Of all places, Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti was on the footy field when he realised he’d found the mum and the family he’d been craving for years. It was a simple gesture, a fleeting and innocuous moment of kindness on the sidelines of a footy match in Darwin, that struck the then 15-year-old promising footballer with lightning-bolt force. It gave him a feeling of love he’d never known and the sense that, at last, he wasn’t alone.
“My coach sent me off because I’d forgotten to bring socks. He was pretty angry with me. He told me I was a grown man and should be taking responsibility for myself,” Anthony explains.
His chaperones, Jane McDonald and her daughter Nikki, house parents at Tiwi College on nearby Melville Island where Anthony went to school, watched the exchange from the sidelines. Without hesitation, Jane asked Nikki to peel off her socks and give them to Anthony so he could play.
“In that moment, I knew Mum [Jane] really cared for me, she was there for me. No one had ever done anything like that for me. We’d built a really strong connection [at Tiwi College] but I knew then that I could trust her, that she was looking after me.”
Those few seconds of treasured kindness tell us so much about the heartbreaking and at times harrowing story of how Anthony McDonald- Tipungwuti beat the odds and became one of the AFL’s most loved players. And how he came to call Jane McDonald, the woman who got him there, ‘Mum’.
“She welcomed me into the family and treated me like I was one of her kids. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for her,” he says. “I struggled not having a mother [before] she came into my life – it’s the best thing that has happened to me.
“She gave me a second chance to make something of my life. There’s not too many people who understand how much she sacrificed to give me an opportunity. She’s been the one person who has been constant in my life.”
Jane McDonald had no idea what to expect when her plane bounced along the dusty bitumen airstrip at Pickataramoor on Melville Island in September 2009. The far northern tip of the Tiwi Islands was a long way from the teacher’s aide and sports coach’s home in the rolling green hills of Gippsland in Victoria, but that’s exactly the change of environment she craved to start shedding the grief weighing heavy on her bones following the death of her beloved husband, Jim, six years earlier.
She’d raised four kids alone after Jim died and thought a few weeks helping her youngest daughter, Nikki, settle into a role at Tiwi College, taking in the dry season heat, was just the tonic to clear her head and begin to heal her heart. On the hop-skip flight from Darwin to the Tiwi Islands, Jane characteristically made new friends, and before she stepped onto the tarmac, she’d been invited to help around the new school, which catered to Indigenous kids from the neighbouring communities of Melville and Bathurst Islands.
Tiwi College is no ordinary school – the kids are picked up on Monday morning and board throughout the week, with many coming from disadvantaged communities. At the time, Tiwi College felt like Anthony Tipungwuti’s last chance at life.
For years, Anthony had silently worn emotional scars. His father had died when he was eight months old and his biological mother was absent from his life. His beloved grandma had stepped in to take care of him, but she’d died when Anthony was 10, and he’d been sent to live with aunties and other extended family members, but he hadn’t settled. The youngster often wandered the streets of Melville Island and was a regular truant from school.
“Living in the community was hard,” he tells The Weekly. “It wasn’t a great environment for a young person to try to live in. I was basically doing whatever I wanted because I really had no one to look after me. My life wasn’t going well and I wasn’t happy. I wanted something better in my life, and Tiwi College gave me a chance. It wasn’t so much the focus on education at first – it was more that I knew there’d be food, somewhere to sleep and clean clothes.”
Among Jane McDonald’s first jobs at Tiwi College was the task of cleaning the school in preparation for a visit from then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who was coming to officially open its doors.“The school is surrounded by red dirt. Everywhere you look, it’s just red dirt and more red dirt, so we had to literally scrub the place from top to bottom,” Jane says. “The PM’s visit never eventuated, but the school was clean!” When the cleaning was done, she was invited to join the school’s footy training sessions. Jane had coached sports teams at home, both in the Gippsland community and at Chairo Christian School where she worked. She was struck by how much the Tiwi kids loved sport. She’d found her groove.
“I’d work with the kids, then go back to my donga,” she remembers. “Sometimes I’d just wander around the island or sit beside the water and take it all in. Nikki said she hadn’t seen me smile like that for a long time.” Something about the islands had warmed Jane’s heart, so after a brief trip home, she returned to Tiwi for an extended stay, immersing herself in the school community, teaching sport and nutrition, and helping train and chaperone the footy team.
One of her young charges stood out. “It wasn’t football that made Anthony stand out. What struck me was that he was trying to be the best he could be at everything he did. He didn’t speak a great deal of English, and struggled to read and write, but in the classroom he was always trying really hard,” Jane says.
The house parents regularly chaperoned the boys to Darwin to play footy, and along the way they built strong friendships with the youngsters, who appreciated Jane’s no-nonsense rules. “I treated them exactly as I treated my own kids,” she says. “There were rules to follow and if they didn’t follow them, I’d tell them off!’
As Christmas approached and Jane and Nikki prepared to return to Gippsland, Anthony and his friend, CK, asked if they could come too, arguing that they wanted to experience life away from the Tiwi Islands.
