Heroes of Yesterday, Interview 33
26 December 2017 – Percy Knight
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Condoblin, central New South Wales on a small mission which was controlled by missionaries. In those days Aboriginal people were considered reserves, and we lived in that mission until I was about 11 or 12. I had 13 brothers and sisters.
How was your childhood?
When we were in the Mission we weren’t allowed to play football, didn’t even know what it was. There were a lot of laws governing us then; if we wanted to go anywhere we needed the policeman’s permission. We still had lots of fun, doing things like swimming. We were looked after well from our family, including our extended family. If we were caught being somewhere we shouldn’t, our uncle or aunty would boot us up the backside, then we would go home and complain to our parents and we’d get another slap in the head and told well, we shouldn’t have been there.
The 1967 Referendum was an overwhelming yes vote in Australia for the inclusion of the Aboriginal people into the census. That is when they started the assimilation and integration of aboriginals into society. When we went into town we had to go to the public school, the white school and that was a big change for us, for a lot of kids they had a hard time adjusting to it. There was a lot of racism going on and I was one of those kids who wouldn’t take a backward step. I would get told that my friend was being bullied and I would go and pull the bully aside and have a go at him.
There were rations in those days and every Wednesday my family would go down to the local police station and we would get a bag of flour and a bag of sugar, we had syrup in a bag, it was really rich sugar.
Then we were introduced to Rugby League.
What was your first football experience?
Our school teacher got a bunch of us together and asked if we wanted to try out for the school football team? We were all pretty good sports people, maybe not in the strategic sense, we knew how to run, how to dodge and how to step. I took to it like a duck to water.
I was skinny, they used to put all of us black kids together and we’d run riot.
Once they realized we had pretty decent talent they bought me a pair of boots, some trousers, shorts and shirts, I was thinking “Wow, all this and all I have to do is play football”.
Tell us about your father?
My Dad was a pretty interesting man; he fought in the New Guinea during World War 2. He was a dispatch writer in the Army and never really talked about it much. As a dispatch writer he was receiving the messages from the front and taking this back to head quarters. I thought you must have got dobbed in for this job because nobody would volunteer for this
As a child what was your most memorable experience of Rugby League?
As a 14 year old I was selected to play for the Under 16’s Country Western Area Schoolboys side and there were some other guys in that team such as Bruce Clark, big Bruiser from Western Suburbs and Graham West. I was actually selected as the half back for that side. We went on tour to northern NSW and then Queensland.
During this tour Canterbury had one of their scouts at one of the games and he approached me and asked would you consider coming to Sydney to play footy? I was only 14 at the time, too young.
Playing for Western Division?
When I turned 15 I was selected for Western Division and I played with Terry Fahey. We used to go camping together and big Bruiser Clark was also in the same team. We played against Riverina and we went alright. Terry and I played in the Group 11 Juniors for Condobolin and it was a very tough group, we were up against Wellington, Parkes, Forbes, Dubbo, Dubbo CYMS, Canandra. I remember one day I ran out for the Under 18’s against Canandra and this bloke from Canandra came up to me and said “You don’t remember me, but I remember you”. “I remember you playing for the Condo Rams; you won the Best and Fairest Award for the Under 18’s. Then you were asked to sit on the Reserves bench for Reserve Grade and came on early. You won the Man of the Match in that game, and then you were asked to play in the First Grade and you won the Man of the Match for that game as well.
I was married at 17, because in those days when you had a girl you were meant to get married, well we waited until I was 18 to officially marry and I was divorced at 19.
Move to Canberra?
When I was 19 I moved to Canberra, to work more than anything. Canberra was where I first met Charlie Perkins and Larry Corowa moved down from Tweed Heads at the same time. We didn’t know each other; it was just a coincidence that we met up.
I started playing football for East Canberra in 1975 and I talked Larry into joining East Canberra, I told him if you want to get noticed you need to be with one of the stronger teams. I remember thinking this guy has tremendous speed and he wasn’t aware of it.
I was playing in the centres and it was easy for me to make a break and just give it to Larry and he would just go on to score.
How was the Monaro Division Tour of 1977?
We played against Great Britain and I think I came up against Roger Milford. We beat the Great Britain side and Larry Corowa scored 5 tries against Great Britain.
What got you to Sydney?
After the tour I had approaches to play football in Sydney with South Sydney, North Sydney and Penrith. I said I am interested in playing football in Sydney, but what about my mate Larry? He was so skinny, honestly. They said he will probably be killed in the toughness of football in Sydney. I said don’t worry about that, this bloke is probably the fastest winger you will ever see.
Dave Topless was leaving and they said we would like you to play 5/8 and if it doesn’t work out we can put you back in the centres.
Who were your footballing heroes as a kid ?
When I started to learn about the game and listen to it on the radio there wasn’t a better player than Bobby Fulton. When I went to Balmain in 1978 he was in his last year so I got to see him play a bit.
Did you collect footy cards as a kid ?
We didn’t have them.
How were the Balmain Tigers years from 1978 to 1982?
I played in Reserve Grade for Balmain for most of that year and we won the Grand Final in 1978. The 1978 Reserve Grade side was stronger than the First Grade side; we had some great players like Wayne Miranda, Bing, David Grant and Gary Spears.
