Olympic great Cathy Freeman OAM believes her grandfather Frank Fisher was not only a trailblazer for Indigenous rugby league players but also influenced her own sporting career.
Freeman, who was awarded the honour of lighting the cauldron at the opening ceremony of the 2000 Sydney Olympics and later won the 400m gold medal in one of Australia’s greatest and most iconic sporting moments, told NRL.com of her pride at Fisher’s achievements on and off the field.
A brilliant five-eighth, who was also a sprint champion and accomplished cricketer, Fisher is the only member of the Indigenous Team of the Century who did not play in one of the major competitions in Sydney, Brisbane or England, or at state or Test level.
Fisher’s career was restricted to playing for Barambah, which later became the Cherbourg Aboriginal Settlement, in Queensland’s South Burnett region, but he did represent Wide Bay in matches against the touring 1932 and 1936 Great Britain teams in 1932 and 1936.
Lions captain Jim Brough, who described Fisher as the best country footballer he had seen, was so impressed that he convinced Salford to offer him a contract to play in England.
However, the Queensland Government rejected Fisher’s application to travel under the Aboriginals Protection Act in place at the time and he continued to play for Cherbourg until his 40s.
With Fisher passing away in 1980, Freeman had little knowledge of the esteem in which he is held in by the likes of Steve Renouf, as well as those who played with and against him, while growing up but considers him to be a pioneer for all Indigenous athletes, including herself.
“It wasn’t until after my athletics career had ended in 2003, that Granddad’s life and great sporting prowess became more of a presence in my own journey,” Freeman told NRL.com.
“As a child, I had basically no recollections except a few throw-away lines that I’d happen to hear about my Grandfather from relatives on a few occasions, but that’s it. My large extended family certainly know how to under play great matters, that is without question.
“However, learning about how truly great his rugby league talent was just makes me feel so full of pride and strength, actually. I guess in a way his legacy was intrinsic to my own story right from the start, especially in terms of my own physicality and athletic potential.
“I am incredibly proud to be a descendant of the late great Frank Fisher and knowing that he is my father’s father totally puts a bounce in my step.”
Despite the obstacles he faced, Fisher created a path to the top for the likes of Renouf, who grew up in nearby Murgon, and players from Cherbourg, including Willie and Esi Tonga, Chris Sandow and teenage Broncos sensation Selwyn Cobbo.
Earning the nickname “Big Shot”, Fisher was honoured with the naming of the Frank Big Shot Fisher Bridge on the road between Cherbourg and Murgon in 1996.
Yet because Fisher did not play in Sydney or Brisbane many are only now beginning to learn of his story and his struggles with racism.
The Frank Fisher Cup was established by the QRL in 2020 and last year a Frank Fisher Invitational XIII beat Queensland Police at Murgon.
Fisher’s contribution to the game was also recognised with his selection in the Indigenous Team of the Century, alongside the likes of Renouf, Arthur Beetson, Laurie Daley, Johnathan Thurston, Greg Inglis, Cliff Lyons, Eric Simms and John Ferguson.
“Knowing that my Grandad was picked in the Indigenous Team of the Century totally fills my heart with pride,” Freeman said.
“Seeing my Grandad recognised in this way and so long after his passing just gives me a sense of the genuine respect that NRL devotees have for him, and the significance of his contribution to the great game. I am proud to be part of his legacy.
“In a way his story is not just about sport, as it is multi-layered and has multiple themes with profound lessons for learners to embrace.”
Freeman, who is a passionate league fan, said she was proud of her grandfather’s legacy.
“I’ve no doubt that Grandad is a trailblazer, particularly to the modern era’s past players such as Steve Renouf,” she said.
“I now only see that Grandad trail-blazed for me too.
"Grandad quite possibly brought sporting Indigenous talent to a world who were only so welcoming to gaining that all important competitive edge to any victory hungry NRL team. I love it.”