Siren sounds for Tiwi Islands' 'Father of football'
June 1, 2009
THERE are few men who can wear the label "the father of football". Brother John Pye, an unassuming
Catholic priest with a country background, was one of them.
On Friday, the man credited with bringing Australian football to the Tiwi Islands, with a few sticks
hammered into an old airstrip, died in Darwin.
Known to Tiwi locals by the name of Punderdelime — meaning crocodile tail and representing strength
and maturity — he was 102.
The home page of Darwin's St Mary's Football Club, where many Tiwi Islanders have played, quotes Brother
John as saying he joined the Missionary of the Sacred Heart order because he "wanted to help people in far away places".
So it was that he arrived on the Tiwi Islands in 1941 as a young priest posted as a teacher.
Born in the NSW Riverina in 1906, he was a natural athlete who captained his school football team.
When he arrived in the islands, the Tiwi people played a traditional form of football, which had the
aim of running or kicking the ball over the line.
But Brother John's initial efforts to establish the Australian game were thwarted by war, where he
spent most of his time at Port Keats, in the Northern Territory.
In peacetime, he tried again, using an old World War II airstrip, with sticks at each end, as a football
In an ABC television interview, Brother John said he could see the Tiwi were an "athletic, spritely
and springy" people.
"Their brand of football is lightning fast, and it's almost like a religion with them," he said.
In the decades since Brother John arrived, the Tiwi Islands have produced some of football's most acclaimed
players, such as former Essendon co-captain Michael Long, Richmond legend Maurice Rioli — both Norm Smith medallists
— and rising Hawthorn star Cyril Rioli.
Last night, former Essendon coach Kevin Sheedy said Brother John should be remembered as one of the
quiet heroes of football who deserved serious acclaim.
"When you are working in a community, as he was, to start something and create what is happening in
our game today is marvellous," he said. "Just go and see the Longs and the Riolis who have come down."
Brother John spent almost 70 years working on Catholic missions in the Northern Territory, including
the Bathurst Island, Garden Point and Daly River missions.
He was awarded an Order of Australia in 1986.
Darwin's Bishop Eugene Hurley said Brother John was "an icon of the Territory" who committed his life
to serving other people.
In years to come, the name John Pye will continue to be remembered on at least one day a year, the
Tiwi grand final, when a medal in his honour is named for the best afield.
"It's a great honor, the John Pye Medal," Brother John told the ABC in 2006. "Everybody likes to be
remembered, sort of thing. Each year they bring that up."