The Man Who Fell to Earth

In terms of Australian Rules football, John Greening is not a legend – but he should be.  As a boy growing up in Burnie, all he wanted to do was play for his beloved Collingwood.  With ears glued to his radio, every week he’d follow the crackly call from across Bass Strait.

Greening’s burning ambition was quickly realised; before long 100 games and the Brownlow Medal beckoned at just 21.  A Nathan Buckley prototype where fanaticism met prodigious talent, at 14 Greening also opened the bowling for Tasmania’s U/21’s.  Possessing speed, agility and enormous skill; he thrilled crowds with spectacular marks perched upon opponents’ heads and long raking goals from anywhere.  If Greening had a fault, sometimes he was too fast for teammates mired in the prevailing mode of stop-start football.  The disappointment of the 1970 Grand Final debacle was surely a hiccup on the way to achieving all there was in the game.

Then, on a winter’s afternoon at Moorabbin in 1972, football suddenly became irrelevant.  With the game in its initial throes, Greening kicked to the goal square – almost everyone following the ball.  Seconds elapsed before anyone noticed a limp, prostrate body on the turf.  Approaching teammates feared the worst whilst an opponent nudged with his boot like he was road kill.  Greening was stretchered off unconscious, blood trickling from his nose and mouth.  Infuriated team mates left no doubt as to the perpetrator; St Kilda’s Jim O’Dea.

Suffering one of the most serious injuries a footballer has ever sustained, doctors feared for Greening’s life.  Mere brain damage and paralyses appeared best case scenarios.  Intermittently comatose for 13 days, the incident left the scrupulously fair ball player partially brain damaged and hospitalised for six months.  Mere walking and talking were primary rehabilitation challenges.

The Greening incident caused a furore.  Notwithstanding the rudimentary methods of the day, it’s inconceivable that his coach (a policeman of ethical repute, Allan Jeans) sanctioned such a cowardly belting.  A League inquiry led to St Kilda’s backman being suspended for 10 weeks – besides prolonged media vilification, a relatively paltry punishment.   St Kilda’s participation in a benefit match in 1973 averted a police inquiry and a Supreme Court writ lodged by Greening’s pregnant wife.  Such was the contempt for O’Dea, he briefly transferred to VFA club Dandenong as a form of self imposed exile.  Magpie supporters never forgave or forgot.  For decades a banner bearing Greening’s name adorned the fence whenever the clubs met.

Few conceived he would ever play again, yet remarkably Greening pushed himself to train in the summer of 1974.  Determined to prove he was ‘normal’, by his own estimation the round 9 game against Richmond was too soon.  Six blind boys were even brought into the dressing rooms to draw inspiration.  After just one reserve game, Greening led his teammates out to battle in front of 67,000 at the MCG.

Greening soon had the Collingwood hordes at fever-pitch after a long 55 metre goal.  He raised both arms Rocky-style, acknowledging the public’s tremendous support.   Greening seemed to be everywhere in the first quarter.  In fact, his play and inspirational value basically won the day.  The boy wonder had ostensibly returned as good as ever, delivering a best on ground performance in a stunning victory over the reigning Premier.   It was an against the odds comeback befitting a typical American telemovie, but sadly it was no swansong ala Jason McCartney.

Injured the following match, by the time he returned “just couldn’t be bothered”.  Greening lost his mojo; partly due to eyesight problems, but more tellingly a lack of motivation.  Just playing senior football again was the mountain conquered, a feat beyond the most optimistic predictions.   As a perfectionist, the dilemma was letting go of his life’s ambition or to continue going through the motions at diminished capacity.

Even more tragically, Greening’s personal life unravelled.  His wife left him along with the motivation for football and practically everything else.  Greening eked out another nine senior games over three arduous seasons.  His last match in 1976 at least brought the joy of a Premiership, albeit in the reserves.   A stint at Port Melbourne realised another flag but a subsequent suburban foray was short lived owing to insensitive jibes of ‘cripple’ and ‘brain damaged’.  Alas, the grey clouds of depression lingered for years.

Magpie supporters can only speculate on an alternate history to that which had them finish runners up in 1977, 1979, 1980 and 1981 (as well as third in 1973 and 1978).  Greening would surely have been worth the measly goal required in ’77 and ‘79.

Returning to Tasmania in the 1980’s at least removed Greening from a nomadic existence in the city where he felt ‘hemmed in’ by his life changing episode.  He remarried and remarkably played until aged 40.  Now working in Queensland as a bookie, in recent years Greening has reconnected with the club he still loves.  Lasting football fame and fortune eluded Greening, for he arrived in an era where the term superstar and financial rewards were not bandied about so freely.  Sporadic and brief media encounters aside, he is loathe revisiting the day he’s spent the majority of his life trying to leave behind, nor is closure through meeting O’Dea a consideration.  Greening is more enamoured with modern football played in the way he pioneered, without star targets requiring rear view mirrors.

Perhaps it’s best to be thankful for what Greening had, and has, rather than what was lost – though this quote some years after the fateful day is no overestimation of what might have been;

“I guess the important thing is that I’ve got my health, but I have to admit that I often wonder if it was all worthwhile.  Why it had to happen, and why it had to happen to me.  I was only 21, not even at my peak.  If it hadn’t happened I reckon I’d still be playing and would have pushed Michael Tuck aside (for most AFL games).  So much was still in front of me.  In football terms we only ever got to see the tip of the iceberg.”

Jim O’Dea was able to play on for another six seasons.  The serviceable battler was even endorsed as a member of the Saints’ Hall of Fame.  The effect on his life is scarcely known for not surprisingly he has avoided comment.  His moment of madness brought about a consequence that he would not have envisaged and one which many were lucky to escape given the culture of the time.  O’Dea also escaped a prison sentence and a hefty civil action, but he, and a number of other footballers over the years, must question whether the pursuit of winning a game superseded a more peaceful night’s sleep.

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