Lionel Morgan

Footy, family, community: the pillars of Lionel Morgan’s life have never changed.

Lionel Morgan: The Man, The Story, The Legend.

This year marks the 150th anniversary of Anglicare Southern Queensland. To celebrate we wanted to introduce NRL legend and beloved E.M. Tooth resident, Lionel Morgan. We are honoured that Lionel has made E.M. Tooth his home and to celebrate his achievements, together with the NRL, we have made a short film to celebrate Lionel, his accomplishments and his family.

Click the play button above to watch the short film.

Written by Leanne Edmistone – printed in the QWeekend 8 August 2020.

From a trailblazing international rugby league career to working in his local community, Lionel Morgan is a living legend in Wynnum and Manly, on Brisbane’s bayside, where he and wife Laura raised four sons.

Sixty years after he became the first Aboriginal player to be selected in a national team and play for his country, Lionel’s memories are being relentlessly cruelled by dementia.

Still, there’s nothing the Indigenous Team of the Century winger likes better than reminiscing, whether on the men’s bus trips organised by Anglicare Southern Queensland’s E.M. Tooth Residential Aged Care Home, Wynnum, where he lives or with family over his favourite Eggs Benedict breakfast at Tide on the Jetty, looking out across the harbour waters he once plied for a living.

On the anniversary of his test debut at the Brisbane Exhibition Grounds and eve of Lionel’s 82nd birthday [August 12], the legacy of a player and coach widely recognised as a true gentleman of the sport is being celebrated.

Photo: Lionel Morgan

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Wynnum/Manly Seagulls Rugby League Club CEO Hanan Laban says Lionel’s drive, talent and commitment to the game continues to be a source of inspiration for local players, while Dally M medallist and former Gold Coast Titan Preston Campbell credits Lionel for inspiring him to use his profile to benefit indigenous communities.

An unashamedly biased son Earl Morgan believes his dad deserves to be immortalised in the NRL Hall of Fame for his achievements.

“Dad had a goal and he achieved it. He showed what can be done if you’ve got the right attitude, the right mindset and don’t let people tell you that you can’t do it,” says Earl, 52.

“He has achieved something no one can ever beat. There will be indigenous players forever and a day, but there will only ever be one person who is the first ever. That’s worthy of recognition.”

When 20-year-old Lionel told his mates he was leaving Tweed Heads to play in the Brisbane Premiership League for Wynnum/Manly Seagulls, they scoffed that he’d be back before too long. His retort was as fast as his sprint, as skilled as his sidestep and as accurate as his goal kick. “Nup, you’ll come and see me when I play for Australia.”

One of four boys and two girls raised by Ruby and Eric Morgan, Lionel and brothers Paddy, Mick and Maurie all played for the Tweed Heads Seagulls, after Ruby was encouraged to enrol her boys by the members amongst the police officers, bank officials and post office staff whose buildings she cleaned.

Photo: Earl Morgan, son of Lionel Morgan

The family’s life – including siblings Merle, Beverley, Eric and Stella – centred on the club, where Ruby also washed the A-Grade, Reserve Grade and C-Grade jumpers.

A NSW Schoolboy representative player, Lionel was asked to trial for the Wynnum/Manly Seagulls in 1958 – but being only 19 and yet to finish his fibrous plastering apprenticeship, his parents refused to let him go. Instead, the Bundajulung man played in the Tweed All-Blacks 1958 premiership team which beat the Murwillumbah Brothers – captain-coached by now Gold Coast Titans director, Paul Broughton OAM – to take home the Anthony Shield.

When Wynnum/Manly club stalwart Mal Irwin came knocking a second time the following year, Ruby and Eric relented and Lionel joined the Brisbane Premiership League team. He boarded with the Irwin and Cloherty families, who also secured him a job with the-then Department of Harbours & Marine where he worked for 40 years in dredging.

“They allowed him to move to Wynnum for that first season in 1959 but that six months lasted 61 years,” laughs son Earl, 52, who also played for the Seagulls, along with brothers David, 58, the late Bradley, who died aged 47 in 2011, and Christopher, 48. Lionel played 10 seasons and 106 games for the popular club.

