THE story of Liam Jurrah - like the story of Albert Namatjira, the Aboriginal painter from the 1950s and '60s - runs at two levels.
In Jurrah's case, at one level, his is the relatively ordinary story of a footballer trying to make it in the AFL. But, like Namatjira, his story is also deeply emblematic of remote Aboriginal Australia and its historic struggle.
Jurrah's story has the potential, like Namatjira's, to end tragically but my hunch is that Jurrah's AFL career hasn't ended, that he will play next year for Port Adelaide. Rarely in its history has Port been more open to the prospect of attracting a forward with Jurrah's exciting talents. The move would appear to mean Jurrah could live with his grandmother, Cecily Granites. Jurrah's grandmother is the central figure in his life story.
Liam Jurrah celebrates a goal. Photo: Getty Images
Living in Adelaide would mean Jurrah would have the support of those to whom he is closest in his family. It would also mean he is closer to those on the other side of the bitter divide wracking his home community of Yuendumu. After stopping in Alice Springs, the enmities of desert Aboriginal communities tend to find their way south to Adelaide.
For the Melbourne Football Club, it has to be a terribly disappointing moment. The Demons invested a lot not only in Jurrah but in the whole idea of reconciliation. His recruitment was a gamble from the start - nobody from a remote Aboriginal community had played in the AFL. At Melbourne, there was a debate about who travelled further to play AFL - Jim Stynes, who knew the language but not the game when he started, or Liam Jurrah, who knew the game but not the language.
In a sense, Jurrah and Stynes were connected in that they were the Demons' two great stories during 2009 as the beleaguered club began to revive. Even though he was seriously ill with cancer, Stynes journeyed to Jurrah's home community of Yuendumu in 2010. Nor was there any lack of feeling on Jurrah's behalf for the Demons. I once asked him what the best thing was about Melbourne (the city). ''Melbourne [the football club]'', he replied.
Injuries were a problem - he played only one game this year - but it was also the case that his relationship with the club changed after coach Dean Bailey was sacked late last season. Bailey was open to his indigenous players and their culture. Jurrah thought very highly of Bailey. Melbourne also had a liaison officer, Ian Flack, who enjoyed the trust and confidence of the club's indigenous players. Flack followed Bailey from the club. Under Bailey, Melbourne's form fluctuated violently. The regime of new coach Mark Neeld demanded a far greater degree of physical rigour from the players. The allowance made for individual backgrounds was lessened in favour of the idea that new benchmarks were demanded of all players.
The culture was not as conducive to Jurrah although the club persisted in supporting him both through his injuries and the legal troubles arising from the incident in the Alice Springs town camp earlier this year which resulted in Jurrah being charged with a serious assault. When Jurrah left Melbourne three weeks ago, the club hoped he would play with them in 2013. None of those closest to him, however, thought he would be back. Now, it seems, they were right.