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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

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Graham Vivian (Polly) Farmer (1935–2019)

by Jake Niall

from Age

Graham "Polly'' Farmer's influence upon the game that he played was profound, changing both how it was played and what was considered possible.

Farmer, who had been suffering from dementia and died yesterday in a Perth hospital at the age of 84, enlarged the possibilities with his use of handball, with his exquisite ruck work and as an Indigenous pioneer who quietly endured racism and became the first Indigenous footballer to captain and then coach a club (Geelong) in what was the premier competition.

Pre-Farmer, Australian rules had been a game in which handball was seldom deployed as a weapon. Certainly, it was not a skill in which ruckmen were proficient within Farmer's era of the 1950s and '60s.

But along came Polly, who, as his coach the late Bob Davis once recalled, ripped the ball from the skies and, by using his hands, found small teammates such as Billy Goggin on the fly.

Farmer's handballing can be seen in footage even of his final VFL game, the 1967 grand final against Richmond, when he delivers a drop punt-length handpass to a teammate in space.

Farmer famously handballed the footy through the window of a moving car – a feat that his old team mate Gareth Andrews recalled him completing during lunch breaks at work in Geelong.

Andrews said that Polly – as he was forever known – brought a level of professionalism that was unusual in mid-1960s football, in that he trained as he played.

Andrews remembered Farmer would back into players in aerial contests at training, to replicate match conditions, rather than playing the conventional kick-to-kick with teammates.

Pre-Farmer, Indigenous footballers had not been prominent in Victoria, and none had held official leadership roles in clubs.

But along came Polly, who captained the Cats for three seasons, from 1965 until 1967, having been the centrifugal force in Geelong's 1963 premiership under Davis. He would return to Perth – where he played with both East Perth and West Perth – before breaking ground as Geelong's coach from 1973 until 1975, a stint that was much less successful than his playing career with the Cats.

Farmer's Indigenous heritage was seldom acknowledged in public forums – certainly not in media – during his playing career, though his back story was a dramatic illustration of the challenges Aborigines faced: Farmer had been handed over to Sister Kate's home in Perth by his mother, a Noongar woman, and initially raised in that institution.

"I never took any notice of it,'' Farmer told the author Sean Gorman in his book Legends: The AFL Indigenous Team of the Century of the racism he encountered on the field and the names he was called, adding "that was understandable because you do anything to try and put people off their game.  I didn't go out of my way to chase people and thump them because they called me a boong''.

Polly was a trailblazer, too, as the big-name border-crossing recruit, whose arrival was received with rapture in Geelong, where his ruck and rover partnership with Goggin would be feted. His recruitment to the Cats was a major story, since he was the best player in Perth, having won three Sandover Medals and propelled East Perth to three premierships.

Many Geelong people believe Farmer, a 191-centimetre, left-footed skilful follower, was the best player to play the game, a case that rested on his pioneering skill set and capacity to bring others into the game. Andrews said Polly had that "split-second timing'' that the great footballers possess when launching themselves at the footy.

While Farmer established the Polly Farmer Foundation for young Indigenous people, he and his wife suffered financial hardship in the early 1990s, forcing them to sell their house, prompting fund-raisers in Perth and Melbourne involving Davis and John ''Sam'' Newman.

Little had been heard of Polly lately, as he suffered from dementia and required considerable care. He remained a hero to many within the game – not least to his ruck protege at Geelong, Newman – and, over time the Indigenous part of his story became better known, partly through the well-researched biography written on him by Stephen Hawke, the son of the late prime minister Bob Hawke.

Farmer rightly was an inaugural legend in the AFL's Hall of Fame, a member of the AFL's Team of the Century and captain of the Indigenous Team of the Century. But, as with any genuine legend, these gongs matter much less than the deeds that were seen, and the life story that was destined to be celebrated after the fact.


  • Australian Football Hall of Fame, Inaugural Legend of the Game (one of 12).
  • Played 176 games for East Perth 1953-61, kicking 157 goals.
  • Played 101 games for Geelong 1962-67, kicking 65 goals.
  • Played 79 games for West Perth 1968-71, kicking 55 goals.
  • Played 31 games for Western Australia, kicking 19 goals.
  • Played six games for Victoria, kicking six goals.
  • East Perth Best and Fairest 1954, 1955, 1956, 1957, 1959, 1960, 1961.
  • Geelong Best and Fairest 1963, 1964.
  • West Perth Best and Fairest 1969.
  • Sandover Medal 1956, 1957, 1960.
  • Simpson Medal 1959 [grand final].
  • East Perth premiership 1956, 1958, 1959.
  • Geelong premiership 1963.
  • West Perth premiership 1969, 1971 (both as playing coach).
  • All Australian 1956, 1958, 1961.
  • AFL Team of the Century (first ruck).
  • Indigenous Team of the Century (first ruck, captain).
  • Geelong Team of the Century (first ruck).
  • West Perth Team of the Century (first ruck).
  • East Perth Post War Team of the Century (first ruck).
  • West Perth coach 1968-71 for premierships in 1969 and 1971.
  • Geelong coach 1973-75.
  • East Perth coach 1976-77.

Original publication

Other Obituaries for Graham Vivian (Polly) Farmer

  • Australian, 15 August 2019, by Paige Taylor, Andrew Burrell and Victoria Laurie

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Jake Niall, 'Farmer, Graham Vivian (Polly) (1935–2019)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 22 June 2024.

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