Bill Dempsey at the 2022 Sir Doug Nicholls Round launch on May 16, 2022. Picture: AFL Photos

BILL Dempsey has led a remarkable life. A member of the Stolen Generation, he overcame significant hardship to establish a fabulous playing career over 18 seasons as a player in Western Australia and the Northern Territory.

A member of the AFL's Indigenous Team of the Century, his life in football was celebrated last month as the ambassador for Sir Doug Nicholls Round.

Those who had the good fortune to meet him during those events could not help but be captivated by his presence.

If spinning a yarn was a competitive sport, he would have represented Australia.


But when AFL Commission chairman Richard Goyder invited him to a media event in Melbourne to formally launch the season, there was another piece of news to share with him. And in doing so, Goyder broke with convention.

Dempsey recalled what happened.

"He told me I was going to be the ambassador, which made me very proud, and I stood up and we did the deal," he said.

"I went to sit down and he said, 'We're not finished yet. This has never been done before, but because you're already here, I'd like to inform the audience that you'll be inducted into the Australian Football Hall of Fame'.

Bill Dempsey speaks to media at the launch of the 2022 Sir Doug Nicholls Round at Optus Stadium on May 16, 2022. Picture: AFL Photos

"I could have fallen over. I thought it would be just the one accolade, but then there was another.

"I was overwhelmed and I didn't know what to say. It was a nice shock and a nice thing to be recognised."

Those with deep knowledge of West Australian football say Dempsey's induction was long overdue. His partner-in-crime at West Perth, champion midfielder Mel Whinnen, was inducted in 2018.

Dempsey was a dominant player for West Perth over 17 seasons, but what made that all the more impressive was that for the first 10 seasons of his WAFL career, he returned home to Darwin every summer to play in the local competition for his beloved Buffaloes. He never enjoyed an off-season.

Bill Dempsey in action. Picture: AFL Photos

"I only ever played for two clubs," he said proudly.

He played 343 games for West Perth, the second most in WAFL history. And backed that up with an estimated 140 for the Buffaloes.

HALL OF FAME HUB Full list of inductees

Dempsey is happy to talk about anything except when it comes to how good a player he was.

Measuring 187cm, he came to West Perth as a centre half-forward, but estimated that once there, he might have played three games in that position.

The Falcons tabbed him as a ruckman and for the first half of his career that's where he featured.

But when the great Graham 'Polly' Farmer came to the club as captain-coach in 1968, having finished at Geelong, he played as the No. 1 ruckman and Dempsey became the resting ruckman, playing primarily as the back pocket.

"If you played against a good team, you could never rest. Just stop them as best you can and then go back to the ruck," he said.

Before making his name as one of the game's greatest commentators, a young Dennis Cometti was a teammate of Dempsey at West Perth.

A young Bill Dempsey. Picture: AFL Photos

"He was remarkably athletic and pliant. He had a brilliant pair of hands and was very courageous," Cometti said.

"Bill was a wonderful mark, one of the best I have ever seen, whether from the front or the back of the pack.

"He was also a wonderful drop kick and a wonderful tackler. And playing in the back pocket he displayed superb judgement.

"He could have gone to Victoria and been a good player."

Footscray and South Melbourne tried to get him, and he had a conversation with Hawthorn.

But there was only one club in the VFL he would have considered playing for.

He was – and still is – a diehard Richmond supporter, but the Tigers never picked up the phone.


He does reflect from time to time that he might have played for the club under Tom Hafey and been part of the club's golden era had they made the call.

Not that he was ever unhappy with his football life.

The game was his meal ticket and his path to a life he never imagined while living apart from his mother Dorothy while growing up in Darwin.

He studied accountancy at night at a technical school next door to West Perth and was able to start his own scaffolding business at a young age.

West Perth was a famously multicultural club, with its doors open to anyone.

Its playing list was dotted with Italians, Greeks, Macedonians and Slavs. It had a Jewish president.

"We were known as the 'garlic munchers' and the 'spaghetti eaters'," Dempsey said.

"If someone had made me an offer, it would have had to be really good to move somewhere else. I was very loyal to West Perth and the Buffaloes."

A smiling Bill Dempsey. Picture: AFL Photos

Dempsey had it written into his contract early that he could return home to play for the Buffaloes every summer.

At the end of 1967, he contemplated retiring from the WAFL and returning to Darwin on a permanent basis.

But then he heard Farmer was coming home.

"I knew who he was. He was my idol," he said.

They formed an instant friendship, based initially on how much stick they could give each other. Farmer had been given a dossier on all the players, where it was noted that Dempsey hated training.

"'Poll' said to me, 'You're the laziest bastard I have ever seen,'" Dempsey said.

"I said, 'Poll, I go home to Darwin and play for the Buffaloes. That's harder than pre-season training. I'm playing footy and then I come back here and I'm already fit.'

"He and I fought tooth and nail. They were good fights, but I loved him to death. I could never upset him."

WAFL footy was played to a high standard during Dempsey's career. Not many of the better players came to Victoria. But he was quick to remind that getting a kick in Darwin was no mean feat, either.

"If you could play footy in Darwin, you could play anywhere. Not many people realised how many good footballers came out of the Territory. Now they do."

Bill Dempsey in 1975. Picture: AFL Photos

The Buffaloes were itinerant. A team for anyone and everyone.

"We were a family team and what we did was gather all the kids and the grandkids, grab some Eskies and some food and find the shadiest tree. That's our club rooms. To this day, they have nothing," Dempsey said.

He played in three flags for them, the last in 1968. The next year came the first of three flags with West Perth.

Apart from when she had been evacuated during the 1942 Japanese bombing raids, his mother had never left Darwin. She had never seen Dempsey play for West Perth.

He laughed at the recollection of his mother thinking she could get to Perth by bus in time for the game.

She had never set foot on an airplane and had no inkling that she would ever need to.

But she was accompanied on the flight by friends and she saw the Falcons win the flag and her son win the Simpson Medal for best afield.

Bill Dempsey and his mother Dorothy before the 1969 WAFL grand final. Picture: Westpix/Magabala Books

"That was fantastic," he said, and upon reflection it is apparent that in a career full of highlights, this might have topped the list.

He played 14 games for WA. One such appearance was at the MCG in 1967, the only game he ever played in Victoria.

"To be swept into the state team, I was lucky and I enjoyed myself," he said.

"But I mainly concentrated on West Perth. Going from Darwin to Perth was a big enough step."

But one he negotiated magnificently.

"I'm blessed and things came along in life that I'm lucky and thankful for," he said. "But I always knew football would help me in life with where I wanted to go."