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

FOR MANY, the Sir Doug Nicholls Round honouree for 2022, Bill Dempsey, is a bit of an unknown.

Coming from Darwin at 17, Dempsey established himself as one of the most versatile footballers to have played the game. With a rangy build, Dempsey could do anything on a football field and in Western Australia he is considered one of the finest post-war ruckmen in the WAFL.

Born in 1942, Dempsey's early childhood life started off in the Retta Dixon Home for Children in Darwin. 

"My father, went to the war, came back, contracted meningitis and died. Then my little sister died from it. The authorities grabbed me, I went to the mission when I was three years old due to the Government policy at the time."


Dempsey found institutional life hard. He also he found that through sport, he was able to alleviate the isolation he was feeling.

"There were about 200 kids at Retta Dixon. We played rugby and basketball but football was our love. We never played cricket, that was a white man's game."

In terms of the education Dempsey became very aware what his prospects in life were given what his Aboriginality represented to the authorities.

"I was a sticky-beak and I heard the government officials saying to the missionaries that the kids needed to look good but don't waste your time encouraging them to be educated."

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As Dempsey got older his sporting ability developed and due to his family connections with the Buffaloes Football Club in Darwin, he would have little choice playing for any other team.

The Buffaloes were put together by the local Aboriginal people because other teams wouldn't play them.

"One of the captains was my uncle, Steve Abala. When I was eight he said to my mother, 'this lad's a Buffalo boy' and that was it."

Dempsey's best friend growing up was Jimmy Anderson and according to Dempsey, Anderson was the best young recruit in Darwin. In 1959 Anderson was offered a chance to head south to try out with West Perth. Dempsey was invited down to act as a steadying influence for his friend.     

"Jimmy was two years older than me. We got to Perth and after about three weeks Jimmy says 'bugger this, I'm going.'  City life didn't suit him."

In 1960 Dempsey was adjusting to life in Perth and league football as he was, in his words, 'petrified'.  He thought about heading back home but he felt compelled to pursue his football dreams.

"I'd never seen crowds like that and there was some damn good players out on the track which for me as a kid was an awesome learning experience."

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

As Dempsey worked hard to establish a regular league game he was working hard off the field, realising he would need to go back to night school to ensure his financial future.

"When I first came to Perth I started off working as a removalist and I didn't like it, so I went to night school. For five years I did that. I missed Darwin and one of the reasons I went to night school, was to stop me thinking about it."

By the mid-sixties he was playing as a ruck/back-pocket and had established himself as one of the best players in the WAFL. Not only did this translate into regular league and state selection but also media awards and VFL interest.

In 1966 he won a new car and decided to drive home to Darwin to play in the offseason with his beloved Buffaloes.

"I never had a new car in me life. I was only there two days and me mum kept it and I never saw it again. Contracts were coming in but I needed to support my family. West Perth knew that sides were chasing me. They said if I wanted to start up a scaffold company they'd support me, so I stayed."

West Perth was a solid side but found achieving strong finals success difficult. In 1968 this was set to change as West Perth was able to lure the services of the returning 'Polly' Farmer to captain-coach the Cardinals.

"Polly brought a new concept into the way we played football and the way we trained. He was a great leader and had great knowledge. He was fearless and expected to win every game. We all toughened up under him."

Graham 'Polly' Farmer in action for Geelong

It would take two seasons but eventually West Perth would make the grand final against its crosstown nemesis East Perth. For Dempsey this was a great personal achievement because his mother Dorothy flew down from Darwin, her first time in a plane.

"It was the best grand final I played in. I could see me mum behind the goalposts and after the game I waved to her and she waved back."

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In 1976, Dempsey was awarded an MBE for his services to football but playing some 343 games over 17 seasons, he came to realise that his body was spent.

"As a young fella I could match it with the bigger fellas with my leap. But I found I couldn't get off the ground as I got older so I thought it was time to let go."

It was during his time playing that Dempsey reflects on his achievements and his time in the game.

"When I came to Perth I was a ward of the state. I had to get permission from the Department of Aboriginal Affairs to leave Darwin to come to Western Australia. I knew I could play and I knew I had to try bloody hard and do something for myself and my family and it was football that helped me do that."

Bill Dempsey's record, 1960-1976

343 games West Perth
14 matches WA state team
1969, 1971, 1975 West Perth Premierships
West Perth captain 1973, 1974, 1975.
1969 Simpson Medal
1966 West Perth Best and Fairest
West Perth team of the Century
AFL Indigenous Team of the Century
3 Buffaloes Premierships