Dennis Dunn, a Tiwi Islander and one of the greatest Northern Territory footballers of all time, has endured many dark days in his life.

The day he was caught in a police sting on a remote beach with a pound of cannabis that was destined for the Tiwi Islands, more than 15 years after his playing career ended, is one of them.

He would spend a month in prison on remand under mandatory sentencing laws, record a criminal conviction and be punished back in his community on the Tiwis.

“It was the most embarrassing thing that I ever felt in my life. I mucked up, so I went back to my people, my clan group, and fix it up,” he says of his 2016 arrest. 

“It was like a shock, you know, and then reality hits and you’ve got to go into jail. That’s life, life isn’t easy, so you just got to keep getting up and going.”

Dennis Dunn stands in front of a St Mary's club honour board.

Dennis Dunn remains in AFLNT’s Team of the Century.(ABC News: Tristan Hooft)

Mr Dunn was a once-in-a-century player in the Northern Territory, kicking more goals (817) than any other player in the history of the Northern Territory Football League (NTFL).

Memories of what Mr Dunn did on the field are still legendary: multiple 100-goal seasons, the famous day he kicked 20 goals in a game at Gardens Oval, and the 16 other occasions he booted at least 10 goals in a game.

An old photo of Dennis Dunn taking a pack mark playing against the Darwin Buffaloes.

Dennis Dunn takes a pack mark playing against the Darwin Buffaloes.(Supplied)

From first arriving to play in Darwin as a nervous kid from a remote community, to helping lead the Northern Territory to victory in the 1988 national Bicentenary Carnival, Mr Dunn played with the skills and authority that would have comfortably made him an AFL player in Victoria if it weren’t for his homesickness.

“As far as the Tiwi Islands went, he was the cult figure of his era,” says Grey Morris, a veteran Northern Territory football journalist.

“Michael Long was around, but Michael Long was off in the AFL. The Riolis were around too, but he was the one real cult hero.

“I remember kids and adults used to go through the gates just to watch him.”

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In 2009, the AFLNT placed naming honours onto the annual award for the leading goal kicker in the NTFL. Mr Dunn’s name was the only choice.

“It was a very special honour to get the award named after me. There’s a lot of pride in it,” Mr Dunn says.

“It meant a lot to us, really, even the people on the island will talk about it … A community person you know, getting his name up on the board.” 

Honour board

The NTFL leading goal kicker honour board, in which Dennis Dunn is named five consecutive times.(ABC News: Michael Donnelly)

Earlier this year, these two significant points of Mr Dunn’s life – a rock-bottom moment, and his greatest honour – converged.

Following the death of his son, Mr Dunn was eagerly looking forward to travelling to Darwin to hand out the goal kicking award in March.

But a week before the NTFL’s honours night, AFLNT formalised a decision to strip Mr Dunn’s name from the award, citing his drug conviction.

An old photograph of Dennis Dunn playing for St Mary's.

Dennis Dunn playing for St Mary’s.(Supplied)

“The decision was made to remove Dennis Dunn’s name from the NTFL Men’s Premier League goal kicking award following a review of AFLNT honours and awards where names are associated,” AFL Northern Territory said.

“During AFLNT’s deliberations, the conviction for the attempted supply of prohibited drugs into an Aboriginal community was considered, as well as the prominent role our game plays in supporting strong, healthy, and active communities across the NT.” 

The review followed AFLNT’s decision in early 2023 to remove Coleen Gwynne’s name from the NTFL Women’s Premier League best and fairest award over racist comments aired in court.

Mr Dunn, months after the decision, says he feels embarrassed and ashamed, and has slipped into poor mental health.

His family feels aggrieved, and an anger has built back on the Tiwi Islands over the call to strip Mr Dunn’s name from the award over a conviction that’s almost a decade old.

“The heartache and the pain, it’s just life reliving it again, you know?,” he says.

“Why do you want to bring up stuff that I’ve already paid my time for? Because I was done with a pound of dope?”

A petition for Dennis Dunn sits on a table.

A petition in support of Dennis Dunn has drawn hundreds of signatures.(ABC News: Hamish Harty)

‘Football has shown that it can forgive’

Many prominent footballing figures in the Northern Territory, as well as Mr Dunn’s family, have expressed dismay regarding AFLNT’s decision and how it was handled, and are calling on AFLNT to reverse it.

“All that’s come out of this situation is very negative. Negative towards Dennis and the Tiwi islands,” Brian Long, the brother of Michael Long, who grew up with Mr Dunn on a Tiwi mission, says.

“There’s been no duty of care for Dennis. Back in the 1980s, we changed the game for the NTFL community.

“I think that’s wrong. And they need to rethink the way that they process what they’re doing.”

An old photo of Dennis Dunn taking a mark during his playing days.

Dennis Dunn during his playing days.(Supplied)

Those who played with Mr Dunn say the goal kicking award symbolised the greatness of the Indigenous footballers who played for NTFL football club St Mary’s in that era — trailblazers who came from remote communities and thrilled crowds in Darwin.

These players – the first wave of the superstar Riolis and Longs among them – would go on to an unprecedented run of dominance in the NTFL.

They broke racial barriers and are widely credited with clearing the way for the waves of Indigenous talent that have followed in their footsteps.

