AN INCREDIBLY demanding weekend journey endured by a young Doug Nicholls to play the game he loved had a lasting impression on Glenn James. 

James grew up in Shepparton in Victoria’s north and would become the VFL's only Aboriginal field umpire. He remembers tales of how Nicholls took his small boat down the Campaspe River and then hitched a ride to a game in the Goulburn Valley. 

"He was a minister of the church and he used to come to Mooroopna to preach the word to indigenous people. I was eight or nine and Mum and Dad would pay for a cab to take us on Sunday night. They had little money, but they thought it was so important to hear him,'' James recalled this week. 

"Before that he lived on the river at a mission at Barmah and he would row his boat about eight miles (about 13km) and someone would pick him up on a bend to take him to play footy for Tongala.

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"He was a great advocate for Aboriginal people. It's so appropriate to have his name associated with (indigenous round) because he was our warrior for his whole life.'' 

A conscript involved in combat in the Vietnam War in 1968, James switched to umpiring after an assailant broke his jaw in a country game. He survived the explosive mix of umpiring and heritage to rise above the racial abuse of that era in his pathway through "pretty tough environments" on assignments in the Diamond Valley and Federal leagues. 

With a bachelor of education and a teaching diploma, he graduated from a tougher school to officiate in 166 VFL games, including the 1982 and 1984 grand finals. 

Once described as possessing a sharp wit and thick skin, James mused: "That was basically it. I don't know exactly where my temperament came from. I think it was from my grandfather because he was such a placid man,” he said. 

"I did cop it a lot, but it was in my life from the time I walked down the street. I loved umpiring in the country in my younger days. It was fantastic and the people were just great.'' 

A car would drop off young umpires to various country towns on Saturday mornings and James recalled once being the last passenger when the driver insisted they go for lunch less than an hour before a game at Jeparit in the Wimmera League. 

"He said we had to go to the pub and have a steak. So I had a steak. I actually ran the game out okay, but can you imagine the boys having a steak 20 minutes before the start of the game these days?'' James said with a laugh.

"That's how blokes matured in the game. They would be dropped off at, say, Ararat at 10 in the morning and nobody would be awake in the town.

"You used to just hang around and then do the same waiting for the ride home. If Ararat got beaten by a point and you were the umpire sitting on your own in the corner, you grew up pretty quickly.''

Now retired in his late 60s, James was an AFL umpires' assistant coach in the mid-1990s and still marvels at the instinctive skills of the indigenous players. 

"I love watching them play because they all have their individuality. For instance, Byron Pickett (Port Adelaide forward) picking up the footy down back and running with it in the 2004 Grand Final. He arched his back, avoided a tackle and transferred the play to the other side of the MCG by taking four bounces. He kicked it into the goalsquare and (Warren) Tredrea marked it. 

"That's what makes so many of them so special; they go against the flow – they take risks,'' James said. 

"Chris Lewis (West Coast forward) was one who was affected by the fact he was Aboriginal and he would take (taunts) to heart.

"Consequently, that would take the cream off his game, break his concentration. But in the end, he learned to handle it and I believe he's doing good work in the community now. So that's even better."


B: Chris Johnson (Fitz/Bris), Antoni Grover (Frem), David Wirrpanda (WC)

HB: Andrew McLeod (Adel), Darryl White (Bris), Byron Pickett (NM/PA)

C: Peter Matera (WC), Shaun Burgoyne (PA/Haw), Peter Burgoyne (PA)

HF: Michael Long (Ess), Lance Franklin (Haw/Syd), Chris Lewis (WC)

F: Michael O'Loughlin (Syd), Adam Goodes (Syd), Eddie Betts (Carl/Adel)

Foll: Patrick Ryder (Ess/PA), Nicky Winmar (St K), Gavin Wanganeen (Ess/PA)

I/C: Cyril Rioli (Haw), Jeff Farmer (Melb/Frem), Daniel Wells (NM), Chance Bateman (Haw), Jimmy Krakouer (NM), Michael McLean (Bris)