When Lionel was named a Kangaroo in 1960, he became the first Aboriginal player selected to join a national sporting team of any football code and the first to play for his country.

Photo: Lionel Morgan and Bill McDermott

Proud mum Ruby organised 10 buses to take spectators from Tweed Heads to the Brisbane Exhibition Grounds that June to see Lionel make his international debut in the second test against France before a sell-out crowd. Lionel sidestepped three Frenchmen to score his first of two tries in the Kangaroo’s punishing 56-6 win, the greatest score in Test history at the time and the last to be played at these grounds. France won the third test in Sydney 7-5 to square the series, which began in the capital with a try-less 8-8 affair.

By September, Lionel was running onto the field at Wigan, north-west England, again facing off against the les Chanticleers, playing one match for Australia in the 1960 World Cup. This narrow 13-12 win over the French paved the way for the Kangaroos to progress to the grand final where they were defeated 10-3 by Great Britain at Bradford.

“It’s something I don’t elaborate on,” Lionel told reporters in 2010. “It’s happened many moons ago. I don’t go around with my head in the air because I’m the first, like I’m untouchable. But to play with someone like Reg Gasnier … It was a great thrill.”

“It was tough in the old days,” Lionel once said of the racism he copped on the field. At the same time he was representing Australia rugby league on the world stage, Aboriginals were not deemed Australian citizens and thus were not eligible for passports. Strings had to be pulled in Canberra for Lionel to join the World Cup Tour, seven years before the referendum which voted overwhelmingly to include Aboriginals in the national census.

Lionel has recounted two occasions where he ended up in Ipswich Hospital – once when he got tackled over the sideline and the entire Ipswich team jumped on top of him, and the second time after being punched by a spectator after scoring a try.

“The only pushback was when he’d play other club teams, that’s when supporters would rubbish him for being Aboriginal. He was called everything under the sun, but those same people cheered for him when he played for Brisbane in the Bulimba Cup, they’d cheer for him when he played for Queensland – though the worst was playing for Queensland at the Sydney Cricket Ground, kicking for goal with beer bottles and golf balls flying – and when you’re playing for Australia, all that’s forgotten. You’re everybody’s friend and everybody wants to know you when you’re there,” recalls Earl, who lives with wife Maree, 58, and children Kiah, 25, and Zane, 22, in the same street he grew up in. Christopher and his family also live in Wynnum, while David and his family live in nearby Alexandra Hills.

Photo: Lionel Morgan playing for Brisbane against Ipswich in the Bulimba Cup Competition.

“[Dad] always believed the footy field is a great equaliser, a great leveller. Your team mates rely on you. They don’t see the colour of your skin but the jersey you’re in, and if the opposition gave you a hard time, you’d tackle them extra hard, make it count and say, I’ve got plenty more where that came from.”

Named Queensland’s Best Back in 1962, Lionel scored in all 13 games he played for the state, notching 13 tries and kicking 17 goals. Playing for Brisbane in the Bulimba Cup between 1959 and 1963, Lionel scored 24 tries and 147 points in 18 games.

“Dad always said one of his greatest achievements was he got to play with his brothers Paddy and Maurie at Wynnum, at different times. Paddy had two seasons with dad in 1962 and 1963, and he had a season with Wests [Brisbane Panthers] in Brisbane in 1961 playing against Dad. Then in 1968 Maurie came up to Wynnum for a season. It was two of his biggest dreams to play with his brothers,” says Earl.

Photos of Lionel and other key players line the walkway to the change rooms at the Wynnum/Manly Seagulls Club, where Lionel is a life member and listed alongside Wally Lewis on the club’s legends team. The Wynnum/Manly Seagulls Man of the Match at the annual indigenous round is awarded the Lionel Morgan Medal.

