A number of modern sports are credited to a particular 19th-century founder. The inventive work of some of these figures, like basketball’s James Naismith, American football’s Walter Camp, and judo’s Jigoro Kano, is firmly planted in history. But there are others, such as Abner Doubleday and William Webb Ellis, who are certainly historical figures but whose moments of sporting genius are wrapped in legend. And then there is Tom Wills, the man now credited as the primary inventor of Australian rules football. There are statues in Wills’ honor, commemorating his work as a drafter of rules, a player, and an umpire in the mid-19th century. But as Greg de Moore discovered when he set out to learn about this distinctly Australian sport, the circumstances of Tom Wills’ life have been largely unknown.
To start, Greg learned that Wills had taken his own life, in a horrific manner, by plunging a scissors into his chest. As an academic psychiatrist with a research interest in suicide, he set off to investigate what drove Wills to this act. Starting at its troubled end, Greg went on to research the whole of Wills’ life, producing the first serious biography of this important figure in the history of Australian popular culture: Tom Wills: First Wild Man of Australian Sport (Allen & Unwin, 2011)
The subtitle of Greg’s book is appropriate. Tom Wills was a 19th-century example of the prodigiously gifted, narcissistic, and ultimately self-destructive male athlete. Like Mickey Mantle or George Best, Wills could not maintain a relationship, manage his fortune, or hold a job after he left the field. Nor could he handle his drink. Although his end was shocking and unusual, the downward spiral is familiar to those who follow sports, in any country. At the same time, while this is a story common to all sporting cultures, Tom Wills’ life opens a window to the history of colonial Australia. His life intersected with episodes of violence between white settlers and Aborigines, as well as moments of reconciliation. He took great pride in his English education, yet his father was committed to the idea that Australia distinguish itself as a separate nation. As Greg explains at the start of our interview, the first spark of this project had come when he was living in New York City and wanted to learn what was distinct about his homeland. Certainly, Tom Wills is a representative figure of Australian history. But he also should be viewed as a compelling character of modern sport.