Sonny Morey and his wife Carmel at the 2024 Gather Round dinner in Adelaide in April, 2024. Picture: AFL Photos

THE OLD football adage that 'success comes when preparation meets opportunity' sits easily within the Sonny Morey story. Known for his sublime skills, deft balance and blistering speed, Sonny never flirted with his craft. He knew talent only got you so far as there was no substitute for graft. Yet despite all the things Sonny could control there were two 'sliding doors' moments that really encapsulate the role luck, or the lack of it, has also had on him.

The first moment came when Sonny, aged eight, was playing with a cousin in the riverbed of the Todd River.  Living on his traditional homelands in the Eastern Arrernte, Sonny was a happy and adventurous child. Looking up at the tree canopy, the boys decided to challenge themselves and climb the river gums. This was all going well until Morey fell from the tree and badly injured his arm. Being 1952, a trip to any government organisation was fraught if you were Indigenous due to the positions that government administrations took on such matters. Coming into the orbit of government power, Sonny was soon removed and he would never see his mother again.


The following years were spent at hostels in Northern Territory. The first was St Mary's hostel in Alice Springs. Sonny was unable to speak English and was viewed by the staff as needing to be saved: from himself, his people and his culture. Yet despite the trauma of his experience Sonny was a kid who had a happy disposition and was not, in his words, 'a big noter.' But again, the world would throw Sonny a curve ball and with barely a moment's notice, he was taken down to Adelaide's St Francis House. He was 13.

Sonny Morey (highlighted, third from left) as a young boy. Picture: Supplied

It was at St Francis that Morey would connect with others, most notably Charlie Perkins, Harold Thomas and John Moriarty. In many ways the nexus between sport (soccer, mainly), art and identity would fuse. It was here that Perkins (AO) – who would become one of Australia’s principal social rights identities – was the primary mentor of the boys playing soccer, as he had trialled with Manchester United and Everton. Thomas was a teammate of Sonny's and designed the Aboriginal flag in 1971. Moriarty, also a teammate, was the first Indigenous person selected for the Australian soccer team and founder of the Balarinjini Design Studio.

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Another 'sliding doors' moment came with the closing down of St Francis. It saw Sonny's life change direction and it was the town of Gawler, north of Adelaide, where he began his adult journey and football was introduced helping him eke out some sense of the world. The stability came in the form of the Maguire family where Sonny was fostered. Parents Roy and Ada welcomed Sonny, and their children Maureen, Joan and Alan accepted him as a sibling. A stable family home translated into a great springboard for Sonny to concentrate on work and football. In the early 1960s, Morey commenced his trade as a fitter and turner and he played football for Gawler Centrals where he excelled.

In terms of football, in 1963 it was announced that a new club would come into the strong SANFL competition and the following year Morey would be the beneficiary of this expansion as he was chosen to play for the newly formed Central District Bulldogs. Having only seen one game of SANFL to that point – between Port Adelaide and Norwood – Morey would soon become the toast of the Bulldogs and the UK diaspora that worked in the factories in and around Elizabeth. In the first game of the new club's history, Sonny was playing off the half-forward flank and from the first ruck knock received the ball. He had the first kick for the Bulldogs and very nearly the first goal if it had not been marked on the line by the back pocket. It was soon very clear that Morey was a cult figure, a recognition that now sees a lounge bar at the club named in his honour.


The hopes and spirits of the people living in the Elizabeth area rose and fell with Central District's fortunes.  The club strategically developed its youth, which Sonny helped mentor and guide. Despite this Sonny also felt the sting of racism from other clubs who, up until the late 1960s, would not allow him to attend post-match functions because of his heritage.  As a show of respect and solidarity the Centrals team and their families would also leave if their champion was not welcome. 

It was some 10 years later that the next 'sliding doors' moment occurred. With the Bulldogs players gathering at a teammate's house for a preseason barbecue the players loosened up with a few beers and a game of kick-to-kick. At some stage a group of nurses from the local hospital arrived and some joined in the game. As the ball looped up into the air Sonny set himself for a speccy, rising up onto the shoulders of another player. He took a screamer and came down with the ball feeling pretty pleased with his efforts. However, on arrival back to earth he was met with gasps of shock and concern. He looked down and saw he had actually taken the mark over one of the young nurses who was dusting herself off. Her name was Carmel McSkimming and Sonny's glee turned to horror as he apologised profusely for his actions.

Morey soon saw that Carmel was a bit more resilient than he had first believed and after a few more drinks and even more apologies, Sonny proposed marriage that night. Carmel had her reservations and despite being a mad footy supporter she finally relented and 18 months later they were married. Two daughters, Kim and Nicole, completed the Morey family unit and for the first time in his life Sonny closed the circle on what was the incredibly painful childhood he had experienced, having been removed from his mother.

With football being the central aspect of their lives, the Morey family have become a close unit where love and laughter are valued above all else. It is from this loving family that the legacy of Sonny Morey, the man, is evident. Just as Sonny brought teammates into the play, his ability to bring people in and nurture them as friends has rippled out and into the community.

One only has to hear the Sydney Swans champion and Central District player Michael O'Loughlin talk about the inspiration he got from seeing his Uncle Wilbur Wilson playing on TV.  Without that spark, Micky O would never have played. It was the mentoring of Wilbur by Sonny that helped these other stories to be realised and told.

Sonny Morey in action for Central District v Port Adelaide during his playing career. Picture:

It is hard to measure the impact that Sonny Morey had on football and the communities he has been involved with in South Australia and beyond. But what is tangible is how Morey has responded to adversity, the type that would render many of us broken vessels. What this tells us is the choices we make and the things we have control over create our reserves of strength, so that when fate steps in, we can cope. It is through the Morey story that we can learn what it takes to make a change when all seems lost.

For a little boy to become such a giant in his community is testament to his character and resilience. These traits, as much as his greatness on the football field, make him a thoroughly worthy selection as the Sir Doug Nicholls Round honouree for 2024.