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HomeEntertainment NewsRemembering Cam McCarthy goes beyond black armbands and bouquets | Jonathan Horn

Remembering Cam McCarthy goes beyond black armbands and bouquets | Jonathan Horn

Cam McCarthy was born on April 1, 1995, the same day the Fremantle Dockers played their first ever game in the Australian Football League. As a kid, he’d worm his way down to the fence at Subiaco for Dockers games. His dad constructed special chairs so Cam and his mates could see properly.

He was an excellent cricketer, and never saw himself playing professional football. Always a small kid, he shot up nearly a foot in his draft year. He was working as an apprentice plumber but was suddenly on every club’s radar. It was a crack draft, with Marcus Bontempelli, Josh Kelly and Zach Merrett. Playing for Western Australia against the Victoria Country team in the national championships, McCarthy kicked the winning goal on the siren.

In every draft profile, there is a variation of the same phrase – “nothing seems to faze him.” “He is this year’s Mystery Man,” Emma Quayle wrote in The Age. “He’s this year’s X Factor, this year’s raw-but-exciting prospect, and whatever other cliches you wish to apply.”

Carlton selected another WA boy, Patrick Cripps, at pick 13. Fifteen seconds later, McCarthy was a GWS Giants player. He was “player number two, one, four – zero, nine, one.” By the weekend, he was living at Breakfast Point with all his teammates. It was like the Truman Show, he later said.

A self-confessed “mummy’s boy,” he ached for a return to Western Australia. Homesick, struggling with his mental health and squeezed out by the abundance of forward talent at the Giants, McCarthy asked to be traded home, which at first was denied.

Along with picks seven, 34 and 72, he eventually headed to Fremantle in return for pick three. “It’s the happiest I’ve been,” McCarthy told the West Australian. “I’m in a real good space at the moment. Being able to go home to family and friends and speak to people and hang out with people outside of a football club where you can sort of get away and it’s not all football, football… that’s been massive for me.”

I was scrolling my phone when I read that Cam McCarthy had died. “Forgotten former AFL star dead at the age of 29” was the headline. 250 footballers have represented the Fremantle Dockers. Four have died since 2018. Three were in their twenties. One, Harley Balic, died in a hotel room shortly after he turned 25. Several years earlier, in an interview with Code Sports’ Paul Amy, he spoke of “getting to the highest level, which you’d dedicated your life to, and then all of a sudden being a nobody.” He’d been “wandering around, feeling pretty lost”. “I guess the way I left football, unfinished, left me lost in the world.” Nothing I’ve ever read about a footballer flattened me as much as that last sentence.

When I write about footballers, I’m often struck by how little I know about them. We assess them, rank them, re-order them, build them up, and pull them into line. When they retire, some get laps of honour, some go straight into the Hall of Fame, and some are farewelled via a media release. But they remain a grey blur.

It has a lot to do with the modern media, and the ever-widening gap between athletes and those who cover them. But it’s also related to the standards they’re held to – the ton of bricks that comes down on them if they say anything remotely interesting or provocative, or if they’re a little bit different.

McCarthy’s mates and Dockers supporters called him “Dardy McCrafty”. On various podcasts, he was joshing with his mates, saying the type of things that would have had him crucified in his playing days. When men that age are talking shit together, there’s always the sense that there’s big things being avoided, or rushed through, or skirted around.

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But he’s also funny, irreverent, honest. He always asks questions of the interviewer – about their interests, their lives, their views. He speaks about how stressful life was as a professional footballer. He says he never felt like he belonged at the level. “I’m a bit of a weirdo,” he says. “When people say ‘you’re a weirdo’, that’s a compliment. I don’t want to be a sheep.”

This is a football column, but it isn’t a football story. These tragedies play out across Australia every day. But each time a young footballer dies, I think of something Wayne Campbell said at Danny Frawley’s funeral – “Can we, as a footy industry, look after each other just a little bit more?”

It goes beyond black armbands, and beyond bouquets in the goal square. I hope I never see “forgotten footballer” in a headline ever again. I hope the next time we call a footballer soft, or put them up for trade bait, or censor and sanction them for some trifling indiscretion, or refer to them as “player number two, one, four – zero, nine, one,” that we remember we’re talking about a person. Some of them weird, some of them different, all of them flawed, all of them worthy. Vale Dardy McCrafty – you were much loved, and you’ll never be forgotten.

In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Children, young adults, parents and teachers can contact the Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800. Help for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is available on 13YARN on 13 92 76.

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