Despite the broken bones and trips to hospital, wife Laura never “put the brakes” her husband’s career. It was Lionel’s choice to switch to coaching in 1968 when Earl was born, to spend more time with his family. As well as coaching Queensland Rugby League’s Indigenous Under-16 team, Lionel did stints with Wynnum/Manly, Stradbroke Island, Ipswich and Tweed Heads.

Photo: Lionel Morgan congratulates Wynnum Manly coach Des Morris after Wynnum Manly win their first ever Brisbane grand final in 1982.

“It’s important there’s that connection your history because it teaches the players they’re playing for something bigger than themselves. That sense of purpose is one of our values at Wynnum. Understanding the club’s history and the great players that came before them, gives [players] the understanding they have a responsibility to uphold those standards. It also gives players a bit of pride, the fact they can say Wally Lewis and Lionel played for their club,” says Laban, who started playing with the club in 2010 and served as CEO for the past five years.

“Lionel’s a shining light for young indigenous Australians in our area, someone that has achieved so much but yet retained such a humble and strong connection with his family and community.”

It’s a sentiment seconded by Preston Campbell, 43, who met Lionel in the 1990s but didn’t learn of his history in the game until much later. “I have always admired Uncle Lionel’s humility and the way he was willing to work in the background to achieve change. He has been a mentor to generations of young kids coming through the game and also to young indigenous leaders,” says Campbell, who was awarded the Ken Stephen Medal in 2008 for his own tireless work with indigenous communities.

“He has encouraged all of us to look at indigenous communities in a different light and realise the importance of the game to our peoples in making a difference.”

Earl recalls growing up seeing his dad being asked for his autograph or being greeted everywhere he went, but he says playing in the backyard, he and his brothers dreamt of being the likes of Arthur “Artie” Beetson, Graham “Wombat” Eadie or Steve Rogers.

Photo: Preston Campbell, Lionel Morgan and Earl Morgan.

“With my older brothers, mum and Dad wanted to shield them a bit from [Lionel’s fame], so they actually had them in cricket and tennis. But as it does, rugby league wins out,” laughs Earl.

Lionel’s playing career was over by the time Earl was born, so his memories are of Dad on the sidelines – be it at the boys’ rugby games, cricket matches or meets at the Wynnum/manly swim club Lionel was pivotal in establishing. He describes theirs as a typical family upbringing – two working parents, attending local schools, lots of sport and holidays visiting family at Tweed Heads and Stradbroke Island, where Laura, 79, a Quandamooka woman and teacher, grew up and first met Lionel.

Laura, 79, and Lionel will celebrate 61 years of marriage in November. She and her sons regularly visit Lionel, who still recognises his family which includes 9 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren, at Anglicare Southern Queensland’s E.M. Tooth Residential Aged Care Home, where he has lived for the past 18 months. Manager Glenda Phillips, says there’s no mistaking Lionel’s lifelong love for rugby.

“There’s memorabilia in his room, he likes watching and reading magazines associated with rugby league, and he proudly wears his collection of football shirts and jerseys. He’s very proud of his achievements in his life. Once you get him chatting, he’s happy to share his stories,” says Phillips, who says Lionel also enjoys their regular exercise classes, music at Friday’s Happy Hour and gardening.

Photo: Lionel Morgan’s four children – David, Brad, Earl and Chris

Earl visits twice a week, sitting down to watch a game or heading out for lunch or coffee along the waterfront. Lionel’s birthday will be marked with a celebration with fellow residents of the facility, as well as family outing.

“There’s a couple of things Dad always used to say, which have stuck with me and which I now say to my kids. One is ‘It doesn’t cost you anything to say hello’, which just comes from being kind and saying hello, because you never know when you might need that person’s help. The other is ‘You can’t put brains in monuments’, meaning you’ve got to listen to people and if people don’t listen, you’re not going to change them.”

Messages for a legend

Joining us in this celebration and sending in messages for Lionel are some of NRL’s greatest legends including Gorden Tallis, Mal Meninga, Ryan James, Wally Lewis, Cody Walker and Steve Renouf.

Gorden Tallis

“Living up in northern Queensland, your name was so famous, it was up in lights.”

