Legends of yesterday: Jason McCartney was driven to succeed and overcome

WHEN Jason McCartney played his first game of senior football for Nhill he could have stayed on the ground at half-time to play with the under-14s instead of joining the rest of the team back in the changerooms.

“I’ll never forget my first game,” he said. 

“It was Nhill versus Jeparit at Jeparit and I was sharing the ruck duties with Steve Graham while swapping out of the forward pocket.

“It was a real baptism of fire because Jeparit’s ruckman was big Glen Petrie who was a fearsome figure.”

From an early age it had always been cricket during summer and football during winter for McCartney.

He could hardly wait to play in his first team and by the age of 11 he asked his parents Ian and Jan to register him at the Nhill Tigers in order to play under-16 football.

“It was different in those days because there was no Auskick or any of those programs” he said.

“By the age of 12 or 13 I really started to develop that aspiration to play AFL footy and through some of the Wimmera regional trials I thought I was a fair chance.”

Graham and Bryan Coughlan, who had both played in Nhill 1981 premiership, were McCartney’s physical education teachers at high school and took him under their wings.

“From the age of about 13 I would get them to write me up off-season training programs,” he said.

From the age of about 13 I would get them to write me up off-season training programs. I wanted to try to replicate what AFL players were doing from November.

“I wanted to try to replicate what AFL players were doing from November.”

He said he was heavily influenced by the success other Wimmera footballers who had made it to the top level.

He idolised Dimboola’s Merv Neagle and Tim Watson while Nhill’s own Essendon-exports, Dean Wallis and David Flood, were players that showed him he could make it as well. 

Further down the road there was also Kaniva’s Roger Merrett and Glenn Hawker along with Horsham’s Shane Heard.

“When you see all those guys from the same area or town you realise that it can be achieved,” he said.

“I remember talking to Dean Wallis and David Flood a lot in order to pick their brains about how they train.

“There were many times when I talked to Dean about weights programs – I was always very eager.”

Road to the AFL

The route McCartney took to eventually being drafted as a 16-year-old by Collingwood following the 1990 season involved a lot of travelling.

He was part of the Wimmera schoolboys side as a bottom-age player but missed the championships with the chicken pox. 

“A month after the championships I got a letter to tryout for the Vic Country side in Bendigo,” he said.

“I went along with no expectations but just kept progressing and ended making the Victorian schoolboys under-15 side as a bottom-age player in 1988.”

A strong carnival in Tasmania saw him earn All Australian honours and with another year of schoolboys and Teal Cup football under his belt he had become a player every club was eager to pick up.

I think it was Peter Daicos who gave me the nickname ‘Bomber’ straight away because there’d be some articles with photos of my bedroom which was a shrine to the Bombers.

In the end he fell to Collingwood and he said it was a strange feeling to be recruited by the club.

“They were one of the only clubs I hadn’t talked to,” he said.

“On top of that my bedroom walls were covered in Essendon posters and Collingwood had just beaten them in the grand final to win their first premiership in 32 years.

“I think it was Peter Daicos who gave me the nickname ‘Bomber’ straight away because there’d be some articles with photos of my bedroom which was a shrine to the Bombers.”

He made his debut in round 10 of 1991 and played 38 games for the club over a four-season period.

“It was a steep learning curve for a 16 year-old at the country to come into a side that had just won a premiership,” he said.

“I often wonder how the draft age was ever 16 – it really was quite remarkable. My time at Collingwood opened my eyes to so many things.”

I often wonder how the draft age was ever 16 – it really was quite remarkable. My time at Collingwood opened my eyes to so many things.

Following the 1994 AFL season McCartney moved to play for the Adelaide Crows where he saw the potential for increased opportunities.

He played consistent football in 1995 and 1996 but the team struggled under the guidance of Robert Shaw.

The following season saw him play just a handful of games in a strong team that went on to win the premiership with Malcolm Blight at the helm.

“The side really turned it on that season,” he said.

“Although I wasn’t playing it was something special to be at a club when it wins its first premiership.”

Following the season he started to consider a career outside of football.

“I thought I was done and dusted – I’d played 75 games in seven years and I was preparing for a life outside the AFL environment,” he said.

“I expected that I would stay in Adelaide and play in the SANFL.

“I didn’t know Dennis Pagan at the time but he’d certainly been watching on with interest.”

Pagan needed to fill a hole the Kangaroos had at centre-half back and was persistent in his pursuit of McCartney.

