Bill Dempsey has capped a remarkable journey to the heights of Australian Rules football with induction into the Australian Football Hall of Fame.
Dempsey, born in Darwin and a member of the Stolen Generation who grew up in the Rhetta Dixon Mission Home, played 343 games for West Perth, winning multiple accolades to with premierships and captaincy of the side during his career.
The 80-year-old delivered a heartwarming acceptance speech and interview with AFL 360 co-host Gerard Whateley – including his incredible tale of losing and then finding a best-on-ground medal decades later.
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Bill Dempsey: It’s actually overwhelming to think I’m sitting here tonight. Who would have thought it? Not me. I’m just an ordinary guy who just wanted to be a good person, play and just be me, but here I am. Thanks to Richard Goyder and all the people that were instrumental in getting me up here. It’s very embarrassing for me because I hate being in the public eye and I just like to mind my own business.
Gerard Whateley: In about 10 minutes time we’ll let your mind your own business. The Rhetta Dixon home for children, how did you find football growing up?
BD: As all Aussie kids we all played footy and basketball. In the home, it was part of us coping with being in the mission. It was just natural. I never ever thought I wanted to be a footballer, but you just did it.
GW: How big a part of those early days did the Buffaloes become?
BD: Well, the Buffaloes really started me off in my career when I was 15. I always wanted to be a Buffalo and most of my family were and it was tradition. If I didn’t play for Buffaloes I probably would have got belted.
GW: So tell us about the mix. What drew you to the Buffalo family?
BD: Family, tradition. The Buffaloes, they were just ordinary people who just wanted to be an Australian person and good people. They had nothing, absolutely nothing, to this day they don’t even have clubrooms, but guess what? They’ve got heart. They’re lovely people.
GW: What a grounding that is. How does a teenager find his way to Western Australia in those days to play for West Perth.
BD: It came from, well, he’s my brother, he grew up with me in the mission. West Perth wanted him and he was a gun, but in the first year they took him down there he just went home and they said ‘We want this guy back again’. So they said, ‘You just can’t back him by himself because he’s a mission boy.’ Guess who went with him? I. I would’ve gone to Hong Kong and played ping pong! I’ll go, I’ll go!
GW: How big an experience was it for you?
BD: Very big because I grew up in the Territory and to go to Perth, oh my god what am I doing here, but I don’t care. I’m gonna stay here. It was Jimmy Anderson who got me there. His grandson, Jed Anderson plays for North Melbourne, so a little bit of connection there and I’ll watch him all the time because he’s like family.
GW: We could talk all night and not do justice to this story, but the 1969 Grand Final, how big a part of your life is that day?
BD: Well, how can you explain it? A guy grew up in Birdum burned him in the bush and there I am playing in the ’69 Grand Final, Graham ‘Polly’ Farmer was the captain and coach, I was his vice-captain and lucky me I won the Simpson Medal, we won the Grand Final and my mother was there watching me.
GW: She hadn’t seen many days had she?
BD: She didn’t actually watch me play football growing up because I didn’t play for her team. They were Wanderers and I was a Buffalo boy. I think I made her proud of her.
GW: You win the Simpson Medal for the best field. This is a unique trinket in the history of the game. Tell us the story of that.
BD: The next day I gave it to my mother and I said this is for you for all you’ve done for me. I forgot about it. Years later I was at home and I said to my mother I’ve never seen that Simpson Medal since I gave it to you. She got up and walked away. I thought that’s funny. My brother John, who is here tonight, I said did I say something wrong? He said nup, Mum does n’t talk about that, because Cyclone Tracy, not only did it blow all her chooks away from her, but it also blew her Simpson Medal away from her.
I had to try and make amends, I went back to see the Simpson family and they said they’d give me a replica and all that. Leading up to that, when Mum came back from the ’69 Grand Final she was talking to all her old people that get together and play cards and have coffee and all that. She’s telling all her friends of her, I went to West Perth, had a great time, met a lovely lot of people and Billy’s team won the Grand Final and he won the Simpson Desert Medal.
I said hang on a minute Mum, it’s got nothing to do with the Simpson Desert, and she said I’m telling the story, not you. So I shut my mouth.
Guess where they found it? The Simpson Desert. It’s a spooky story, you couldn’t make this story up. I got a phone call from television station in Adelaide and they said we have two people here who’ve been prospecting and they found this funny looking thing and we took it home and knocked it about and it’s your Simpson Medal. I said, you’ve got to be smoking opium.
When I took it back and gave it to Mum, she only knew things about the Northern Territory, she said alright son, thank you for bringing it back. She said where’d they find it, I said Andamooka, she said where’s Andamooka, I said South Australia, it was in the Simpson Desert. She said, you silly boy, I told you it was the Simpson Desert Medal!