The AFL’s indigenous round is a nod to Australia’s first people and their contribution to the game. Tony Armstrong is yet to make the football impression he craves, but his story is a compelling one of a contemporary Aboriginal man making his way in the world while trying to be a footballer.
Armstrong most likely won’t play against North Melbourne on Sunday. He describes himself as an “in and out” player, a reference to his place on the fringe of Collingwood’s senior and VFL teams. It can be uneasy, shifting ground.
“There are definitely times when I come home and I’m like, ‘Did I play well enough?’ Five minutes after a game I struggle to enjoy it, you’re thinking, ‘Was that ok? Was it enough?’ I’ve learned to stay more on a level, because if you’re up and down you’re shot. That’s where the other things help.” – tony armstrong
“There are definitely times when I come home and I’m like, ‘Did I play well enough?’ Five minutes after a game I struggle to enjoy it, you’re thinking, ‘Was that ok? Was it enough?’ I’ve learned to stay more on a level, because if you’re up and down you’re shot. That’s where the other things help.”
He has many “other things” in his life. Armstrong recently began studying psychology, and found himself having to learn again the process of not only reading but absorbing huge tracts of information.
He knows he has a long way to go, but is driven by the growth in the mental-health sphere and a need for better treatment for Aboriginal people. “It would be powerful having an indigenous AFL player turned psych working in that area.”
Music is a constant companion. He attends the Falls and Meredith festivals every year and is a regular at gigs around town, but admits live music can be a difficult love for a professional athlete in a world of non-negotiables. “A band’s playing Wednesday night, you’ve got main training the following day. Do I go? Is it a bad look if I do?”
Housemate and radio 3AW football producer Joel Brooks says their day jobs are off the agenda when they hang out. At Brooks’ urging Armstrong recently finished a book on Johnny Cash and is now a disciple of the man in black. “Music keeps his mind ticking,” Brooks says.
He doesn’t see himself as political, rather a passionate person who learned early from his mother that, “If you think something’s fundamentally right or wrong, just align yourself for or against it.” He spent the lead-up to the round-five Collingwood-Carlton game at a protest rally against the proposed closure of remote Aboriginal communities. It moved and emboldened him.
“A lot of my non-indigenous mates were there,” he says of a group which that night included Bomber Joe Daniher, whose older brother Darcy played TAC Cup with Armstrong, and singer Thelma Plumb.
“There’s a lot of angst and frustration. It’s just, ‘What do we do?’ That’s why I went to the rally.
“I don’t know how I can just walk out on the street and go, ‘All right, I’m gunna be the change’. I don’t have the tools. But my generation gets it. It was really powerful.”
He took to social media to decry the Herald Sun’s criticism of the event for bringing Melbourne to a standstill at peak hour on a Friday afternoon. “Where are you supposed to have a rally? Down a back alley somewhere? You’re supposed to make some noise, this is why we’re doing this.
“I’m sorry you might be half an hour late home, but there’s people out there whose identity is about to be ripped out from underneath them. And your dinner’s going to be a bit cold, is it?”
Armstrong is charismatic, but says he had his own “stuff” to work through before this confidence surfaced.
He’s never met his father, who left when his mother was pregnant. He grew up “Anglo Saxon effectively”, felt a sense of shame about his Aboriginality because he knew nothing of his culture. “I don’t have stories. I felt like I was kind of a fake.”
Under Andrew McLeod’s mentoring at Adelaide and with his mother’s blessing he found and researched his mob, the Barranbinya, out the back of Bourke.
Six seasons in three states have delivered only 35 games, but he is forever grateful for the guidance of “absolute giants” like McLeod, Michael O’Loughlin and Adam Goodes. His two years with Sydney convinced him there can’t be many better people than Jarrad McVeigh.
Maturity has awakened a deep appreciation of his single mother, who sent him from just outside Albury to boarding school at Assumption College “when I was basically her world”. There he counts himself lucky to have befriended Ryan Taylor, son of Brian.
Through his latter teens “there was home, there was Assumption, and there was the Taylors”. The characterisation of “B.T.” – largely of his own creation – makes Armstrong smile. “He’s one of the sharpest, most loving, caring people I’ve ever met.”
Travel is another off-season essential. A chance meeting with a group of Danes in a London bar led to him celebrating his 21st birthday in Copenhagen, where he and a travelling mate were greeted by the mother of one of their new friends as “my Australian boys”. He’s been back twice, once with a group that included Brooks and Goodes.
“They didn’t realise how much of a big deal Goodesy was,” says Armstrong, who switched on a laptop and showed them. “They were like, ‘We’ve got the Australian of the year staying in our spare room?'”
He’s not putting too much pressure on himself about football, resolving only to try his hardest. His days are full and stimulating; this week featured a cooking class with Magpies teammates on selection, preparation and cooking of steak, and began with a rare in-season treat when a VFL bye opened a window to attend a mini-festival celebrating Brooks’ brother Mark’s 30th.
“It was called Marklife instead of Parklife,” Armstrong says of the family gathering in a paddock at the bottom of a hill outside Seymour. “It was unbelievable. I want a festival now.”
He thinks it’s an important time to be an Aboriginal person of any age, but especially for the young, who will become the next professionals and leaders charged with paving a smoother path for the generations to come. Australia’s lack of a treaty with its indigenous people stirs in him that sense of justice implanted by his mother.
“All of my friends – a good cross-section of the population – they all get it. It’s just making the change.”