SANFL great Neil Kerley.

The man known as Knuckles left John Cahill in hospital but was still his ‘inspiration’

It’s not often that someone fondly remembers the attacker on the field who left him in the hospital as an “inspiration”.

But that’s how one Australian football great, John “Jack” Cahill, chooses to describe another, the late Neil Kerley, who died yesterday at age 88 in a car accident in Murraylands, South Australia

“As a player, he was tough – uncompromising,” Cahill told ABC Radio Adelaide this morning.

“I played for Port Adelaide, I guess I was 19 years old.”

He said he dived and missed the ball.

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

“He had passed and kicked me in the head.”

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

Port Adelaide great John “Jack” Cahill fondly remembers his time with Neil Kerley.ABC news

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

“With a concussion, in the hospital, with a cold on Saturday and state training on Tuesday,” he said.

“We haven’t really taken care of ourselves.”

He said Kerley was an inspiration, especially in the way he coached the game.

“He was so lively, so happy and so confident and he projected that,” Cahill said.

“When I started coaching after I retired as a player, I thought he was only as good as a leader – he was the best.”

Football in the ’50s and ’60s was a different beast – hits behind the game were subject to nothing like today’s scrutiny.

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Sturt great John Halbert talks to ABC’s Peter Goers about ‘King Kerley’.
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While Kerley was hardly the only so-called “hard man” of the era, he was one of the more infamous.

“He played in a way that wouldn’t survive today – we know that, he… [knew] that,” said friend and commentator Bruce McAvaney.

“He was a ruthless footballer, a very good footballer.”

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

“He was the enforcer, wasn’t he? “Knuckles,” said Mr. McAvaney.

Kerley’s nicknames reflected different sides of his character.

“Knuckles” was donated because of repeated finger injuries (and not, as might be assumed, for a penchant for punches) – but in the popular consciousness it grabbed the man.

Neil Kerley signs copies of his record on an old photo.
Kerley signs copies of his record at Cox Foys department store.State Library of South Australia PRG 1662/2/740/3

His more royal name, the King, was a recognition of his status in the game and his imperious spirit.

“He’d give you a steely look every now and then when he talked to you, then smiled,” McAvaney said.

“He was an incredibly important person in the lives of many who were born around the same time as I was in the early 1950s. A great South Australian footballer.”

‘Absolute strength and dedication’

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 was six times captain of South Australia.

“Probably the most notable was in 1963, when the South Australian side defeated Victoria at the Melbourne Cricket Ground for the first time in many, many years. It was a stunning victory,” recalled Sturt great John Halbert, who played that day. Kerley’s teammate was .

“We actually became very good friends. Fierce rivals and then great teammates when we played in state teams together, but always rivals.”

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Prime Minister Peter Malinauskas spoke to Nikolai Beilharz of ABC Radio Adelaide about Kerley’s legacy.
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It was his state-level exploits that ensured Kerley’s reputation on the national football stage, and he befriended 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 and released a rendition of I was Born Under a Wandering Star.

A tribute to the late Neil Kerley on the scoreboard at Adelaide Oval.
A tribute to Kerley on the Adelaide Oval scoreboard where he did his best football work.ABC News: Patrick Martin

In later years, as one of the greats of the game, he became known to a younger generation for his work as a frontier rider on AFL television broadcasts.

‘Do I think he should have a state funeral? Yes,’ said Cahill.

“I loved playing with him and I also loved playing against him – he was fiercely competitive.

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