FEW PLAYERS command the type of universal adoration that Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti received.
Teammates loved playing with him, opponents respected his talents and fans across the competition were entertained by his exploits. A band even wrote a song about him.
As his career ended officially on Friday, with AFL.com.au revealing he was set to retire, the emotion of McDonald-Tipungwuti's exit spread through a footballing fanbase that transcended red and black colours.
They remembered his chase-down tackles – his efforts on Collingwood's Will Hoskin-Elliott in an Anzac Day clash and a similar tackle on Richmond superstar Dustin Martin in a Dreamtime at the 'G game were fondly recalled.
They rejoiced in his game-breaking goals and smarts inside the forward-50 – his round 17 game-winning snap against North Melbourne seeing Marvel Stadium erupt and his seven-goal haul at the MCG earlier that season against Brisbane the delight on a sunny afternoon.
They cited his sportsmanship, too – his bullocking, bulldozer style often sent some opponents flying, including Greater Western Sydney's Lachie Whitfield, who was then helped up off the turf by McDonald-Tipungwuti after the collision.
But perhaps lost in the goals, tackles, excitement and fun was the fact it could easily have never happened at all. McDonald-Tipungwuti's tale from the Tiwi Islands to becoming an Essendon cult hero has been uncovered previously but remains one of the great success stories in the club's recent history.
He left the Northern Territory to play for the Gippsland Power in Victoria's under-18 competition, catching the eye bounding out of defence and kicking on-the-run torpedos.
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He was overlooked in drafts but the Bombers invested in him, bringing him into their VFL program where he built his fitness and professionalism. When they drafted him as a rookie at the end of 2015, taking a punt on his ability, Essendon fans were almost as excited about 'Tippa' as they were about their top pick in the national draft that season, Darcy Parish.
His impact was immediate – on the field and off it. The suspensions of players for the supplements saga in 2016 opened the door for McDonald-Tipungwuti to play and John Worsfold selected him as a rebounding, attacking half-back.
It worked, but a four-goal game in the last outing of that season made for a positional switch over summer and he blossomed with 34 goals the following season. Just as quick as he caught opponents holding the ball did the dreadlocked small forward become an instant hit.
Soon, No.43 jumpers became one of the most sold at Essendon's headquarters. Quietly spoken but with a bright, big smile, McDonald-Tipungwuti captured the imagination of young Bombers fans. And older ones, too. Local band Picket Palace wrote a punk song about him, praising his 'hard-ball gets and pressure acts', his 'fall of the ball, front of the pack' talents and his broad appeal:
Take your mum, take your kids, take your nan to the footy
Cause Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti's playing footy
He's comin to getcha!
Offered the chance to change jumper numbers once he had established himself in the side, McDonald-Tipungwuti declined: he was desperate to join former Bomber and fellow Indigenous player Dean Rioli as the only players in the club's history to be on the No.43 locker as having played 100 or more games. He achieved that in 2020 and in turn played 126 games straight from his debut through to round 21 last year.
It was the last time he was seen at AFL level. The Bombers sorely missed his presence at ground level this year – his efficiency and class and instincts. On Friday, teammate Zach Merrett called him the most skillful player he's seen. Andrew McGrath said he was special.
The retirement on the eve of the Bombers' Dreamtime clash against Richmond came as a surprise to some but not to many. Dealing with personal issues, McDonald-Tipungwuti had a challenging off-season and took leave from the club in February. That he returned to play at any level, which he did for five VFL games, was viewed as a success and testament to the support networks placed around him at the Bombers.
His career comparatively short – from 2016-2022 – McDonald-Tipungwuti joins the list of now former Indigenous stars at Essendon, including Michael Long, Gavin Wanganeen and his hero and fellow Tiwi trailblazer Rioli.