2023 Queensland Football Hall of Fame – Derek Humphery-Smith

Derek Humphery-Smith was an accidental umpire who reached the elite level in extra quick time before an unceremonious and even cruel exit which underlines the brutality of the environment that confronts the game’s on-field officials.

He endured it all, and went on to become an unofficial voice for the men and women in white, a prominent and often out-spoken media commentator and a world-acclaimed legal figure. Outwardly, he seems unscared, but on reflection he says ‘not entirely’. It’s a story that should not be under-sold.

Brisbane-born and bred, Humphery-Smith grew up at Wynnum. He went to Wynnum West State School and Churchie, and travelled across town to play football at Mayne, where his father Pat was treasurer for more than 20 years and a driving force in the development of their Windsor Park headquarters.

A Tigers clubmate of Jason Akermanis, he had football in his blood, with brother Ian a senior regular and state squad member with Western Districts. But a broken leg suffered playing post-school at the University of Queensland sent his career down a different path.

It all swung on a phone call from 211-game AFL umpire Neville Nash after Nash moved to Queensland to take charge of the local umpires. Believing ex-players would make good umpires, he called Humphery-Smith and suggested he’d be a good convert.

“I was going to be out of any contact sport for 12 months so I figured ‘why not?’. Neville laid out a pathway to the AFL, I thought ‘this is pretty exciting’.  I was never going to be good enough to play at AFL level and the opportunity to perhaps umpire at AFL level seemed a good idea,” he recounted.

In only his third season of umpiring in 1994 he went away with the Queensland Teal Cup Under-17 side to Perth. And in 1996 he became Queensland’s third AFL umpire behind Murray Bird and Craig Durham.

It was Round 17 – Footscray v Collingwood on a Sunday afternoon at the MCG. Terry Wallace was in charge of his fifth game with the Bulldogs against Tony Shaw in his 17th game at the Magpie helm. The boy from Brisbane was partnered with Peter Carey in his 245th game and John Harvey in his 60th.

A crowd of 28,876 saw Collingwood kick 8-3 to 1-1 in the first quarter and, as the fog came down over the Great Southern Stand, hung on to win by six points. Steven Pitt, in game #8 of an 18-game career with the Pies and Melbourne, kicked a career-best four goals. The Dogs’ Chris Grant took three Brownlow Medal votes in a losing side and the Pies’ Robbie Ah Mat (14 possessions and two goals) and Nathan Buckley (32 possessions and three goals) picked up the minor votes.

Unknown to Humphery-Smith at the time, it was a game that later was the centre piece of ‘The Year of the Dogs’, a club documentary that tracked the turbulent year of the club in which Wallace replaced sacked coach Alan Joyce.

With the Dogs under mounting financial pressure and urged to consider amalgamation, Wallace famously ‘sprayed’ his players post-match, threatening to ‘spew up’ if he saw anyone get a pat on the back or be told ‘it was a good effort’ after a narrow loss. A voice-grab played time and again nearly 30 years later.

Humphery-Smith, who had completed a science degree, an honours degree in neuroanatomy and a law degree at the University of Queensland, was convinced by new AFL umpires’ boss Peter Schwab to move to Melbourne. He did so in March 1998 and has never returned.

Humphery-Smith umpired 83 AFL games from 1996-2003 – 3-9-15-14-19-5-15-3 year-by-year. His only final was 2000 qualifying final between Carlton and Melbourne at the MCG, when the Blues led by 21 points at three-quarter time before the Dees won by nine on the back of a stunning final term from 18th-gamer Brad Green. It was David Parkin’s 516th and third-last game as a coach and Neale Daniher’s 70th.

But it all came undone for Humphery-Smith in Round 5 2003 when, in his 82nd game, he was the senior official with Kieron Nichollls (66th game) and Shaun Ryan (4th game) as Richmond played Hawthorn at the MCG. In the coach’s box it was Danny Frawley against, oddly enough, Peter Schwab, former Hawthorn champion player in his 75th game in charge of the Hawks.

