Each year, the AFL recognises and celebrates the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and contribution to the great game with the annual Sir Doug Nicholls round. This year, it’s being held across two weeks – rounds 11 and 12 – with each team in the league wearing guernseys designed by First Nations artists, and championing the First Nations people who love, support, and play the game.

This year, past, present, and emerging First Nations players have taken a step back to really think about legacy (as the theme of this year’s Sir Doug Nicholls round is ‘Our Legacy – This is Us’) and what it means to them as players who have played at an elite level.

Izak Rankine, a proud Ngarrindjeri/Kokatha man and Gold Coast Suns forward said that playing in the annual Sir Doug Nicholls round is about taking time to acknowledge and humbly respect those that have pulled on the boots before him.

syd jackson sir doug nicholls round afl 2021
Image: Chris Hyde / Getty Images

For me, Sir Doug Nicholls Round is about paying respect to those who have come before me and playing alongside my brothers like Jarrod Harbrow and Sean Lemmens. It’s what these great players have passed onto me that means the most.

The other thing is family. As a kid growing up I followed the Crows because that’s who my dad went for. In the lounge room of our home in Adelaide, he taught my brother and me about taking hangers off the arm of the couch and where to stand for the for the drop of the ball.

I’ve heard Nicky Winmar learned to take screamers from a car seat stuck in the middle of a paddock. For Uncle Syd Jackson – this year’s honouree – he had to get a kick with 40 other kids competing for one footy.  Some people think the way Aboriginal footballers play is natural, but I think it’s because we love football and we are schooled to understand the game from a young age. 

When I think about the Sir Doug Nicholls round the players that stick out in my mind are the little masters. Andrew McLeod was incredible, as was Leon Davis. But when I think about players I can’t go past… Cyril Rioli – he’s the man. But then I think harder and Eddie Betts comes into my head.

When I got the chance to swap jumpers with him last year when we were up in Darwin, it was unforgettable. It’s through those sorts of experiences that you become stoked for the opportunity to play alongside some of the best footballers ever. It’s deadly. 

For me though, footy is not my end goal. Playing is a privilege and my profession but being a footballer is not my only thing. But for me the people that keep me centred other than my family is [Harbrow] and [Lemmens]. They have guided me along the pathway. [Lemmens] took me into his home and he taught me about all the important things I need to do to prepare. For [Harbrow], he is the king of the community. If we are at a footy clinic or a school, he is the person I try to model myself on. I just count myself lucky. 

For proud Yorta Yorta man Jeremy Finlayson – who you’ve probably seen taking hangers as a tall forward for the GWS Giants – the last 12 months has been a journey of discovering his true family history, from Stolen Generation through to football royalty.

syd jackson sir doug nicholls round afl 2021
Image: James Elsby/AFL Photos

Growing up in the Riverina, I started playing Auskick for the Culcairn Lions. It was the same club my dad played about 400 games for. My first memory was running around and playing with my mates, and the smell of the snaggers on the bbq.

As a kid I was obsessed with footy and would try to dribble the ball through doorways and up the passage. My mates and I would take turns at trying to kick the ball into power poles and through the branches of trees as we headed to school or knocked around town. I was trying to be like Aaron Davey as I was a Demons fan. 

As I got a bit older, I started to fill out and my athleticism seemed to really sync in with my skills. I was playing league footy by the age of 15.

Playing against men teaches you a thing or two and before I knew it I was in the GWS Giants Academy system and really enjoying the experience. I was on a scholarship in year 11 and 12 through the Giants Academy, and I have essentially been with the club for nine years.

Footy has given me so much. Great mates. Great experiences, like playing against Buddy Franklin. I was in total awe of him. I just wanted to stand there and look at him. I laugh now about it as he kicked a bag on me. 

When I think of Sir Doug Round, I genuinely get goosebumps. This year though is even more exciting as I found out from my Dad’s cousin that I am related to Sir Doug, so the round has a greater significance.

My Dad only met his cousin last year – as he is part of the Stolen Generation – and he had all this incredible information. Like how my Nan was one of 18, all born in a tent because they were not allowed into the town hospital. 

When I hear those stories, I think about what I want my footy legacy to be about; how I want to use that to help kids in the Juvenile Justice cycle. I see the statistics and think about those Indigenous kids in jail and it breaks my heart.

So when I found out about my connection to Sir Doug, I knew it made sense. He is such an inspiration, and I can’t wait to get out there and play.  

Proud Wangkatha man, Carlton Blues legend, and this year’s honouree Syd Jackson recognised that playing AFL was the foot in the door he needed to step through into opportunity – but he continued to play for his fellow Stolen Generation kids at the mission he grew up in.

syd jackson sir doug nicholls round afl 2021
Image: Michael Willson / AFL Photos

Meeting with Nicky Winmar, Gavin Wanganeen and the two tyros, Kysaiah Pickett and Bradley Hill for a photo shoot on the MCG was a great thrill. How fantastic.

It was great to see these past and current players on the middle of Australia’s most famous oval. Most of the times I have been there, the place has been alive with fans – but the other night the stands were quiet.

At one point, I took a moment to pause and think about my journey from Roelands Mission, near Bunbury, and reflect on all the great people I have met along the way. Everyone from my mission brothers and sisters, many who did not have the opportunity I had, and all the people from all the great clubs I had anything to do with.

From a scrawny little fella running around the paddocks and trying to get a kick to playing with some of the best players of any era and rubbing shoulders with captains of industry and champion sportspeople – it’s been a mighty journey. 

As I walked onto the MCG for that photo shoot I felt completely at home. I became so comfortable playing at the MCG in front of big crowds that it did not bother me in the slightest. I think about this and it’s quite something considering I was as a little boy removed from my mother at the age of three, growing up in institutions and having no record of my birth, the MCG felt comfortable and familiar.

Despite all of these challenges I was supported by so many good people and so my main goal was to make a success of my life. It was here on the MCG I did this but my motivation was my Roelands family. I always felt a strong link and pride in my connection to Roelands Mission, believing my mob would be pleased with my achievements. I heard they had the wireless aerial connected to the clothesline to listen to the 1970 Grand Final – great memories.

I copped my fair share of abuse, but football opened the door just enough that I could step through it. This is what I have kept doing all along; stepping through the doors of opportunity because if footy has taught me anything, if you don’t take the opportunity then you will die wondering. Sir Doug Nicholls, the man who the round is named after, understood this too.

Step up and step through, take the opportunity, that is what footy is all about. 

The annual Sir Doug Nicholls Indigenous round kicks off on Friday night of Round 11, with Western Bulldogs squaring up against Melbourne Demons at Marvel Stadium at 7:50pm. Meanwhile, the big Dreamtime game between Richmond and Essendon locked in for Saturday June 5 may be shifted to Optus Stadium in Perth due to COVID restrictions in Melbourne.

Image: Getty Images / AFL Photos / Chris Hyde / Michael Wilson / Ryan Pierse