July 8 1972 will always be remembered as the day football lost one of its most promising talents. Aged 21, Collingwood’s John Greening was one of the best players in the VFL.
In his fourth year of senior football, Greening averaged 26 disposals a game and had an unforgettable fortnight between Rounds 9 and 10, when he accumulated 91 disposals and kicked ten goals.
Greening was a favourite for the Brownlow Medal, before his season – and career – was cut short by a savage incident.
Greening started the Round 14 clash against St Kilda at Moorabbin in fine fashion, taking the first mark of the game.
The midfielder kicked the ball into the Magpies attack and as fans and the television cameras followed the flight of the ball, St Kilda tough man, Jim O’Dea, viciously hit Greening.
The Magpie was left unconscious and bloodied by the fleeing O’Dea, when Collingwood trainers came to his aid.
Magpie’s teammate Len Thompson recalled the incident prior to his death in 2007.
“I looked down at Johnny and it gave me a dreadful fright. It was a horrific sight, he was severely hurt.”
“Whatever happened, and I didn’t see it, I think part of what did happen is he hit the ground and his head hit the cricket pitch.”
The incident left Greening in a coma for 24 hours and in intensive care for 12 days.
Doctor’s feared Greening would not survive and considered brain damage as the best-case scenario.
As Greening lay fighting for his life, the VFL acted quickly and sanctioned O’Dea with a 10-week ban.
O’Dea escaped legal action for the incident, even though there were reports St Kilda coach Allan Jeans instructed O’Dea to ‘fix up’ Greening.
St Kilda fans taunted Greening, as he lay unconscious on the stretcher, infuriating Magpies fans and beginning a fierce rivalry between the clubs.
Following the incident, Magpie fans adorned boundary fences with a banner bearing Greening’s name, when the two sides met.
Some Magpies fans were so appalled by the incident that they never attended another game.
Spectacularly, Greening returned to football in Round 9, 1974.
Against reigning premiers Richmond, Greening booted a goal with his first kick and helped the Magpies to a 69-point win.
But Greening would never again reach the heights of his comeback game.
Greening said his aim was to return for one game and prove to the doubters that he could still play at the top level.
A lack of motivation saw Greening play only eight more games before announcing his retirement in 1976.
Greening may only have played 107 games, but Magpie fans will always remember him as one of the most prestigious talents to wear the famous black and white guernsey.