STEPHEN Michael was born in 1956 in Wagin, Western Australia, but was raised in Kojonup, 250 kilometres south of Perth. Growing up on the reserve at Kojunup, Michael's memories are fond ones as he recalls his family and the experiences he had there:
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I grew up in Kojonup, which is Noongar country. My father worked on the railways for many years. Mum and Dad lived all around the Central Great Southern, Kojonup, Beverley, Brookton, Boyup Brook. They'd travel to work by horse and cart.
For Michael, coming from a family of 11, football and hunting were a very important part of growing up:
Footy was very important. We always had a ball. We were very fortunate playing footy during the season and then after that we'd set up in a paddock or play on the reserve. We called roo shooting a sport too, because we loved going out in the bush and running around.
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As Michael got older, football started to make greater inroads into his life:
We started on gravel, but the longer I played I got better. I was playing league footy in the country at the age of 15. I had the talent. I didn't drink or smoke and I was picked in a junior colts side and went up to play in Perth. We got billeted out with the Perth parents for the weekend, and we went and watched East Fremantle and Perth play. I didn't know (Barry) Cable from a bar of soap. I saw Cable play and from then on he was my idol.
In late 1974, around the age of 18, Michael traveled up to Perth to participate in a country footy carnival. The zoning laws of the WAFL meant that he would go to South Fremantle if they liked what they saw, and they did. The transition to Perth was not an easy one for Michael, as he juggled training and playing commitments with an overriding feeling of homesickness:
The first two years were very, very hard. I had no one to communicate with, no one to understand I had work commitments. But South were great.
They were a very multicultural club and had Italians, Yugoslavs and Indigenous people. It didn't matter who you were. They did not judge you. South also had a history with the Hayward brothers who were Noongars and they had Sibby and Maurice Rioli, Benny Vigona and Basil Campbell who had come down from Darwin.
Being settled at South Fremantle seemed to translate into good on-field performances for Michael, as he became a regular fixture within the South Fremantle league line-up. One of the key figures in Michael's development was coach Malcolm Brown:
Mal Brown was a great coach. He had a lot to do with Indigenous people, having grown up in the country himself. He was before his time and knew how to communicate. You just need to look at the players he coached. I was very fortunate.
Michael used his athleticism, great strength and massive spring in duels with opposition ruckmen such as Ron Alexander at East Fremantle, 1977 Brownlow Medallist Graham Moss at Claremont and Swan Districts' Ron Boucher, and took his game to another level. By the late 1970s and early 80s, Michael was arguably the best ruckman in the land, a situation that was helped by the standard of the WAFL competition that he describes as 'the best footy in Australia'.
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In 1980, he led the state rucking division for the first time. That year also saw success at club level, where Michael won his first Sandover medal and a premiership for South Fremantle. He won another Sandover the following year, but South lost the grand final to Claremont. In 1983, Michael won the Tassie Medal and was awarded the captaincy of the All Australian side, the first time an Indigenous captain had been given this honour.
With his considerable success at WAFL and State level, his profile as one of the best ruckmen in Australia saw VFL clubs keen to lure him east. Geelong were the frontrunners, but for Michael his loyalty was with his family and not necessarily the glory of a VFL contract:
Geelong were very, very close. I went over to Geelong and we went out to some bloke's farm for a BBQ in the middle of winter. He was trying to convince me to come over to Geelong and it was pouring rain. Geelong were good to me but my family was my main thing and sport came second. I just thought it would take mum and dad four hours to fly to Melbourne and it only takes two to drive from Kojunup.
Playing out his WAFL career until 1985, Michael headed to the lucrative country leagues in Western Australia to gain work and support his family. Reflecting on his time in sport, he maintains it provided him with positive experiences and opened many doors that would not have otherwise happened.
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One of these occurred in 2017, when he received a phone call from his old club South Fremantle. The call was to ask for his permission to use his name for the Stephen Michael Foundation, a new organisation to work within the recruitment zones of the club in metropolitan and regional areas. The key to the foundation is to work collaboratively using football to help link education, leadership and employment outcomes for young people:
We get kids coming through and we help them set goals. The foundation is for all people, not just Indigenous people, boys and girls. It not just about playing footy but all the things that go into making football in terms of the game. It's about opportunities through education.
For Michael, the game is still a very fundamental one but one where he derives great enjoyment. For him, being part of the AFL's Deadliest is something that has touched his heart:
Some of the guys on the list are just champions. Look at Polly Farmer, he was a trendsetter. He was a champion in his own right. Its very humbling to be part of it.
>> Dr Sean Gorman is an author, historian, and Indigenous AFL specialist. He currently works for the AFL and was the lead investigator in the AFL's review of its vilification laws.