New perspective on Wills
Tom Wills: His Spectacular Rise and Tragic Fall by Greg de Moore.
A superb new book on one of Australia's foremost sporting figures...
ROUND 19 of the 2008 AFL season was called the Tom Wills Round. We could have seen that as an official recognition of the part played by Wills in the birth of Australian Rules football. He wasn’t completely unknown of course. There’s a statue of him outside the MCG and there was Martin Flanagan’s fictionalised look at the sportsman’s life The Call that also made it onto the stage.
Wills is also known as a cricketer and for his relationships with Aboriginal people.
Greg de Moore, author of the recently released Tom Wills: His Spectacular Rise and Tragic Fall, believes the role of Wills in the history of the game has not been underestimated or ignored. Instead de Moore writes: “...it took time for an historical perspective to develop.”
When I interviewed Flanagan upon the release of The Call in 1999 the author surprised me with a question. Did I feel I now knew Wills? I suggested Wills was like his batting – unstylish, pragmatic, single minded and effective. It was true enough but it turns out I didn’t know Wills that well at all.
The book by de Moore has changed that.
The author, who combines his work as a consultant psychiatrist with forays into sport history, made some exciting research discoveries on the way to producing this work that began life as a PHD project. These included letters written by Wills that had sat in the old outhouse at a Central Queensland property for 150 years and even school books Wills had used at Rugby in England.
Wills was sport-mad from an early age. He kept records of his performances and wrote letters to newspapers to explain himself and comment on the state of play. He was also, de Moore writes: “... the finest cricketer and footballer of the age.”
Wills was determined to make his living from playing sport and sometimes shameless in his attempts to make money. He was also a chucker – even admitting it.
It’s hard not to think of Gary Ablett snr and Ben Cousins when reading of Wills. They gained fame and fortune from the game Wills helped to invent and were allowed to get away with questionable behaviour because of their talents. The consequences for Ablett and Cousins were dire, for Wills it ended with a horrible suicide in 1880 when he was just 44.
To lump Wills with the rather shallow characters of Ablett and Cousins would be grossly unfair as his legacy extends beyond the playing fields but the similarities are there.
This book reads like a rollicking tragic adventure and gives insights beyond Wills. For example the manner in which a tour of Australia by a group of English cricketers led by WG Grace is conducted makes for extraordinary reading.
The story of Tom Wills has been well and truly been told... watch out for the blockbuster movie some time in the future.
Tom Wills: His Spectacular Rise and Tragic Fall by Greg de Moore is published by Allen & Unwin.