The man at the centre of it all remembers it vividly. A story he has told on himself while disguising the angst any human might be expected to feel under similar circumstances.

“I’d got one bounce in 14 straight. I had lost it. They were everywhere. Just like a golfer with the putting yips, I lost it. At three-quarter time I said to Wayne Campbell (Richmond captain) ‘I might just throw it up’. He was quite supportive of the idea from the smile he gave me but 55,000 fans not quite so much. They would go into a slow hand-clap every time I walked in to bounce it,” he said.

Humphery- Smith had always ranked highly in decision-making accuracy, but suddenly he had lost the ability to execute a fundamental skill of umpiring. He described the episode which dismantled his confidence and saw him spend the next eight weeks umpiring in the reserves as ‘character-building’.

He was awarded the ‘Tool of the Week’ on Channel 10 and was interviewed by Gerard Healy and David Hookes on 3AW’s “Sports Today” to explain his dilemma. The Herald Sun wrote about it, and in his first game in the reserves the following week he got the slow handclap treatment again. Bravely, he took it all on the chin in good spirits.

But he was determined not to let one bad day define his entire career. He worked tirelessly on his bouncing at training and in the reserves, and on the day after he was made an equity partner with national law firm Landers & Rogers he umpired his 83rd and last AFL game.

It was Sunday 29 June 2003. Round 13, West Coast v North Melbourne at Subiaco in Perth. He was paired with Scott McLaren (188 games) and Mathew Nicholls (9 games) as the Eagles won by seven points after a last-minute goal from Ashley Sampi. Again, a vivid memory. “It poured with rain and we threw it up all day, and I retired the next week,” he said laughing, having been spared the need to test his bouncing capabilities one last time. “Spider Burton, the North Melbourne ruckman, kept asking me all day if I could at least throw it up straight – even they were a bit wonky.”

The notoriety he’d gained for all the wrong reasons suddenly became a plus. Conceding “if you’re not prepared to laugh at yourself you’re going to live a long and lonely life’, he did special comments on 3AW that year with the great Rex Hunt, and was a Thursday night regular on ‘Sports Today’.

The following year he joined Fox Footy’s ‘White Line Fever’ and the ABC in a special comments role, before moving to SEN with Dermott Brereton and Anthony Hudson. And for 17 years he continued to do a weekly 30-minute Tuesday night spot with SEN talking all things umpiring and tribunal.

“It was a show that could only survive in Melbourne but I really enjoyed it. I came at things from a different angle. I didn’t try to defend the indefensible but I did create some conflict with the AFL at times. We had a lot of fun. It opened doors for me in a business sense and allowed me to stay involved with the game,” he recalled.

Through it all he worked his way up the ladder with Landers & Rogers, one of Australia’s leading law firms. They were “a good football firm” under ‘Chick’ Landers, the long-time honorary solicitor for Hawthorn and the man who wrote their club song.

Humphery-Smith, who leads the Landers & Rogers international practice, driving their strategy to be the independent Australian firm of choice for key overseas markets, has acted in a legal sense for a lot of AFL clubs and the AFL. In November 2022 he won the plumb role as the next Chairman of TerraLex, representing more than 22,500 lawyers globally and has been the world’s leading independent network of lawyers for more than 30 years. It’s a role he should fill for the next four years.

Now 53, he is married to Kythe and has three children – Emma (17), Issy (15) and James (14). And to break the stress and strain of the legal world he has gone back to his roots – junior football. For the last seven years he has coached his son’s team, who in 2023 are the Prahran Under 14A’s.

And he has a very special assistant-coach – James Hird. It is a relationship born when their children went to primary school together, and has allowed the Brownlow Medallist and ex-Essendon coach to return to football even if only at junior level. “He’s going OK,” says Humphery-Smith with the broadest of grins. “I have allowed him to leave the magnets now – he’s talking to the boys and they just love him.”

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