ABOUT 25 years ago, Gavin Wanganeen watched on nervously as his peers and other champions of the game stood to toast him.
It was the Monday night before the 1993 Grand Final and the Essendon defender had just become the first indigenous player to win the Brownlow Medal as the game’s fairest and best player. His acceptance speech was short and sharp – 20 seconds – one for every birthday the Bomber had celebrated.
“When my name was called as the winner it was a surreal feeling. Being a young fella, it just hit me. It felt like it was a bit of a dream really,” Wanganeen recalled this week in between engagements promoting the AFL’s Sir Doug Nicholls Round.
“As you get older, you certainly become a lot more appreciative of the things you’ve done. I look back at that now and feel really proud and understand fully what I achieved and the importance of it,” he said.
“I’m sure that made a lot of indigenous people around Australia really proud of their identity.”
Wanganeen was 17 when he arrived at Essendon from South Australia in 1991, joining Michael Long and a handful of other indigenous players at the club. He was very much a boy, in appearance at least.
The superbly skilled youngster shaped his own brand of football. In many ways, he was ahead of his time. Although his frame was slight, he threw himself into and back into packs, flying when the timing was right, spoiling when he needed to, and running – almost always running – with a freedom unmatched.
Wanganeen is considered and speaks quietly. His threads are sharp (plain black suit and crisp white shirt) and he uses his hands for emphasis when making a point. He’s a deep thinker – the lines that occasionally appear on his brow are a giveaway – and he has a genuine, warm smile.
“I suppose I was a bit of a free spirit,” he said of his playing style, in part encouraged by coach Kevin Sheedy.
“I just wanted to make it up and play with flair. I wanted to be exciting.
“It came when ‘Sheeds’ gave me the opportunity to play in defence. I was freed up a bit. I still had a man to follow, but I wanted to attack and not just be a defender.
“In my subconscious, I wanted to do it my way.
“They (his coaches) loved it. If they knew they could get me going, things would happen.”
Wanganeen would become a premiership player and a darling of Essendon fans before returning to South Australia in 1997 to join Port Adelaide as its captain.
Late in his career at Alberton, a fun but spirited conversation about Aboriginal art and culture between the Power’s indigenous players, including Shaun Burgoyne and Daniel Motlop, led to a competition that, nearly a decade later, would lead Wanganeen to contemplate a second career as an artist.
The players had been arguing about which indigenous group had the best art. Wanganeen, a Kokatha man born in Mount Gambier (450km south-east of Adelaide), had learned about his cultural background from his mother Cheryl, a member of the Stolen Generation.
“She was always teaching me about our culture and I also learned a lot from my grandfather and great-grandfather,” he said.
“I watched a lot of my mum’s relatives painting as a kid and I’ve always loved Aboriginal art.”
Wanganeen bought a canvas and some paints, determined to show his teammates whose group had the most striking artwork.
“It was taking too long, so I put it away. Eight years passed and (his wife) Pippa found the canvas. She made me finish it,” he said.
Pippa had studied law and arts at university in Adelaide and had long been fascinated by indigenous culture. She could see the potential in her husband’s first (and now completed) piece of work, which had been inspired by Wanganeen’s memories of running in sandhills at Port Pearce on the Yorke Peninsula as part of a footy training camp.
“We took it to (Tandanya, the National Aboriginal Cultural Institute in Adelaide) and they were blown away,” Pippa said.
Wanganeen, who uses the family kitchen as his studio, said painting had enabled him to discover even more about his cultural background.
“Suburbanised Aboriginals are not as culturally strong as those who live in communities and grow up with culture,” he said.
“As I’ve gotten older and especially through art, I’ve had the opportunity to explore my culture even more.”
Wanganeen painted the artwork that appears on the footballs first used during last year’s Sir Doug Nicholls Round. He described his art as “contemporary” and said he focused on taking “an aerial view of country” in his work, which was exhibited at the Hill Smith Gallery in Adelaide last month.
Although he was exposed to art as a youngster, Wanganeen said there was an element of fate in how his new career had emerged.
“If Pippa hadn’t found that painting, I wouldn't have picked it up again,” he said.
“I love my art. I really enjoy when I finish a painting and put it up on our wall. I enjoy doing it. The paintings speak for themselves.”
The couple has three children – Kitty (4), Lulu (3) and Posey (2) – and Wanganeen has two children from his first marriage, teens Tex and Mia.
Tex is part of Essendon and Port Adelaide development squads and has shown plenty of promise.
“I’ve encouraged him a little, but for now he’s just having a bit of fun,” Wanganeen said.
Pippa believes her husband’s art plays a key role in teaching their children and the broader community about indigenous culture.
“He’s telling footy and family stories. There are so many important conversations he can have on the canvas,” she said.
Wanganeen, 45 this month, still watches the game as part of his role as a panel member on the popular Marngrook Footy Show.
Not surprisingly, game changers including Eddie Betts, Lance Franklin, Dustin Martin, Nat Fyfe and Patrick Dangerfield are among his favourites.
Still in fine shape, Wanganeen presents a warm smile when asked if he could compete against those players today.
“No worries. Bring it on mate, I’d love to be playing today,” he said.