Can you name the five Queenslanders who can lay claim to 300 AFL games? Nick Riewoldt played 336, Jason Akermanis 325 and Marcus Ashcroft 318. Michael Voss played 289 and by the end of the 2023 home-and-away season he’ll have coached 153. The fifth? Boundary umpire Aaron Deckys.
While he doesn’t enjoy anything like the notoriety of the four players who between them played 1268 games for 1529 goals and 431 Brownlow Medal votes, plus 83 finals, 14 grand finals and nine premierships, Deckys was a legitimate star in his chosen field.
The 42nd umpire in VFL/AFL history to 300 games, the 11th boundary umpire and the first Queensland umpire, he was a member of the QAFL Umpires Team of the Century in 2001 and in total officiated in 327 AFL games from 1998-2018, six AFL finals, 145 QAFL Seniors games and four QAFL grand finals in 1998-2002-03-05.
Convinced? You should be. But if not, consider this. While Riewoldt played 17 seasons in the AFL, Akermanis 16, Voss and Ashcroft 15, Deckys had 21 seasons at the elite level. His career games tally was fourth all-time on the boundary umpires’ list when he retired in 2018, and going on five years later he is still seventh.
It was an extraordinary career for a man all of 178cm tall who weighed 64kg at his peak and got into umpiring because it paid a teenager in 1992 more than he could earn in any other weekend job.
Born on the Gold Coast but a Sunshine Coaster from age three, Deckys grew up in a football family. His Dad was a Geelong supporter and his Mum followed Collingwood. He played as a 16-year-old at St. John’s College, Nambour, but nothing beyond that. He says of his playing days, “I could run and my skills were pretty good but I was very slight, and as soon as it came to contact, count me out. A corked thigh and I was gone.”
He was a good middle-distance and cross country runner, and followed a school friend to his first umpires’ training at Maroochydore Rugby Union Club. “They asked me ‘do you know what out on the full is’, and I had no idea. I was just along for a run,” he recalled.
“But a friend from school played cricket with some umpires and we went along. They said ‘if you can run you’ll be OK’ and after my first game – a Reserves game at Noosa in 1992 – they gave me an envelope and in it I found $22. It was more than my mates would earn at Maccas for a whole weekend,” he said.
He did his first QAFL game while still in year 12 at school in 1994, was promoted to the AFL umpires list early in 1998, and officiated in his first AFL game in Round 6 1998. It was Brisbane v Richmond on a Friday night at the Gabba.
“It was all a bit of a whirlwind,” he recalled. “I was like a deer in the headlights. It was a massive step up from QAFL football. The speed and intensity of the game was like another world and I was cooked at quarter-time. We ran three boundary umpires back then so I still had two quarters to go.”
In the coach’s box it was Brisbane’s John Northey v Richmond’s Jeff Gieshen, who ironically would take over as umpires’ coach the following year. Ashcroft played his 181st game, Voss his 102nd and Akermanis his fifth as the Lions won by 35 points. Riewoldt was a 15-year-old at school on the Gold Coast who was still three years and 10 weeks from his first AFL game.
Yet when Deckys started his final season in the AFL in 2018 Ashcroft had been retired 14 years, Voss 11 years and Akermanis seven years. Even Riewoldt was six months out of the game.
The now 46-year-old Sunshine Coast school teacher did his first final in 2001 – Hawthorn v Sydney at Marvel Stadium. It was his first game at a venue other than the Gabba. “The roof was closed and I remember walking out thinking it was so impressive, like a giant basketball stadium.”
His second AFL final in 2006 was Collingwood (5th) v Western Bulldogs (8th) in front of 84,284 on a Sunday afternoon at the MCG. A hostile Collingwood crowd delighted when the Pies led by 21 points early but were decidedly quiet when they were out-scored 1-7 to 10-8 through the second and third quarters and lost by 41 points. Subsequent finals at the MCG, Sydney Olympic Stadium and Docklands were special too.
Likewise, the Round 22 game at Marvel Stadium in 2008 between Hawthorn and Carlton, when Lance Franklin kicked four goals, including his 100th goal for the season, and Brendan Fevola kicked seven only to be left stranded on 99. “I felt sorry for ‘Fev’ – the Hawks triple-teamed him late in the last to shut him down. No sense of nostalgia – imagine two players kicking their 100th in the same game,” he said.
Deckys’ 300th game was back where it all began at the Gabba. Brisbane v Port Adelaide, Saturday 29 April 2017. It was Chris Fagan’s sixth game at the Lions helm and the fourth game for Hugh McCluggage and Jarrod Berry as the Power won by 83 points.
The build-up was no different to that of a player. A flurry of messages, emails and phone calls from across the country. On the Thursday night prior the Queensland umpiring group made a special presentation and put on a BBQ after training. They do it so well do the team in white (or whatever colour is prescribed). He treated himself to Friday night in Brisbane to spare the 90-minute Saturday drive.
Umpiring with good friends Ben Ryan and Chris Kamolins, who had done extended stints based in Queensland, he walked out to a crowd that included a large group of family and friends, and walked off to be greeted by wife Sarah, twin boys Zane and Levi, now going on 15, and daughter Kyah, soon to be 13.
By the end of 2018, it was time to hang up the whistle and devote himself to the family, who live at Buderim, 5 kilometres inland from Mooloolaba and to his ‘day job’ as head of Health and Physical Education at Siena Catholic College, Sippy Downs, former school of young Lions player Carter Michael.
It was a physically demanding caper umpiring, especially in the days when one boundary umpire would patrol one side of the ground for a full quarter, and three quarters overall. Not like the modern game in which there are two boundary umpires on each side. Needing to keep his 5km time-trial under 18 minutes, he would run 17km in a taxing game and average 70km a week in training.
Off-field pressure was tough, too, with his performance scrutinised as closely as any AFL player. Not only did umpires go through the vision and review games in full, but their positioning, throw-ins and other technical aspects were monitored, scored out of 100 and rated first to last across the group. The ability to weather the constant scrutiny was the key to his longevity, he says.
Other keys to success? A strong work ethic, reliability, and speed and agility. “The game has become so much quicker over time and particularly now with the four boundary umpire system, speed is absolutely essential,” he said.
Inducted into the Sunshine Coast AFL Hall of Fame in 2010 and a Life Member of the AFLUA and AFLQUA, Deckys will be forever grateful to wife Sarah, and in later years his children. “She was so supportive despite the length of time l was away for training and games,” he said, estimating he’d driven more than 300,000 km from the coast to Brisbane for training and match days.
The other big influence, he said, was ex-state umpiring coach Grant Kent. “He had a lot to do with moulding me into the person I was. Over the 12 to 13 years he coached the squad in Queensland, he put a huge amount of time into developing the group on and off the field. He was big on developing us not only as umpires, but also as people.”
Superstitions? No. Pre-game rituals? A few. Like pasta the night before games, packing his match day bag the night before and sleeping with it (not literally) in his room, and a pre-game psych up/visualisation in the shower. He would always have an hour’s sleep before a game. “I found it settled me down. From a sports psych perspective, my optimal arousal level for umpiring was extremely low. If I was yawning before the game l knew I’d do well.”
Overall reflections? “The friendships I made right across the country are so special. If I go to Melbourne, Adelaide or Perth or wherever I’ve always got good mates. That’s the big thing – the great people I was involved with for so long,” he said.
The Hall of Fame? “It’s terrific to be recognised and I’m really humbled to be included with so many superstars of the game – even if do feel like the odd one out – but it’s not necessary because I loved what I did so much.”