Graham “Polly” Famer revolutionised Australian Rules Football and stood as an Indigenous champion both on and off the field.
The former Geelong ruckman, who died from Alzheimer’s disease aged 84, was a trailblazing Indigenous footballer whose skill transcended the entrenched racism that was so prevalent in 1950s and 1960s Australia.
On the field he turned the handball from a disposal of last resort to an attacking weapon that pre-empted the modern game by decades.
The 190-centimetre ruckman was years ahead of his time, whether it was leading Geelong to its 1963 premiership or dominating for East Perth in the 1950s.
In 1999 he spoke to RN’s Hindsight program about how he revolutionised the use of the handball.
“The measurement of a person’s ability when I was playing was that if you got the ball, you beat the opposition and you booted the ball down the field,” he said.
“Well I didn’t accept that. My idea always was in trying to create the loose man, which meant the ball was going from one end of the field to the other without the opposing team touching it.
“I was the ruckman who officially started the game after the umpire bounced the ball, and so I got that opportunity to get this facet of the game going.
“I got no credit for it because it wasn’t considered something that they did in those days because handball was only used in the last resort,” Farmer said.
When a handball is as good as a kick
Look at the footage on YouTube and you will see Polly’s brilliant tap work. But you will also see those times where he plucked the ball out of the ruck to handball it to a passing rover, or 30 metres away to a flying winger.
When the ball was in Polly’s possession, a handball was literally as good as a kick.
“He would put it out in front of a player, be it Billy Goggin or whoever, and force them to run towards goal,” said his biographer Steve Hawke.
“You could argue coaches have changed the way the game is played: You know Barassi and handball in the  grand final.
“But Farmer was the only one who, by sheer force of his talents and his style as a player, changed the nature of the game.
“No one else can really make that claim.”
From orphanage to icon
If Polly Farmer revolutionised the way the game he was played, his influence is arguably more profound on the hundreds of Aboriginal players who have graced the VFL and AFL since he made the cross-continental journey from East Perth to Geelong in 1962.
Like so many of his contemporaries, he was a member of the Stolen Generation.
He was just 18 months old when he was taken from his mother — a Noongar woman — and placed in Perth’s Sister Kate’s, a home for “half-caste” children.
“I was the son of an unmarried part-Aboriginal. And I don’t know the reasons why I was put in there,” Farmer told RN.
After Sister Kate’s death, the home became notorious for the abuse and neglect of children, but Farmer said the 13 years he spent there were “a very good time in my life”.
“Sister Kate’s children were treated like any other kids. You just lived a normal life where you went to the local schools,” he said.
“There was nothing that I had that stood out, because we had nothing.
“We wore bare feet, we didn’t have many clothes, we certainly didn’t have any money, but we did have our ability to live.
“And I don’t think any of us missed out on anything.
“You were given a fair amount of freedom and encouragement and a fair amount of religious upbringing, which meant that all the kids were taught right from wrong.
“And I think it stood them all in good stead and gave us an opportunity to be reasonably educated, and if you had any ambition, an opportunity to take advantage of it.”
On-field racial abuse ‘incessant’
Farmer was ambitious and football was his opportunity for a better life.
“I think it was probably the way I could make an impact on society, but at the time I wasn’t aware of it,” he said.
“Almost all things off the playing field aren’t even. On the playing field, it’s just your ability and what you do.”
Except that in the 1950s, the playing field was rife with racial abuse.
“The rubbish that they had to put up with would make people shudder today, and it happened every week incessantly,” said Steve Hawke.
Farmer backed that view.
“In those days … there was only two ways to lower the ability of opposing players … either slander them or physically assault them,” Farmer said in 1999.
“In my case I didn’t have a problem with that because all I did when I heard it, I came back just as strong.
“If a person was slandering me all I wanted to do was beat him fairly and squarely out on the footy field.
“If I had to stand and defend myself every time someone called me a ‘d***ie’ or a ‘n*****’ or a ‘b***g’, all I’d do would be fighting all day.
“So I just accepted the fact that was going on and hardened myself to it.”
Farmer as ‘trailblazer’ for Indigenous footballers
Farmer wrecked his knee in his first game for Geelong at the beginning of the 1962 season and did not play again until 1963 — a year he helped Geelong win a flag, and paved the way for generations of Indigenous footballers.
Prior to Farmer’s move to Geelong, only about a dozen known Aboriginal men played in the first 60-odd years of the VFL, and only some of them — such as Doug Nichols and Norm McDonald — are well known.
“He was absolutely a trailblazer for what has become one of the hallmarks of Aussie Rules as we know it today, which is the role of Indigenous players, playing the game,” said Hawke.
Without Polly Farmer, it is debatable whether other great Aboriginal West Australian footballers like Syd Jackson, Barry Cable and the Krakouer brothers would have made the move across the Nullarbor, nor the hundreds who have since come from all over the country to light up AFL fields.
“He established that it was possible, and opened the eyes of other kids to that possibility,” said Hawke.
If Polly Farmer appeared somewhat ambivalent about his Aboriginality during his youth, Hawke said it was something he embraced once he retired from football.
“On his retirement he absolutely embraced that side of his life, as a prison visitor, as the proud captain of Indigenous Team of the Century,” he said.
With Hawke he also helped set up the Polly Farmer Foundation to mentor young Indigenous players.
“Its specific aim was to help Indigenous kids. It’s still going strong 25 years later and it’s helped literally thousands of Indigenous kids to achieve their aims and get through their schooling years,” Hawke said.
“He’s a proud Aboriginal man.”