You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

Australian rules footballer Neil Kerley's car crash death prompts emotional tributes

ABC NEWS logo ABC NEWS 30/06/2022
Neil Kerley's reputation rests on his exploits as a player and as a coach. (Supplied: SANFL) © Provided by ABC NEWS Neil Kerley's reputation rests on his exploits as a player and as a coach. (Supplied: SANFL)

It's not often that someone fondly remembers their on-field assailant as an "inspiration".

But that's how one Australian rules football great, John "Jack" Cahill, chooses to describe another, the late Neil Kerley, who died yesterday in a car crash in South Australia's Murraylands at the age of 88.

"As a player he was tough — uncompromising," Cahill told ABC Radio Adelaide this morning.

"I was playing for Port Adelaide, I'm guessing I was 19 years of age."

He said he dived and missed the ball.

"The next thing I wake up in hospital, the Royal Adelaide Hospital," Cahill said.

"He'd gone past and kicked me in the head."

On the printed page, such an episode might seem shocking.

But for Cahill, the passage of time has softened the blow, and he chuckled at the anecdote, using the tone of an old soldier recalling a comrade.

"Concussed, in hospital, out cold on Saturday and then state training on Tuesday," he said.

"We didn't really look after ourselves."

He said Kerley was an inspiration, particularly in how he coached the game.

"He was so vibrant, so happy and so confident and he projected that," Cahill said.

"When I took up coaching after I retired as a player, I thought he was so good as a leader — he was the best."

Football in the 1950s and 60s was a different beast — hits behind play were subjected to nothing like the scrutiny of today.

While Kerley was hardly the era's only so-called "hard man", he was among its more notorious.

"He played in a way that wouldn't survive today — we know that, he [knew] that," friend and commentator Bruce McAvaney said.

"He was a ruthless footballer, a very good footballer."

He said Kerley was not a tall man but played in tall positions.

"He was the enforcer, wasn't he? 'Knuckles'," Mr McAvaney said.

Kerley's nicknames reflected different sides of his character.

"Knuckles" was bestowed because of repeated finger injuries (and not, as might be assumed, because of a penchant for fisticuffs) — but in the popular consciousness, it captured the man.

His more regal moniker, the King, was in recognition of his status in the game and his imperious spirit.

"He'd give you that steely look every now and then when he was talking to you, and then had that laugh afterwards," McAvaney said.

"He was an incredibly important person in the lives of many that were born around about the same time as I was, in the early 1950s. A great South Australian footballer."

'Absolute vigour and commitment'

Kerley's name runs like a thread through post-war football in South Australia.

He won SANFL premierships with West Adelaide, South Adelaide and Glenelg as a player and as a coach.

He captained South Australia half a dozen times.

"Probably the most notable one was in 1963 when the South Australian side beat Victoria on the Melbourne Cricket Ground for the first time for many, many years. It was a wonderful victory," recalled Sturt great John Halbert, who was Kerley's teammate that day.

"His approach to the game was one of absolute vigour and commitment.

"We became quite good friends, actually. Fierce rivals and then wonderful teammates when we played together in state teams, but always rivals."

It was his exploits at state level that secured Kerley's reputation on the national footballing stage, and he struck up a friendship with Victoria's Ted Whitten.

"Whitten and Neil were incredibly close — they were kindred spirits," McAvaney said.

"Neil was a hunter and a gatherer and Whitten loved that."

He was also an occasional crooner, releasing a rendition of I was Born Under a Wandering Star.

In later years, as one of the game's greats, he became known to a younger generation through his work as a boundary rider during AFL television broadcasts.

"Do I think he should have a state funeral? Yes I do," Cahill said.

"I loved playing with and I liked playing against him as well — he was fiercely competitive.

"He was just a person I learned a lot from, and I was willing to learn from him too."

[Sports Newsletter]

More from ABC News

image beaconimage beaconimage beacon