Century. It was such an honour to be standing beside this great man.”
For me, the life of Polly Farmer should be remembered as one of greatness and skill but also of humility and courage in the face of great adversity.
To be able to play at the highest level and win a premiership is something I will never forget.
To follow in the pathway of his greatness, as a player and as a Noongar, is something we should not underestimate.
His legacy will demand we will do neither.
By Des Headland
Graham ‘Polly’ Farmer in numbers