Renouf: The 8 most influential Indigenous players
In the week in which the NRL celebrates Indigenous Round, I thought it was time to list the eight most influential Indigenous players of all time.
It was hard to stop there because there have been so many. The first six I have listed were named in the Indigenous Team of the Century in 2008 and all of them have left a legacy that will forever be remembered and cherished.
The leader of the modern-day Indigenous rugby league player is Arthur Beetson. His influence on Indigenous lads and all aspects of rugby league will be felt for generations to come.
There would be no State of Origin as we know it today without Arthur. For him to lead Queensland to victory in 1980 at the age of 35 was just a deadly moment. You talk to all players who lined up with him in that game, and for his club sides Balmain and Eastern Suburbs, and the respect they had for Arthur was just phenomenal.
He was very much a trailblazer, the first Aborigine to captain Australia in any sport. Arthur led his beloved Roosters to two premierships and when he finished playing he was a great coach, mentor and a recruiter without peer.
You hear stories from guys like Justin Hodges and Dean Widders about living with Arthur when they went to the big smoke in Sydney and how he helped them find their feet. He did that for so many players, Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike. I first met Arthur in my first Origin camp when I was 21. I shook his hand and it was just awe inspiring.
Our No.1 Indigenous player today, and across the board. I've loved watching the way his career has developed in North Queensland.
Young kids want to be JT and they want to be better people, and that is another strong trait he has. We've watched him grow as a person outside of footy. We see him give his headgear away to the kids each game. No one told him to do that. He does it because of who he is.
His career has so many lessons. He was a skinny little Murri kid who got knockback after knockback. Everyone said he was too small. His mates were making rep teams and getting signed up, but what persistence and inner strength he had to get through all that and make a magnificent mark on the game and win four Dally Ms, a premiership for the Cowboys and countless games for Queensland and Australia. As a competitor, there has been none better in the history of rugby league.
I was so glad when Uncle Lionel was named on the wing in the Indigenous Team of the Century. First and foremost he is a lovely man.
He was another trailblazer, the first Indigenous footballer to play a Test for Australia in 1960. Racism still exists in society but back when Lionel played it was more overt. He has some harrowing stories about what he copped and how he rose above it with real dignity. He came through in a tough era.
There were a lot of other Indigenous players and other sportspeople who saw what Lionel achieved and they were inspired to make the most of their own talents. Lionel is a legend at Wynnum-Manly where he was a try-scoring machine on the flank throughout the 1960s. Uncle Lionel has mentored a lot of young Indigenous footballers since he retired as a coach. He is true gentleman.
When I was a young lad growing up in Murgon we would drive to Cherbourg over a bridge that splits Barambah Creek named after Frank "Bigshot" Fisher. We'd ask our parents who Bigshot was.
My mum is from Cherbourg and Frank is a Cherbourg legend. She would tell us what a great player he was, so good that he was named at five-eighth in the Indigenous Team of the Century alongside JT.
Frank is referred to today as the Aboriginal Wally Lewis. He was a wizard with the ball and he hit as hard as the toughest forwards in defence. Frank played for Wide Bay against England touring teams in the 1930s and he was that good they wanted to take him back to England to play club footy, but sadly he was a virtual prisoner of the Queensland Government on a reserve at Cherbourg and he was forbidden to leave.
Eddie Gilbert, the famous Aboriginal cricketer, was in the same boat but he got to represent Queensland. Bigshot's legend is known to Indigenous players everywhere and to historians. It is just unfortunate he didn't get the opportunities we have today.
GI has dominated at every level for more than a decade. When I had all but finished my career in 2004 I played for Easts Tigers in the Intrust Super Cup and Greg was carving up for Norths Devils. This fast, lanky kid was scoring try after try and no one could get near him. I was injured when Easts were meant to play Norths. He carved up that day too and I'm just glad I didn't have to mark him.
Since then Greg has won premierships at Melbourne and Souths and is the leading try scorer in Holden State of Origin history.
Greg has an aura about him. He scores a try and stands up and he is like a big warrior. Then he'll do the old Goanna try celebration. He is a very proud Aboriginal man. He's gone to the Rabbitohs and had a huge influence on kids that want to be successful in not just Redfern but the entire rugby league community. Like JT, it is what he does in the community that has added that stamp of influence to what he continues to do on the field.
Eric was named at fullback in the Indigenous Team of the Century and while I didn't see him play, his record and influence was extraordinary when you consider what he achieved for South Sydney.
Eric mastered the art of goal kicking and landing field goals and some of his records stand to this day. In his day field goals were worth two points but he was that good the rules had to be changed. That's influential.
Eric won four grand finals for the Rabbitohs and was a star for Australia in the winning 1968 World Cup side. He had a massive impact on the game.
Without Preston Campbell there wouldn't have been the Indigenous All Stars v NRL All Stars game. I was at the SFS when the Australian Indigenous Dreamtime side played the New Zealand Maori in 2008. From that moment Preston pushed hard and took on the task of developing the Indigenous All Stars concept which kicked off two years later on the Gold Coast. We were all very proud that first night when people came from the Northern Territory and everywhere to watch it.
Preston's legacy in that area alone has had a huge impact on Indigenous players. Plenty of them have learned for the first time about their culture and their own backgrounds just from being in camp.
As a player, Preston was a pocket rocket who inspired all the little guys out there to chase their dreams. He won the Dally M Medal in 2001. I have the opportunity now to work with Deadly Choices and partner with the Preston Campbell Foundation where he does some great work in the communities.
To give you an idea of his influence, I went out to St George in western Queensland where an Aboriginal mum introduced me to her 10-year-old son. His name was Preston Thurston. I think that says it all really.
I grew up watching Steve Ella and he had a big impact on my own career. He was known as the 'Zipzip Man' and I loved what he did for Parramatta in the 1980s where he was electrifying in that star-studded backline. He was such a good mover.
Steve won four premierships and represented NSW and Australia. He was very influential not just because of his record but also because of the way he played. There would have been plenty of young kids, not just me, that wanted to play rugby league the way he did. That's why Parramatta was my second favourite team back in the day, apart from the Roosters.
I was disappointed when Steve wasn't named in the centres in the Indigenous Team of the Century. Steve was at the naming of the team and I said to him 'you should have got in there'.