“I didn’t have a lot of money,” Jane explains. “I rang my kids and asked them if it was okay for the boys to come, and they were all for it. The family agreed that the money we’d have spent on presents would go towards paying their airfares.” Jane’s eldest son, Michael, says they didn’t hesitate. “Our doors are always open to anyone who wants to join us – that’s how Mum and Dad raised us. If you have an empty seat at the table, fill it. If you have a bed that’s empty, offer it to someone to sleep in.”
Jane spoke to the school, which agreed it would be a good experience, but then she had to find Anthony’s guardian. “I asked one of Anthony’s cousins, ‘who looks after Anthony?’ He said, ‘Anthony is in charge of himself’. He was expected to be an adult, but he was just a kid. It was heartbreaking.
The lush, green hills of Gippsland, in Victoria’s south-east, are a long way from the red earth and turquoise water of the Tiwi Islands, and in those few days, the McDonald family opened their hearts and their home to the boys. Jane bundled them into the car one afternoon and took them for a drive around the area to show them where the family had grown up. They passed Chairo School, where she and Michael worked and where the McDonald kids had all been educated. While CK wasn’t too fussed, Anthony saw his future.
I said to Mum, ‘I’m going to come down to this school,’” he remembers. “And she kind of gave me a funny look and laughed but I was deadly serious. I was all in. I knew if I wanted something better in my life, then education was the way to get that opportunity.”
“He basically came to visit and stayed,” Michael laughs. “He fitted into our family seamlessly. Therewas a very easy, natural connection. He became one of us immediatelyAs soon as he saw the school, he badgered Mum to go there. When they returned to Tiwi after Christmas, that was all he spoke about.”
“That’s true,” Anthony says. “When we got back to Tiwi, I kept saying to her, ‘Have you rung the school yet? When can I come?’”
Just weeks later, at the start of term, Anthony was sitting in his new class at Chairo, wearing the school’s blue uniform.“The one thing Mum said to me on the very first day I started school was, ‘Just go and enjoy being a kid, make some friends and have fun,’ and that really struck me,” he tells The Weekly. “I’d never thought much about being a kid. You grow up very fast on Tiwi Island.
“This was the best thing I’ve ever done. It was hard at first. I didn’t speak very good English and it was really difficult to try to be in a conversation with anyone. I got very tired, getting up early every day to go to school, doing homework, packing lunches. It was difficult for me, but I wanted something better with my life, and I wanted to see what I could achieve.”
Eighteen months after moving to Gippsland with the McDonalds, Anthony gave Jane a special present for her 50th birthday: A pink bag emblazoned with the words, ‘Happy Birthday Mum’. It was a touching gesture which recognised her role in his life. He asked Jane if he could be formally adopted by the McDonald family, but as he’d turned 18 he was considered an adult and adoption wasn’t viable. Instead, he asked the family if he could take their name, officially becoming Anthony WatsonMcDonald-Tipungwuti.
“It was an important step in my life because it helped cement that I had a family who loved and supported me unconditionally. It was my way of honouring them and thanking them for what they’d done,” Anthony says.“The love and support that I got from them all was something I’d never experienced. Mum supported me with my schooling and football. She was tough with me. She taught me that nothing comes easy if you don’t work at it – you can’t sit around waiting for an opportunity to drop in your lap.”
It had been clear, back in the Tiwi Islands, that Anthony was talented on the sporting field. Now he joined a netball team that Jane coached, and he was invited by the AFL-affiliated Gippsland Power under-18s team to train with them after school. He excelled at both.
In 2015, Anthony’s dream came true when he was drafted to Essendon, which meant driving two hours to training every day. With the family’s blessing again, Jane sold the home she’d built with Jim and their kids, and moved to the other side of Melbourne. “When we were young, she gave us everything,” Nikki says. “We had all of her time and attention because that’s her nature – she gives her children her all. We’d all grown up and left home, so we totally supported her giving that same love and care to Anthony. To all of us, he’s just another brother and she’s treated him the same as she treated all of us.”
When Anthony was chosen to play his first AFL game in 2016, the whole family flew to the Gold Coast to cheer him on. It was the beginning of an extraordinary career, in which the Bomber has achieved cult status. ‘Tippa’ or ‘Walla’, as he is known, is so loved by fans that, in 2019, punk band Picket Palace even released a song paying tribute to him. The following season, he was the Bombers’ leading goal kicker, but by 2022 he was feeling burnt out and retired.
Thankfully for fans, he made a triumphant return to the field this year, the roar of the crowd almost lifting the roof in his first game.“I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Mum,” he says, just days after that game. “Not too many people understand how much she has sacrificed to give me an opportunity in life. She put her life aside to help me achieve my goals and dreams, and I’m very grateful for that.”
“Anthony was looking for a mum and he found her,” Michael adds. “People have said she’s a special mum for what she’s done over the last 10 years. But no, she’s always been a special mum.”