SUMMARY: There is no name more synonymous with courage in Australian Rules Football than that of Jason McCartney. The former Fitzroy, Adelaide and Kangaroos key position player was horrifically burnt in the infamous Bali bombings of 2002 and faced a serious battle to not only play again, but more importantly survive. There wouldn’t be a follower of AFL who would not of admired the courage and dedication McCartney showed as he worked his way back into the Kangaroos senior team after a long recovery, kicked a goal, the promptly retired, having achieved all he had wanted and all that his body could muster.
Since that memorable retirement, McCartney has been busily preparing himself for the next phase of his life, and football has not lost one of its most courageous participants.
We recently caught up with Jason and was very interested to hear what he has been up to and some of the coaching advice he’s been imparting on youngsters around the country.
McCartney – The AFL Footy Player
Jason McCartney began his career at the Collingwood Football Club in 1991 and played 4 seasons with the Pies, before moving over to the Adelaide Crows in 1995. He stayed with the Crows until 1997, missing out on a spot in the club’s 1997 premiership team. He moved over to the Kangaroos in 1998, playing in the Roo’s Grand Final loss that year to his old team the Crows.
In 1999, McCartney was suspended during the preliminary final against Brisbane, once again costing him a spot in the Roos’ premiership triumph. He later played in the Roo’s losing preliminary final in 2000, the last finals appearance of his career.
McCartney – The Bali Bombing Survivor
On October 12, 2002, McCartney was at a pub in Bali, just near the Sari club. He was enjoying a drink with his friend a Roo’s team mate Mick Martin when the now infamous Bali bomb exploded. As a result of the blast, his team mate Mick Martyn escaped with minor burns, but McCartney was left with severe burns to over 50% of his body.
It is a testament to the man that McCartney first thought his burns were minor and set about saving those around him instead of worrying about himself. He considered others to be in more pain than he was so ignored his own pain.
Eventually, McCartney was taken back to Melbourne on a specially chartered flight along with other victims. In Melbourne however, there was a realization that his injuries were severe – so severe that McCartney almost died on the operating table.
What followed was a long rehabilitation process. McCartney stated that his objectives were to get married to his fiance as planned, and also to return to AFL football. The latter was seen as an almost impossible task.
McCartney – The Hero
On June 6, 2003, McCartney showed one of the greatest and most courageous feats in sport by making a return to the AFL. Playing for the Kangaroos against Richmond, McCartney was heavily bandaged, wore a long-sleeved top and had to wear special gloves. But he made his return to the game of Australian rules football, which is a tough and relentless sport with heavy body-contact. McCartney wore the numbers “88” and “202” on his guernsey – 88 representing the number of Australians who died in the Bali bombing, and 202 the total number of deaths.
McCartney had the modest statistics of 3 kicks, 1 mark and 1 goal, 1 behind. He booted a goal early in the final quarter, but in a real fairytale, with the Kangaroos trailing by less than a goal late in the game, McCartney dished off the ball to Leigh Harding, setting up a goal assist and putting the Roos in front with seconds remaining.
In a real twist to the night, after the game McCartney announced his retirement from AFL football. The toll taken from the severe burns, coupled with his poor career form preceding the bombings, meant that it is doubtful he would have survived with the rigours of the sport. But it was a lovely note to go out on, with the memorable closing moments of the game and the sheer courage of McCartney’s return making it one of the most inspirational sports-related stories. Afterward, Jason and his wife got married and had a son.
McCartney – The National Youth Co-ordinator
After his AFL career, McCartney worked as a boundary rider with Channel 9 for 3 years and mixed this role with public speaking engagements. His main job nowadays though is as National Youth Co-ordinator, working in Game Development at the AFL.
McCartney speaks with great enthusiasm and passion about a role where he is able to give something back to the game. “One of my main roles is working as an assistant coach with the AIS/AFL Academy under seventeens group”, says McCartney.
The AIS/AFL Academy and the AFL recruiting Officers select a group of players who, the panel believes are the best 30 players with the potential to play AFL football at the highest level.
The program is based around getting the squad together at 4 training camps a year. The camps are held at the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra, twice, Melbourne, once, and another chosen location that fits in with the program at the time.
Currently the final camps of the current program will be held in Perth and in South Africa. And the players get to spend one week in January, training at an AFL club.
The program has four specific aims:
- To develop the individual player
- To develop a greater understanding of the requirements of an AFL player
- To develop the understanding of the player in relation to the above
- To assist in developing the skills, knowledge and values of the players
According to McCartney, “We achieve these aims by focusing on seven areas of development.” They areas are:
- Physical Conditioning
- Nutrition and Recovery
- Skill Assessment and Development
- AFL Football
- Personal Development
- Injury Prevention and Rehabilitation
- AFL Policies
McCartney speaks proudly of the AIS program. “We are now in our 10th year of the Academy and we have around 20% of listed players being AIS / AFL Academy Graduates”.