“I don’t know why but initially I said no.He came back at me a second time and convinced me,” he said. “I’m forever grateful for that opportunity – that one-year contract turned into seven years at the club.”

The Kangaroos made it to the grand final against Adelaide in his first season at the club and McCartney said it was bitterly disappointing to lose.

“That was really hard and still eats away at me a little,” he said.

“We were by far and away the best side in 1998 and were in red hot form but we were overrun in the second half.

It was almost like Adelaide had their turn the previous year and this was supposed to be ours.”

There was more disappointment to come in 1999 when McCartney missed his side’s premiership win after being suspended following an incident in the preliminary final.

“It was clumsy attempt to spoil which led to me missing out,” he said.

“When I was reported on Friday night the enormity hadn’t sunk in because we weren’t the best side that year –  Essendon was.

“I will never forget the feeling at 4.45pm the next day when Carlton beat Essendon, because that was when I realised I would miss out on a premiership as well as a grand final.

“What Carlton had done to beat Essendon was special but there was no way we were going to let them get up the next week.”

He continued to thrive on the field for the Kangaroos and notched his 100th game for the club during the 2002 season before things were abruptly put into perspective during an off-season trip to Bali.

Fighting back to play one more game

On October 12 he was drinking with teammate Mick Martyn at Paddy’s Bar when explosions ripped through the nearby Sari club.

He then had to fight for his life having suffered severe second-degree burns to over 50 percent of his body.

“I was pretty lucky really because even though I was virtually fighting for my life I received great care and great support,” he said.

“You learn so much about yourself and others when you go through something like that.

“I also have no doubt that that the experience of being in an elite environment and having already dealt with my own personal setbacks held me in as good a stead as possible in what was a confronting period of my life.”

His immediate goal which drove his recovery forward was his impending marriage to Nerissa just over two months later.

Once he knew he was on track to make it to his own wedding he set his mind towards returning to work on the football field.

Jan McCarntey before travelling to Meblourne to watch her son's comeback game against Richmond in 2003.

Jan McCarntey before travelling to Meblourne to watch her son's comeback game against Richmond in 2003.

“At the the time it was never just about one game – I wanted to continue my career but I had no understanding about the extent of the injuries I’d sustained,” he said.

He returned to football in round 11 of the 2003 season, where he kicked his side's first goal of final quarter to help win. He then retired.

“I made the decision about a month before the game because there were other opportunities and still some health concerns,” he said.

“I was still frustrated I couldn’t get back sooner – as any athlete is –  but once I knew I was getting a game the hard thing was telling the people at the club that win, lose or draw I would be retiring.”

In six seasons at the Kangaroos he had played 107 games to take his career tally to 182.

Thriving in an off-field footy environment

AFTER playing his last game for the Kangaroos in 2003, Jason McCartney did not stray far from the football world.

“When I finished up, I did work with Channel Nine as well as a fair bit of public speaking and a few other things as well,” he said. 

“One of the great opportunities I had was working at the AFL with some of the talent programs.”

His role took him across the country where he presented to more than 75,000 students across five years.

“Those sessions were largely about goal-setting, resilience and metal toughness,” he said.

“That really led into the opportunity to work with the AFL academy program at the AIS.”

He said juggling a number of different things at that stage allowed him to hone in on his biggest passion. 

“I realised quickly that that was what I was doing with the AFL,” he said. 

“I thought it would lead to coaching but it opened my eyes to many different areas of the industry.

“The list manager role was growing then.”

After various coaching roles, McCartney took a position as the Western Bulldogs’ list manager where he played an important role in building towards the club’s 2016 premiership.

“We undertook a fair bit of work to reshape and redirect that list,” he said. 

“To be able to play a significant part in winning a premiership was unbelievable.”

He took a position as the GWS Giants list manager in November 2017 and has now embraced his new challenge.

“The Giants are a great club to be working with because we are new and we aren’t governed by 150 years of history,” he said. “It’s also a different and unique environment to be competing in.”

After all he has seen and done, the Wimmera still holds a special place in McCartney’s mind.

“Over time, things change a lot and it’s pretty tough back in the country with the younger generation not staying on farms as much,” he said. 

“We need to work hard to maintain country footy because sport can play a really important part in keeping kids on the right path.

“I had a great time at the AFL level but I have equally strong memories as a 13 to 16 yea-old playing footy at Nhill.”