DREAMTIME at the G and the surrounding Sir Doug Nicholls Round is the Australian Football League’s most socially conscious event of the year and Nathan Lovett-Murray has a stronger connection to the event than most.
Round 13 of the AFL’s 2020 season begins tonight with Gold Coast hosting Carlton at TIO Stadium in Darwin, and tomorrow night the marquee match of the round will take place in Darwin between Essendon and Richmond.
The 15th edition of the Dreamtime at the G event was, as the name suggests, originally scheduled to take place at the MCG, however due to the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting restrictions on public gathering, the match has been relocated to the Northern Territory.
Watching on with great interest will be 37-year-old Lovett-Murray – once a teenage football sensation in Heywood, then a professional footballer with Essendon, and now the Indigenous Welfare Support and Development Coach with St Kilda.
While he is disappointed to be unable to attend this year’s event Lovett-Murray said he was mostly just happy to see it go ahead in some form.
“Unfortunately, I won’t be able make this year’s event because it’s taking place in Darwin, and obviously here and Victoria, we’re all in lockdown,” he said.
“I actually think it’s great to see the event head up to Darwin.
“Yeah it’s great to have it at the MCG each year and to keep the tradition going but I think this year, it’s more important to just make sure the event is able to go ahead at all.
“Another factor too is Darwin’s Indigenous community – Longy (Michael Long, an organiser) is from Darwin and a lot of other brilliant footballers have come from that region.
“It’s a part of the country that’s produced some very important Indigenous figures and I think it’s excellent to see the game head up there and be played in front of that community.
“I believe this year’s game was sold out in a matter of minutes so I think that shows the level of interest we still have.”
Start of the journey
Lovett-Murray’s time on the field may have gone now, but on July 9 of 2005, it was just beginning.
At the time he was a 22-year-old midfielder with Essendon, at the club on a rookie contract with less than 40 games’ experience and counting down the minutes until he took part in the first ever Dreamtime at the G match.
That 2005 match was a project developed between the Essendon Football Club and the Richmond Football Club with the aim of transforming a regular home-and-away match into the chance to recognise the contribution Indigenous people have made to the AFL.
It was decided that teams would play for the Kevin Sheedy Cup, with Sheedy a premiership player with Richmond and a premiership coach with Essendon, and unfortunately for the Bombers the result of that first match was one to forget – defeated by the Tigers 14.8 (92) to 9.12 (66).
Despite the one-sided result, the night itself was a hit, with more than 49,000 people piling into the MCG to witness the round 15 affair.
Richmond and Essendon would go on to finish that season side-by-side in 12th and 13th on the ladder, far from finals contention, and filling half the MCG that night would later be looked back on as a great success.
Lovett-Murray had a quiet night as a player, finishing with 14 disposals and a modest overall impact, but the following year he returned motivated by the building fanfare of the event.
In 2006, the event was pushed further up the schedule to round six, and on a cold May 6 evening nearly 60,000 people headed to the MCG to witness a thriller.
Lovett-Murray was Essendon's standout player, racking up 29 disposals in a 13.17 (95) to 13.19 (97) loss that went right down the wire.
It was a tight result that added an entertainment factor to an important cultural cause and guaranteed that Dreamtime at the G was here to stay for some time yet.
2006 was also the first time the Yiooken Medal was handed out to the player of the match.
Richmond’s Dean Polo, whose underwhelming career would last just 77 games between Richmond and St Kilda, played a once-in-a-lifetime game that night, kicking three goals and securing the Yiooken Medal.
In the years since, Polo’s fluke performance has only added to the mythology of the night.
Sir Doug Nicholls
The following year, the AFL extended the acknowledgement of Indigenous culture beyond the one match, naming the entire ninth round after Sir Doug Nicholls.
Nicholls is a legend of Australia’s Aboriginal culture, rising from poverty in Melbourne in the 1920s to the Victorian Football League, where he played 54 games with Fitzroy, and after sport, entering the world of politics and becoming Governor of South Australia.
Nicholls was the first Australian Aboriginal to be knighted – and is also Lovett-Murray’s great grandfather.
“The AFL’s Indigenous round is named after my great grandfather – Sir Doug Nicholls – and it means a lot to me to still have that connection going,” he said.
“He was an incredible man and is one of my biggest influences in life.”
Unfortunately, Lovett-Murray wasn't able to play in the 2007 edition of the Dreamtime at the G.
In round one of that season, Essendon travelled to Adelaide and began the season with an exciting win on the road.
Unfortunately for the Bombers, Lovett-Murray suffered a groin-injury that would keep him out of the action until round 15 of that season, limiting him to just nine games in his fourth year at the top.