“We felt pretty hopeless … it actually felt like somebody had passed away in the family, to be honest with you,” former AFL player Russell Jeffrey, who was once a teammate of Mr Dunn’s, says.

“He almost feels like a failure because of what’s happened.

 “Football has shown that it can forgive … he’s been stripped of this magnificent honour that he totally deserves, in my opinion.”

Russell Jeffrey and Brian Long stand arm in arm at a park in Darwin.

Russell Jeffrey (left) and Brian Long have called on AFLNT to reverse the decision.(ABC News: Hamish Harty)

Mr Morris says he’d “like to see the league have another look at [the decision]”.

Mary Dunn, Mr Dunn’s sister, who is also a Tiwi Islands Football League board member, said she was disappointed.

“There should have been a broader range of people who they consulted with. We live in remote communities,” she said.

Dennis Dunn flies for a spectacular mark against Collingwood for the Aboriginal All-Stars in 1994.

Dennis Dunn flies for a spectacular mark against Collingwood for the Aboriginal All-Stars in 1994.(Supplied)

In a letter seen by the ABC addressed to AFL chief executive Andrew Dillon, Mr Dunn’s family have questioned AFLNT’s ruling.

“The decision-making process lacked fairness and the opportunity for Dennis to defend himself,” the letter says.

“The NTFL was an amateur league in his playing days with no educational services about drugs, gambling and domestic violence.

“We find the reasoning behind the decision, particularly the mention of protecting remote Aboriginal Communities, to be insensitive and misplaced.”

The ABC understands AFLNT is not considering reversing the decision.

In a statement, AFLNT said it acknowledged the decision “should have been made earlier” and that it had received “widespread support”.

It also said it had made offers to meet with Mr Dunn to discuss its decision. 

‘Aussie Rules was his equaliser’

Another common theme raised in interviews with people close to Northern Territory football is a belief that stripping Mr Dunn’s name from the award has revealed inconsistent standards from the AFL around decisions to honour players with complicated pasts.

“We’ve all got records. In Dennis’s case, Aussie Rules was his equaliser – not just Dennis, but [for] thousands of Aboriginal people. Their chance to make a name for themselves is on the sporting field, and they most certainly have,” Mr Morris says.

Black and white small photo

A picture of NTFL goal kicking legend Dennis Dunn in the NT Football Hall of Fame.(ABC News: Michael Donnelly)

Adrian Moscheni, a former president of St Mary’s, said Mr Dunn, like a lot of footballers after their careers finished, was “a little bit unsure of where they are going to go in the future and how they are going to do it”.

Mr Dunn has lived precariously since his playing career ended, falling into marijuana use after a string of deaths in his family.

“We live in a remote community. It’s so hard out here. We don’t have the benefit that the mainland has,” Mary Dunn, who lives in Wurrumiyanga, says.

‘I don’t know what message is being given’

Dennis Dunn has returned to the Tiwi Islands since his conviction.

There, he has been elected to the Tiwi Land Council, and become a director of his clan group.

His long-standing goal is to get more jobs for people in his community, where opportunities can be scarce.

“I’ve just been worrying about my own people and seeing how we can help generate jobs, to be independent on the island,” he says.

Mr Jeffrey says the AFLNT “should have a look at the community aspect of his life and what he’s been able to give back to the community”.

A hairpin turn in a river on the Tiwi Islands is seen during the day.

Dennis Dunn grew up on the Garden Point Mission on the Tiwi Islands.(ABC News: Michael Franchi)

Mr Dunn still endures the struggles he has faced since his playing career ended.

“You’re just human in the end. They think you’re like superman, you know, you don’t do nothing wrong, everything’s good,” he says.

“But not everything is good. You have relationship problems, then work problems, family and then funeral problems — it never ends.”‘

The type to generally avoid attention, Mr Dunn steered clear of quiet protests that were held by his supporters outside two AFL games held in Darwin this month.

At the gates of Marrara Stadium, Mr Dunn’s supporters sat around a petition calling for AFLNT to reinstate his name on the goal kicking award.

Protesters for Dennis Dunn outside an AFL game in Darwin with spectators queuing at gates in background.

Supporters of Dennis Dunn protested outside the Gold Coast Suns vs Geelong Cats game at Marrara Stadium this month.(ABC News: Hamish Harty)

Protesters for Dennis Dunn outside an AFL game in Darwin.

Dennis Dunn’s family and supporters at one of the protests.(ABC News: Hamish Harty)

The petition drew much interest, and has been signed by more than 1,000 people, including names from key families on the Tiwi Islands — Riolis, Tipungwutis, Wonaeamirris, Kantillas, Puruntatameris, Tipilouras, Munkaras, Kerinauia and Tungatalums among them.

“We’d just like to sort this out, and see if they can overturn their decision,” Mr Dunn says.

“I’m trying to get that trophy back.”

Dennis Dunn looks at old photographs in the St Mary's club rooms.

Dennis Dunn looks at old photographs in the St Mary’s clubrooms.(ABC News: Tristan Hooft)

Posted 4h ago4 hours agoFri 24 May 2024 at 10:57pm, updated 3h ago3 hours agoSat 25 May 2024 at 12:14am