McCartney’s role as an assistant coach has a couple of other areas in which he is passionately involved. These include a coaching position with the Northern Territory Thunder under 16’s and under 18’s teams and running the AFL’s national Kickstart Indigenous Camps for under 15’s. McCartney also coaches the national Kickstart team against a representative team from Start Africa.
When asked if he held any ambitions to return to the AFL in a coaching capacity, Jason was prepared to be patient to achieve his long-term goals. “I do have a great passion for coaching and teaching and I believe at some stage, the competitiveness in me will probably see me want to test myself at the highest level”, he says, but is quick to add, “At the moment though, I probably have one of the best jobs in football and are quite content to be a little bit patient and get plenty of experience behind me.”
McCartney – Advice To Aspiring Young Players
We asked Jason which coaches have been the biggest influences on his career.
“When we talk in a coaching sense throughout my playing career I was lucky enough to be coached by some of the all time greats Leigh Matthews, Malcolm Blight, Denis Pagan then you throw in Robert Shaw and Dean Laidley.”
“I think when you have been coached by that type of quality, you take away little pieces from all, but most definitely the one that had the biggest influence was Denis Pagan.”
“Denis was hard, but also very fair and although we didn’t always agree on everything, he taught me so much about preparation and professionalism, structure, and self belief. At 24 years of age and at my third club, he was exactly what I needed. He certainly new what was required to get the best out of his players.”
As coaches we all hope to impart some knowledge or advice to players in the hope that some of it stays with the players.
With Jason, he states that a couple of pieces of advice that stick in his mind were very important to him and he is now trying to impart it onto other youngsters.
“The first bit of advice I got as a youngster was to ‘prepare and train as you would play’. I always remembered this point and can’t stress enough how absolutely crucial it is.”
The second piece of advice given to McCartney is something many of today’s footballers should remember. “Being an AFL footballer is not sometimes, it’s all the time, in all aspects of your life.”
McCartney of course has other important advice that he emphasises to his young players, including:
- Paying attention to all areas is critical
- Treat people as you would like to be treated
- Always strive to be the best you can be
- Hard work, persistence and perseverance will overcome most obstacles
McCartney – Advice For Centre Half Backs
McCartney carved out a hardworking and successful career as a key defender and a key forward, but admits he played his best football in defence.
He has these tips for centre half backs:
- Your first objective as a centre half back must be to beat your opponent. The best way to do this is get the footy in your hands.
- You have to have a great understanding of your team structures and kick in set ups.
- You must be good in the contested situation and be able to play deep in defence when your opponent tries to take you back to the goal square.
- You also have to be able to run off your opponent as much as possible to win uncontested possessions and put the pressure back onto your direct opponent to chase.
- Above all, you must be a leader and a real general, particularly for your backline
McCartney – Advice For Centre Half Forwards
While McCartney was known more as a defender, he was also a handy centre half forward at times too!
“I definitely played my best football in defence, hence why I enjoyed it the most. I did however have some success playing forward, but more as a pinch hitter and not in a permanent role” says McCartney.
Having played with one of the all-time great centre half forwards the game has seen in Wayne Carey and also played the position himself, Jason gives these tips to aspiring centre half forwards:
- No doubt in my mind, this is the toughest position on the ground. In today’s game. You require the endurance of a midfielder, strength for the one on one contests but what I believe is of great importance is to develop good lateral movement.
- A good centre half forward needs to be able to make multiple leads and learn how to read the play.
- You also need to provide tremendous forward pressure on the defenders when they try to clear the ball out of defence.
- You should also develop your ability to take contested marks because it gives you a huge advantage.
- Like the centre half back, you also need great leadership qualities to control the forward line and the structures the team wants to carry out.
Jason McCartney has fought back against tremendous odds and seems to be carving out a new reputation as firstly a student of the game, and as a coach of our up and coming stars. If he brings to his new roles the courage and commitment he showed when returning to the Kangaroos post Bali, we are sure the big fella can take to coaching at the highest level, and if that happens, we know his players could be nothing but inspired.
When you look at McCartney’s AFL record, some would consider him unlucky, considering the circumstances, to have never played in a winning premiership team.
But when you look at his life after the AFL – we don’t think unlucky’s a word you’d use.
Good luck Macca!
Footnote: I took a copy of Jason’s book to the 2006 AFL Level 3 Coaching Course to get it signed for my friend’s 10 year old son. I started to flick through the book on the flight over from Perth and then found I couldn’t put it down. I would recommend it to anybody looking for some inspiration.
It wasn’t easy, but we managed to find Jason’s book online. You can buy it from this eBay seller here.