Richmond and Essendon met on a Saturday night in another thriller – this time an eight-point result in favour Essendon, to give them their first Kevin Sheedy Cup.
Lovett-Murray was back in the red-and-black in both 2008 and 2009, playing well in losses to Richmond, and while the Bombers weren’t able to win the Kevin Sheedy Cup, they were able to grow interest in the event, with the spectator count climbing beyond 73,000.
In a cruel outcome Lovett-Murray missed out on Dreamtime at the G again in 2010 due to injury, watching on as the Bombers crushed the Tigers by 35 points and leaving Lovett-Murray with at least another 12-month wait before he would place in a winning side.
Lovett-Murray returned in 2011 with another strong performance for the Bombers, collecting 19 disposals and laying five tackles in a 16.9 (105) to 13.11 (89) defeat in front of 83,000 people.
The following year, Lovett-Murray’s desire to play in a winning Dreamtime at the G side was finally granted.
Richmond and Essendon met in front 81,000 people in round eight of the season, winning by 29 points.
In what would end up being his final Dreamtime at the G appearance, Lovett-Murray played up forward and had six disposals, laid three tackles and kicked one goal.
Lovett-Murray retired from football the following year, having played 145 games for the Bombers, and said the strongest memories from that era all related to family.
“My strongest memories and the real highlight of that experience for me has been the family presence,” he said.
“I remember one Dreamtime at the G game – maybe it was my second last one, or perhaps the last even – I was given around 200 tickets from the club to give to family members and people close to me.
“I had a lot of family from Heywood come up on the big buses and then when I ran out onto the ground, I remember seeing all of my family sitting together in the stands.
“That was one of the biggest highlights for me for sure, that memory meant a lot.”
The Long Walk continues
While Lovett-Murray’s time as a professional footballer is behind him, he has involved strongly involved with the Dreamtime at the G event via The Long Walk.
In November of 2004, Essendon footballer Michael Long began to walk from Melbourne to Canberra in order to generate media attention in the trials and tribulations of Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander people in Australia.
Long stopped his walk at the halfway mark of the journey when he was contacted by then Prime Minister John Howard, who agreed to talk with him.
In 2007, The Long Walk Trust was formed, a charity aimed at continuing to spread the message started by Long in 2004, and Lovett-Murray has remained involved in the organisation.
“I’ve been involved in The Long Walk with Longy (Michael Long) for a long time,” he said.
“I’m on the board of the foundation and was also the ambassador of the schools program.
“To see it grow from strength to strength each year has been really special.
“Especially with the concert that’s now held each year, and the luncheon functions, and all those other events that are hosted around the footy, it’s just great to see that the work Longy does is continuing on.
“It’s all about having a voice and being heard.”
A mentor with the Saints
On Sunday, Lovett-Murray will have another important match to tune into – St Kilda’s clash with Brisbane at the Gabba in Queensland.
Lovett-Murray is currently working as the Indigenous Welfare Support and Development Coach with St Kilda, a role he’s in his first year of after completing a coaching placement with the Saints last year.
As a part of his role, Lovett-Murray mentors St Kilda’s five footballers of Indigenous heritage and works to provide a voice and perspective to the rest of the coaching staff.
“I’m in my first year full time with the Saints,” he said.
“Last year I was there as a part of a coaching placement experience, but this year I’ve been working full time and it’s been a really good experience.
“We’ve got five Indigenous boys at the Saints – Paddy Ryder, Bradley Hill, Matt Parker, Jade Gresham and Ben Long – and we work closely together on different projects.
“I’m also currently working on my level three coaching certificate, and was getting through that quickly before all this COVID-19 business kicked in.
“Paddy (Ryder) and I are very close in particular.
“We were at the Bombers together (as players) and then I was able to talk him into heading to the Saints late last year, which is a move I think has worked really well for everyone involved.”
Working with Winmar
In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic planning for the future can be a difficult task, but Lovett-Murray said he had a number of important projects he was continuing to work on while waiting for the lockdown to end.
The biggest of them is a documentary centred on another famous Saint – Nicky Winmar – and his battles with racism and mental health.
“I’m having a real crack at embracing coaching and trying to enter that space,” Lovett-Murray said.
“I’ve really loved my time with the St Kilda Football Club so far.
“I’m also working on a project with Nicky Winmar, it’s a documentary about his experiences with racism and the impact it has on mental health.
“We’ve made some great moves forward with the project so far and it would be great to be able to take that project into schools around Australia.
“We want to raise awareness and educate young people about the dangers of racism and the importance of mental health.
“We’ve started working on the film earlier this year.”
Winmar and Lovett-Murray’s film is titled ‘Point and Be Proud: The Ripple Effect’ and is expected to be released during the Sir Doug Nicholls Round in 2021.