The St George Reserve Grade side who we came up against had Ted Goodwin, Steve Edge, Bruce Starkey, they were all playing in the First Grade Grand Final the year before. We had a pretty good side too, big David Grant playing for us. We ended up winning 8 points to 6.
In 1977 Ron Willey was the coach and he liked a very structured 5/8 and he had Les Mara who fit into that mould. He didn’t know how to coach me I think. Wiley was reported as saying, “Percy is a bit difficult to coach, I don’t know what his best position is”. When I was in Reserve Grade I was playing under Dennis Tutty and we went through the season undefeated. I scored two tries in the Reserve Grade Grand Final.
I was always put on the bench for First Grade, so every week I was playing a game and a half. I think that was Ron Willeys plan, this guy has the X Factor and we can use him.
During the Semi Finals Dennis Tutty said to me I am going to play you at 5/8. He said you are a 5/8 playing in the centres.
I was becoming disgruntled and was thinking if you can’t see the potential in me I should look somewhere else. After the 1978 Reserve Grade Grand Final I had people coming up to me saying you are just wasting your time here, you are a First Grade player.
In 1980 I received the Favorite Player Dally M Award for Balmain, I actually received the first ever Dally M medal because Balmain was first cab of the rank.
I came up against players like Rocky Laurie, Mick Pattison, Alan Thompson, I respected them but I wasn’t intimidated by them.
Dennis Tutty took over as First Grade coach and he said “I am not going to tell you how to play, you played in my Reserve Grade side, just go out there and play your game”. This is the problem Ron Wiley had with me.
In 1980 Greg Oliphant came down from Queensland, he was a very slow player and Dennis Tutty asked me if I can play half back. I played half back in the Schoolboys. I told Dennis that I wasn’t combining well with Greg Oliphant and he put Llyod Martin in to the five-eighth spot. My first game at half back we flogged Penrith by 50 points or so. There are a few different styles of 5/8 players, to play before the line, to play at the line and to play through the line. I was able to do all three which made me a lot more dangerous because the opposition couldn’t predict what I was going to do.
Selected for Country Firsts in 1978, how was that experience?
That was a good experience, I played in the centres that day, Johnny Brass played at 5/8. We played in a quagmire at the Sydney Cricket Ground.
What got you to Canberra?
Don Furner was the soon to be coach when they were putting the Raiders together and he came up to Leichardt Oval one day and saw me play against North Sydney. Don saw me carve up the Bears that day. Don and I had a bit of history going back to Queenbeyan when I was looking at heading into Sydney. At that time I asked him which club do you think I should go to and he said Balmain.
Who was your most respected rival?
I respected all of them but was never in awe of any of them. Look Rocky Laurie was a good 5/8.
What was the best team you played against?
Parramatta was building with Mick Cronin, Ray Price, Peter Sterling. Also Canterbury was a very strong side with the Mortimer brothers.
In 1980 I was captain of Balmain and we came up against Canterbury in front of a huge crowd and we got flogged. I think when Alan McMahon was dropped the rest of the players dropped their bundle.
What was your highlight of playing Rugby League?
Recognition, I was the first aboriginal player to be selected to play 5/8 for a Sydney side and the recognition that came with that was aboriginals could organize a team on the field.
When did you know it was time to give the game away?
I kept breaking a bone and because of the Canberra weather it made it worse and I was getting needles in it all the time.
One day I just felt like I had enough. I threw my playing gear in the back seat of the car and drove over the Queenbeyan Bridge. I didn’t tell anyone at the club what I was doing or where I was going. I parked the car next to the bridge, grabbed my gear and threw it into the river. It was raining that day, I remember like it clearly like it was yesterday.
What followed after football?
After football I coached some juniors down in Canberra, I coached the Raiders Under 17’s side, Richard Villasanti was one of the guys I coached.
I was involved with the establishment of the Wiradjuri Condobolin Culture (WCC) after negotiating the $20 million Native Title Agreement between the Barrick Gold of Australia mining company and the Wiradjuri Native Title Party. The agreement was known as the Ancillary Deed MLA 45 and was designed to benefit the native Wiradjuri Condobolin people.
I became CEO of the WCC with five board members, we have approximately 400 paid employess and 40 local Wiradjuri employees. The WCC has generated employment for members, education and training programs and business opportunities. We teach and hold cultural events, to reinforce our heritage for our younger generations and to show the wider community who we are. Manage natural reserves and cultural places, and other aspects such as youth leadership.
Kevin Rudd came down to open the Study Centre whilst he was Foreign Affairs minister, it was a huge day.
I am now working on completing my PhD. I am working at The University of Sydney in the Business School as an Associate Lecturer in the Work and Organisational Studies field.
How has the game changed since your playing days?
In my day we had the 6 metre rule, so as a ball player you were limited and you had to think on your feet.
What’s your favourite restaurant?
Any restaurant that serves good seafood, and I like Chinese.
What are your hobbies?
I like watching movies and watching sports on Fox, get annoyed by some of the commentary at times, but that is just an old footballer.
Have you collected your own footy cards ?
No, haven’t got any.