I WANT to tell you about Alex McKinnon, one of the best kids you’ve never met.
Because the hardest thing right now is busting to do something for Alex and his family, and the realisation you can’t … this lonely feeling of helplessness.
So I thought the best I could do was share my insights to a wonderful young man, to our relationship and trust.
It all happened so quickly. And it was life-changing.
Today, Alex lies in a Melbourne hospital fighting the biggest battle of his 22 years.
First time I saw him was at an under-20s Dragons training session. The flaming red hair made him stand out, that and his athleticism.
Steve Price coached the ’20s back then and he said this kid’s going to be a star.
After watching him train for a while I turned and said: He has a few bad habits, Steve.
At the Dragons, he played ’20s when he was only 17, going on to represent NSW under-18s.
In 2010, Dan Hunt ruptured an achilles warming up and we didn’t have an 18th man so I looked over at the ’20s who’d just finished their match, grabbed him and put him on the bench.
Alex had been their best player but was still only 18.
I never used him that day – didn’t give him one minute game time.
Knew he’d come looking for an explanation. I simply thanked him, saying you haven’t earned the right to play with these players.
When he had earned the right I knew he’d appreciate it a lot more than if I’d given him five minutes out there first up.
The following year he played for the Dragons’ top side because he had earned the right by paying the price.
I was leaving the Dragons for Newcastle and Alex came from Aberdeen in the Hunter Valley.
He’d been away at boarding school for four years, then at the Dragons and while he loved the joint he wanted to go home.
And I wanted to take him.
Even then I had a lot of respect for him, the way he carried himself. His maturity. Quiet manner. How he could hold a conversation in any company, without ever seeking to be the centre of
So he came to Newcastle with me at age 20 and was always happiest when heading home to Aberdeen.
Not a whole lot happens in Aberdeen.
For more than a century the local abattoirs was its largest single employer but when an American company bought then closed the meatworks in 1999 hundreds of people were left without work.
Pretty much all the locals had left to cheer about were the Aberdeen Tigers, who play at McKinnon Oval named after Alex’s grandfather Mal and still mowed and marked out each week of winter by Mal’s son, Scott – Alex’s dad.
They’re true rugby league people.
And one of the things endearing me to Alex is his ability to care for other people.
If he is your friend, you do not want. Recently I went to a player I knew to be struggling financially, prepared to give him a loan.
“You OK?” I said. Yeah, he said, Alex looked after me. If someone hasn’t got a car or loses his licence, the beeping horn out the front belongs to Alex McKinnon.
Just last year I went back to Aberdeen with him and we spoke to his old school, St Joseph’s.
He talked about how hard it was for him to leave home, how much he missed his parents and friends, at the same time encouraging the students to have the courage to follow their dreams … not to be afraid of the unknown.
Today, it is his dreams shattered, he who is staring at the unknown.
I have an old friend up here I played football with a long time ago. He was brought up in an orphanage and his story is tragic.
As part of Alex’s education I thought he should meet him because we sometimes forget how lucky we are.
So over we went. My old mate loves his football and he loved Alex even more. I got him to tell a bit of his past and the kid was blown away.
A few months later, with Christmas nearing, Alex asked when I was going back to see my friend? “I want to come with you.”
Come he did, with an armful of gifts and food items to share the joy of Christmas with someone he barely knew.
Funny, I’d never taken another player around there.
I’m not a great shopper so when I want to go shopping I ring Alex.
I say, Alex, I need this … I need that … where do we go?
Pick him up, and he says, “Coach”, he always calls me coach — we’re father and son – “Coach,” he says, “we’re going here, and we’re going there.”
I end up buying clothes a bit young for me, hip and happening, he says, and he’s introduced me to Boost Juice and Health Balls, which he buys by the jarful.
We have some lovely times shopping, me and Alex.
All my players are important to me but we just have a special chemistry. Me in my 60s and he’s 22.
That’s the price you pay in relationships – the greater the relationship, the greater the pain.
Monday night in Melbourne was terrible, horrific, highlighted by the fact I’m the coach, the steadying influence. The one they look to.
We play a tough game and Alex is a tough young man. Nobody’s fool. He doesn’t walk around trying to show he’s tough, but he is. And I’ve always loved his humility.
Never seen him drunk. Not once. Never seen him do anything stupid. No one’s ever talked about Alex like that.
He doesn’t wear his cap back-to-front, prefers country music and watches every game of footy every weekend. He’d rather sit down and talk to old blokes than prance around with rock stars.
My greatest torment is I wasn’t initially sure how bad the injury was, wasn’t looking at the pictures on the big screen.
Many times in my coaching life I’ve seen players taken off on stretchers, taken through all the procedures, and every one of them has walked away at day’s end.
On the way to the dressing rooms at halftime I walked into the medical area and didn’t get any positive looks or vibe, just whispers of can you move this? Can you do that? I went to the other players and tried to settle them down.
Then straight back to the medical room where I could tell things were very serious. I left Alex with an assurance everybody was doing their best for him.
And while I’ve seen him since we haven’t been able to speak.
All we have now is hope. And belief.
Belief the game of rugby league, Newcastle and the Hunter will stay true to Alex McKinnon.
He’s going to need a lot of help and for people to be there with him for the rest of his life. As he would there be for you.