Born in remote Borroloola in the Gulf of Carpentaria in the Northern Territory, John was taken from his mother at the age of four and placed in a number of boys' homes in Sydney and Adelaide, under the then government's assimilation policy. Children who were removed like John became known as the Stolen Generations.
At 15 years of age, John was reunited with his mother in Alice Springs and was reconnected with his birthplace of Borroloola and his family. John is a full member of the Yanyuwa people of Borroloola, his skin name is Bulenyi, his cultural name is Kundereri, and he belongs ceremonially to the Rainbow Snake and Kangaroo Dreamings.
John has had a lifelong commitment to advocacy for Aboriginal equality, reconciliation and cultural engagement. He was an active campaigner in the 1967 Referendum for Aboriginal people to become citizens of Australia, and formerly held executive positions in Federal and State Departments of Aboriginal Affairs. He is the recipient of the Order of Australia (AM), the St Peters Citizenship Award and the Advance Australia Award for Service to Industry and Commerce. John's autobiography, Saltwater Fella, (Penguin 2000) was Highly Commended in the Australian Human Rights Commission Literary Awards.
John's Board appointments have included Chair of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts Board of the Australia Council and Deputy Chair of Indigenous Business Australia (IBA).
John is an inductee of the halls of fame of the Australian Institute of Design, the Australian Graphic Design Association and Football Australia. He is a Churchill Fellow, a Convocation Medalist of the University of South Australia, and an Honorary Doctor of both the University of South Australia and Flinders University, SA. In 2018 John was named by Charles Darwin University as a Companion of the University. In 2021 John was the recipient of a UNESCO Achievement Award.
St Francis House, Adelaide, where John lived between the ages of 11 and 16 was next to a football (soccer) ground. It was there that John discovered the sport which would shape his future. John’s exceptional talent, skill and speed resulted in him being the first Aboriginal football player to be selected to represent Australia.
John has long held a vision to see a higher number of Aboriginal players follow in his footsteps. Equally he hopes football will be a game changer for young Indigenous players everywhere to have a quality education and lead healthier lives, as it was for him.