First published: May 2012
Round 1, 1975. Geelong v Carlton at Kardinia Park. Mike Fitzpatrick, in his first game with the Mighty Blues, is knocked senseless by John Scarlett, father of Matthew Scarlett.
But here’s a question: How do you knock a Rhodes Scholar senseless? Answer: You can’t.
Round 2, 1975. Carlton v Collingwood. Princes Park. Fitzpatrick stars in his second game kicking five goals, one a tremendous left foot from the George Harris Stand pocket – actually more like flank - as Carlton dismembers Collingwood by more than 15 goals.
Fitzy’s performance that day proved we had a new star but virtually noone, at least the Carlton faithful, really knew about the boom recruit from WA. What we did know was that he was a ruckman, a stand-out player with Subiaco in the WAFL which, back in 1975, was a prime recruiting ground for the VFL, and that he was the most anticipated arrival at Princes Park in many years. We were also told he was a Rhodes Scholar.
That seemed to mean little to Carlton supporters; all we cared about was that he could play.
Throughout 1975, it became evident what effect Fitzy’s moniker as a Rhodes Scholar actually meant. Having played every game in what turned out to be a disappointing end to a season that promised so much, we learnt that the Rhodes Scholar was off to Oxford University in England and would play just 12 games in the ‘76 season. Nine of which we won, incidentally.
He would also miss the entire 1977 season and play only two games in 1978. To us mugs in the outer, this was incomprehensible. How he could he be hitting the books at uni when he could he be hitting the turf at Princes Park? What had we gotten ourselves into? It took a long while to find out but boy was it worth it.
An abiding memory I have of Fitzy was the pulsating excitement on his return in 1976 when we started with seven wins before dropping the next five games. We were playing Essendon and badly needed to get back on the winning track. The ground was packed, as it normally would be, but I remember the electric atmosphere and an anticipation that you could seemingly reach out and touch.
Then the banner went up. It read: “Fitzy’s back and it’s the return of that Old Blue Magic”.
It certainly was. We won the next nine games but the magic turned to dust when we went down by one point in the 1976 Preliminary Final and, as for the Rhodes Scholar, he was headed back to England not to be seen again in the navy blue until 1978, one of the most tumultuous yet seminal seasons in our history.
But every time he returned he went straight into the starting line-up. From the books to the battlefield, no challenge was too great.
It was in 1979 that the effect and legacy Fitzpatrick would have and leave at Carlton became clear. He starred. We won the flag and the Rhodes Scholar was no longer an academic who played footy but a genuine champion footballer accepted into the welcoming bosom of the Carlton faithful. He won the B&F that year and starred in our GF victory.
Ironically enough, it was that season we began referring him to as the Rhodes Scholar rather than Fitzy. We revelled in his footy smarts, and he had plenty of those, and we loved that he was the smartest bloke in the game.
What we also marvelled at was his ability to beat much bigger opponents (Fitzy was just 191cm but he cut a much larger figure), his athleticism, his passion and, above all, his outstanding captaincy – second to Big Nick as the best ever Carlton captain we have had as far as I am concerned.
Bold statement I know but this bloke knew exactly how to hit the opposition hard at just the right moment – generally in Grand Finals.
I will never forget his performance in the 1982 GF.
Playing with a severely injured ankle, Fitzpatrick starred at centre-half-forward and his two goals from outside 50 in the premiership quarter really put Richmond to the sword. As far I was concerned, he was BOG that day ahead of The Dominator and Kenny Hunter.
Fitzy also knew when and how to fly the flag physically. While players like Johnston and Buckley didn’t need the Rhodes Scholar’s protection, he made sure that anyone who messed with our players that day – and in so many other finals – would be educated in just what genuine toughness was, both physically and mentally.
Here’s another bold statement. I would argue that Mike Fitzpatrick is the most successful person off-field and on ever to have played our great game.
Consider this: A Rhodes Scholar, AFL Chief Commissioner, an international investment banker, the owner of a company which managed billions of dollars in superannuation funds (51% of which was bought by Westpac for a squillion several years back), a key behind the scenes political player, Fitzpatrick is the personification of a man who has made the utmost of his considerable talent and intellect.
Add to this a two-time premiership captain, three-time premiership player, a member of Carlton’s Team of the Century among many other accolades and the argument stacks up pretty well, don’t you think?
Just one more point. Of his 150 games, the Rhodes Scholar played 38 in his first three seasons. But in the premiership years of 1979, 1981 and 1982 he barely missed a game. Of those 72 games, we won 58. The investment in the investment banker truly paid off. Yes we had a remarkable team but we also had an equally remarkable leader.