Gorden Tallis is one of Queensland rugby league’s toughest and most inspirational products. Gorden Tallis was born in Townsville and joined the Brisbane Broncos in 1997, after a 4 year stint with St. George. He was labelled the “raging bull” because of his fearless, no-holds-barred style of forward play. He played eight seasons for the Broncos, winning three premierships. He has captained the Broncos, Queensland State of Origin, and the Australian Kangaroos side.

Mal Meninga

“… the work you used to do with all the Indigenous kids you’ve mentored over the years, you must be very happy with what you’ve done in life.”

Mal Meninga OAM is an Australian professional rugby league football coach currently in charge of the Queensland State of Origin team. His career as a player spanned over 15 seasons and he is known for his legendary goal-kicking ability. Rugby League Hall of Fame inductee Mal Meninga is best known by Australians for his formidable power, pace, handling, deadly accuracy and consistency with the boot.

Ryan James

“Being the first Indigenous player to represent Australia is no small feat.”

Growing up in Tweed Heads, northern New South Wales, Ryan James represented the NSW CHS under 15s schoolboy team in 2006. James made his NRL debut in 2010 for the Gold Coast Titans as a prop and second-row forward. He played for the Indigenous All Stars and Country Origin sides. James currently has a contract with the Titans until the end of 2020.

Wally Lewis

“… playing for Queensland and Australia, achieving something in success that very few people were lucky enough or good enough to achieve.”

Wally Lewis came to embody State of Origin football. A young lock forward in the inaugural Origin game in 1980, he made 30 appearances as five-eighth and captain between 1981 and 1991, winning eight man-of-the match awards. Lewis made his Test debut in 1981, against France, the only Queensland-based player in the side.

Cody Walker

“You’ve paved the way for a lot of young Indigenous players … I’ve heard so many stories about your talent and speed.”

Cody Walker played for the Gold Coast Titans NYC earlier in his career. Walker went on to play with the Queensland Residents in 2013, winning the Queensland Cup’s Best and Fairest award as well as topping the competition for points scored. Walker made his NRL debut in 2016 for the Rabbitohs against the Sydney Roosters, at five-eighth. He became part of the representative scene in 2019 having played for New South Wales and the Australian Prime Minister’s XIII, as well as captaining the Indigenous All Stars team.

Steve Renouf

“Such a beautiful man. A real gentleman to the game and an all-round good bloke.”



Steve Renouf is a Gunggari and Gubbi Gubbi man. He holds the record for most tries for the Broncos (142), and was named in the Broncos 10 and 20 year teams, the 25 year grand final team, and the Indigenous Team of the Century. He played 212 Broncos games, 11 Queensland State of Origin games, 9 International Australian Rugby League Tests, and was part of 4 premiership winning teams for the Broncos.

E.M. Tooth Residential Aged Care Home

Lionel lives in our Edwin Marsden Tooth Memorial Residential Aged Care Home (E.M. Tooth), near the esplanade and bay shores of Manly. Lionel and his fellow residents are supported by our qualified and caring staff, who create a community and friendships through activities and a variety of social hubs. On any given day, Lionel can be found catching sea breezes in the shaded al fresco area while meeting family and friends, or relaxing in the common lounge rooms where he loves to watch NRL games with his son, Earl.

The landscaped grounds include the heritage listed Georgian-style Lota House. Home to 101 residents, E.M. Tooth has recently been modernised and extended, creating a more family-orientated experience for residents and visitors. E.M Tooth is also home to 24 residents in the memory support unit, Wisteria Gardens. A garden, walking track and covered patio areas are all part of this peaceful setting. Montessori and other self-directed activities are encouraged so memory support residents can do the things they enjoy, such as baking or gardening.

Modern, bungalow-style, independent living units, known as Lota Court, are also nestled on the hillside of the property.

At E.M. Tooth we go to great lengths to make residents like Lionel feel at home and know their life experience and accomplishments are valued and respected.
Learn more about E.M. Tooth