AFL fans across the country will remember the David Zaharakis moment. When a 19-year-old in just his fourth game kicked himself into football immortality. A last-second goal to win the 15th AFL Anzac Day game for Essendon by four points in front of 84,829 people at the MCG.
Courtenay Dempsey, himself in just his 15th game, stood behind the flight of the ball and rode it home. A moment to behold in an outstanding career that would see the proud Cairns Indigenous product play 133 games from 2006-16.
It was part of a double bonus that came with playing under Kevin Sheedy at Essendon, who featured not just in the annual Anzac Day games against Collingwood but also the ‘Dream Time at the G’ games against Richmond.
Yet when Dempsey went to bed the night before the 2005 AFL National Draft he was expecting to go just about anywhere except Essendon. He’d spoken to all but two AFL clubs and the Bombers weren’t one of them. If he had any inkling, it might be Richmond or the Western Bulldogs.
That the football industry agreed he would definitely be drafted – and early – was special in itself. At that time only four Queensland football products had ever been drafted inside the top 30 – Max Hudghton went at #15 in 1996, Nick Riewoldt at #1 in 2000, David Hale at #7 in 2001 and Daniel Merrett at #30 in 2002. While that does not include Queensland zone selections it is an indication of how highly he was regarded by the recruiting scouts.
Born in Mt. Isa but a Cairns resident from age two, Dempsey had walked an unusual path to the front page of the AFL draft candidates. He’d been a standout rugby league junior, playing at halfback and five-eighth with a Southern Suburbs side that included future Queensland State of Origin star Nate Myles. He was a state junior representative, and played league on Saturdays and Australian rules on Sundays with the Manunda Hawks, where he’d begun as a nine-year-old.
The turning point was a scholarship in Brisbane. An offer too good to refuse. Having attended Parramatta State School and Woree State High in Cairns, he moved south to finish his education at Brisbane Boys College at Toowong, where Chris Scott and Clint Bizzell were former students. He played first with the Kenmore Bears, and later Morningside in the QAFL.
It hadn’t escaped the recruiters that he was also an outstanding schoolboy athlete, and had been awarded the prestigious Mike Fitzpatrick Scholarship. He broke the triple jump record at BBC and was a member of the school’s 4 x 400m relay team that won the GPS title.
At Morningside, where he played under the experienced John Blair, he grew from a country player to a legitimate AFL prospect, before confirming his draft credentials at the national Under 18 carnival under first-time Queensland Scorpions coach Craig McRae.
But still he was none-the-wiser ahead of the AFL draft on 24 November 2005. “The draft wasn’t as big back then as it is now and I was asleep. I didn’t know anything until I got a call from my manager (Shane Casley) telling me I was going to Essendon,” he recalled.
Two days later he was off. In his first season in Melbourne he lived with Bombers teammates Mark Johnson and Courtney Johns, and is forever grateful for the guidance of Johnson, a 2000 Essendon premiership player.
But it wasn’t quite the same Essendon side. Having finished 13th with an 8-14 record in 2005 they started the 2006 season with a Round 1 win but lost their next five. Ahead of the Round 7 clash with Carlton at the MCG he was told by assistant-coach Gary O’Donnell he would be an emergency, but to bring his gear.
He did. After the warm-up, shortly before the players ran out for the first bounce, ruckman Paddy Ryder walked up and told him he was playing. Ryder himself was a late withdrawal.
“My first reaction was ‘you’re talking rubbish’ but he wasn’t. Then Gary (O’Donnell) and ‘Sheeds’ came over and it was all happening. It was probably good that it happened so fast because I didn’t have time to get too nervous. I remember it had been raining but it stopped just before the game. The first time I stepped foot on the MCG was running out to play.”
It was 15th-placed Carlton against 14th-placed Essendon. A young forward named Josh Kennedy played his second game for the Blues as the Bombers played for the 598th time under coach Sheedy and Dempsey became the first ‘Courtenay’ in AFL history, with an ‘a’. Still the only ‘Courtenay’.
Why Courtenay? “My dad was a big fan of West Indies cricket and he loved Courtney Walsh. He just spelled it differently.”
It was nearly a dream start. Dempsey won possession outside the 50m arc and took off. He ran to within range and banged it home only to be called back for running too far. Carlton won by 33 points.
The downside to his last-minute inclusion was no family. Ryder, who had arrived at Essendon at the same time and later became one of his best mates at the club, had called Dempsey’s parents Morgan and Deslie so they could at least watch the game in Cairns on television. When he played his second game in Round 9 against Port Adelaide at Docklands they were there to watch.
It was a while before Dempsey got to sing the club song in Victoria. He lost all five games in 2006 and his only game in 2007 before breaking through for a ‘W’ in Round 1 2008, when he had 20 possessions in a 55-point triumph over North in Matthew Knights’ first game in charge. But by the end of his third year he’d played 10 games for a 1-9 record.
It all came together in 2009, and when fit he was pretty much a regular thereafter. After his first Anzac Day game in Round 5 he played his first Dreamtime game in Round 9. Another win.
In the years that followed Dempsey would play a further five times on Anzac Day against Collingwood, and a further six times in Dreamtime against Richmond. In the 13 feature games in total he played three times to crowds of 90,000-plus and a six times to 80,000-plus. He had a career-best 28 possessions in the 2013 Dreamtime game when Essendon won by 29 points under James Hird.
His 100th game came against the Western Bulldogs at Docklands in Round 18 2014, when Dustin Fletcher played his 392nd game. The Bombers won by seven points after being 10 points down early in the last quarter.
He’s also remembered for an astonishing “rainbow flick” in Round 22 2014 when, charging out of defence, he lost control of the ball backwards as he bounced it, only to freakishly tap it with his heel up over his head and into his hands – all while running at full tilt. He went past no less than eight Gold Coast opponents who were seemingly mesmerised by his freakish ‘brilliance.
In Round 4 2011, playing in a draw against Carlton at the MCG, Dempsey suffered what might just be the only ‘good’ torn ACL injury in AFL history. Good because he was in rehabilitation and spared any involvement in the subsequent drug saga which later saw 34 players suspended for two years.
Dempsey played through until the end of 2016 when he called time on his career. He was the first member of his family to go to university, studying teaching for two years, but when COVID hit and Melbourne went into what was virtually a two-year lockdown he drifted away from football.
Only temporarily. Soon after lockdown ended in early 2022 he replaced ex-Lions ace Chris Johnson in the prime job as the AFL Victoria’s Indigenous Football Pathways Manager. With a key role in the NGA academies of all 10 Melbourne-based clubs, he has three days a week at AFL House and two days a week working in the communities.
He’s hoping now to help young Indigenous players live the same dream he lived from a much more unlikely background in northern Queensland. “It’s every kid’s dream and that’s what I’m most proud of. That I could reward the confidence and support of family and friends to achieve what I was able to achieve and can now try to help others do the same thing,” he said.