To generations of young Indigenous rugby league players, Lionel Morgan has been a shining light, the embodiment of what can be achieved with hard work, dedication and a refusal to let prejudice stand in the way of your dreams.
To Earl Morgan, he is just Dad, the man who taught him about life and footy. A man waging a brave battle against the curse of dementia, slowly robbing him of the memories of a wonderful life lived in the service of his family and his people.
It’s 63 years since Lionel Morgan became the first Indigenous man to play for Australia, scoring two tries on debut in a 56-6 win over France in Brisbane, on the end of a backline that included future Immortal Reg Gasnier, Keith 'Golden Boots' Barnes and try-scoring machine Ken Irvine.
In the company of greatness and never looking out of place, Lionel had made it all the way from Wynnum Manly to wear the green and gold, five years before Indigenous people were even allowed to vote in Queensland.
Also donning the Australian jumper on July 2, 1960 were a couple of handy Dragons forwards in Norm Provan and John Raper, as well as Rex Mossop, Billy Rayner and Brian Hambly, all striving for glory under the coaching of the 'Little Master' Clive Churchill.
And it’s the hushed mention of those legendary names that can still bring moments of joy for father and son.
“Dad’s not getting better, he’s slowly getting worse, he is almost non-verbal, but he can still react when you mention names like Beetson, Churchill, Gasnier and Raper,” Earl told NRL.com.
“He’s at that stage of his illness where older names provide that impetus for recognition. You might see a twinkle in his eye or he’ll give a short one-word answer but for a split second we go ‘we’ve got our Dad back’.
“My brother David and I visit him and talk to him and just reflect on what an amazing life he has led.
“When we were growing up and even when we were grown men we heard the stories of the harshness of what was said to him by people in the crowd but he always said ‘I’m out here playing and you’re there drinking beer’.
“He never drank and he never smoked because he had a goal. He always instilled in us, let your actions on the field be your lasting legacy. You want your actions on the field to show what sort of player and person you are.
“He had a goal and that’s what he wanted to achieve. His mum really pushed him to achieve his dreams. She would travel up from Tweed Heads hiring three or four buses to bring people up when he played for Brisbane or Queensland because that’s how proud they were.
“There were Indigenous players in country areas but not a lot came to the city in Brisbane because they didn’t like leaving their families.”
Born out of an unwavering self-belief and a desire to test himself against the best, Lionel moved from Tweed Heads to play for Wynnum Manly in 1959 and quickly earned a reputation as quality finisher with pace to burn.
A debut for Queensland came on May 17,1960 at the SCG before he represented Brisbane against the touring French side three weeks before his Test debut.
After two impressive outings for Australia against France, Morgan was named in the World Cup squad to tour England at the end of 1960, the first challenge being to get his hands on a passport.
“Dad wasn’t allowed to get a passport to go to England so it had to be arranged for him,” Earl said.
“Indigenous men and women and were still classified as flora and fauna in those days and here we are 63 years later talking about a voice to parliament and truth treaty.
You’ll never know what went through those people’s minds but we can only hope we iron out the creases for the next generation.Earl Morgan, son of Lionel Morgan
“Dad’s message to young Indigenous kids was clear – no one will give you anything but if you give hard work then someone will take you on board and give you an opportunity and that’s what he did. He achieved his dream.”
Among the countless Indigenous youngsters inspired by Lionel Morgan’s trailblazing achievements was Steve Renouf, the magic man from Murgon who would make his Test debut in the 1992 World Cup Final at Wembley.
Come 2008 and both Morgan and Renouf would be honoured with selection in the Indigenous Team of the Century, alongside the likes of Beetson, Greg Inglis, Gorden Tallis and Johnathan Thurston.
“I was so glad when Uncle Lionel was named on the wing in the Indigenous Team of the Century,” Renouf wrote in his ‘Pearls of Wisdom’ column for NRL.com in 2018.
“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.
“Uncle Lionel has mentored a lot of young Indigenous footballers since he retired as a coach. He is a true gentleman.”
For Earl Morgan, there can be no finer tribute than inspiring words from the men his father inspired, men who understand his struggle and what he overcame to achieve his dream.
In further recognition of Lionel’s achievements, the family are hopeful he will one day be inducted into the NRL Hall of Fame.
“Dad wasn’t big on blowing his own trumpet, he’d rather let his actions speak, but if I don’t push him for Hall of Fame then it just goes away as a memory for the people he played with and he coached,” Earl said.
“No disrespect to others [in the Hall] but a man of this standing who has a record that will never be surpassed as the first Indigenous man to play for Australia, at those times in our history, is surely deserving.
“There have been many behind him [to play for Australia] but he will always be the first. It's like Cameron Smith, someone else might play 400 games but he will always be the first.
“We had great Indigenous players like Larry Corowa and Percy Knight playing in the Riverina and the Daisy brothers, Vern and Frank, playing Foley Shield but I look at Dad’s perspective and what he did I think I need to push for him.
“Here’s a guy who broke down insurmountable barriers for people.”
League historian David Middleton echoes those sentiments, saying Morgan’s name should certainly be mentioned in despatches when Hall of Fame contenders are put forward.
“Lionel played only three Tests for Australia, so his name was often overlooked. But when you consider the obstacles he faced throughout his upbringing and in everyday life, to become the first Indigenous player to represent his country, his claims are definitely worthy of consideration,” Middleton said.
“In fact, playing three Tests as an Indigenous player in 1960 might very well be the equivalent of a non-Indigenous player appearing in 20 or more Test matches.”
Abdo launches NRL Indigenous Round 2023