There’s knowing when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em.
Then there’s having the guts to slam your fist on the card table and declare a crooked game.
Michael Long’s calling out of racial abuse from an opponent during the 1995 Anzac Day match became a landmark moment in AFL history.
That graduated to the 2004 Long Walk, when the former Essendon star staged a protest march lasting about half the route from Melbourne to Canberra, before then-prime minister John Howard agreed to meet and discuss Indigenous issues.
Long, 51, has on Sunday been awarded an Order (OAM) of Australia Medal in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List for service to Australian Rules and the Indigenous community.
The Long Walk ❤️💛🖤
Fans have crossed the Matagarup Bridge with Michael Long and Western Australia Premier, Mark McGowan on their way to the Dreamtime match in Perth.#AFL #AFLDonsTigers #AFLDeadly pic.twitter.com/StxZkKSNaA
— ABC SPORT (@abcsport) June 5, 2021
Kevin Sheedy, who coached Long throughout his Essendon playing career, told AAP that what the great player did in and around the 1995 Anzac Day match showcased his character.
He notes Long and St Kilda star Nicky Winmar, who two years earlier had raised his St Kilda jumper and pointed to his skin in defiance of abusive fans, changed the game’s attitude to Aboriginal players.
“He called the card, didn’t he? He put the cards on the table and played his card and said ‘this is not going to happen any longer. My people are over it’,” Sheedy said of Long.
“Not many people have that courage.
“Nicky and Michael, they did it in different ways.”
Sheedy, himself a champion of Indigenous issues, said that before Winmar and Long, there had been only 28 Indigenous players in top-level Victorian football and half of those were from interstate.
Since then, the AFL has had more than 300 Indigenous players.
The Queen’s Birthday honour recipient is quite a distance from the skinny, shy kid who debuted for Essendon in 1989.
The Tiwi Islands native would famously shelter in the change room sauna because of his struggles with Melbourne’s winter.
“Michael has inner strength and a fierce determination,” Sheedy said.
“You see how skinny he was when he started, to the way he built up his own physicality.
“Then, his determination to help his people, as he gained confidence in his life, was one of his strongest assets.
“Many people don’t know what their capabilities are until they mature.”
Last weekend, Long led about 6000 people in another Long Walk, this time at Perth’s Optus Stadium ahead of the annual Dreamtime match between Essendon and Richmond.
The two-time Essendon premiership player, 1993 Norm Smith Medallist and AFL Hall Of Fame member is recognised with an OAM “for service to Australian rules football, and to the Indigenous community”.
“Michael understands and knows that he wasn’t the greatest Aboriginal player, but he’s probably their greatest Aboriginal leader,” Sheedy said.