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Crofton McKennzie. Survived war, but died of a football injury.

Croft McKenzie


Career : 1920 - 1923
Debut : Round 16, 1920 vs Geelong, aged 26 years, 185 days
Carlton Player No. 358
Games : 21
Goals : 0
Last Game : Round 2, 1923 vs St Kilda, aged 29 years, 83 days
Guernsey No. 15
Height : 178 cm (5 ft. 10 in.)
Weight : 75 kg (11 stone, 10 lbs.)
DOB : February 17, 1894


On Saturday, August 21, 1920 - one year and 45 days after he had returned to Australia from military service in World War 1 - Crofton Ritchie McKenzie ran out onto the lush green expanse of Princes Park to play his first VFL game for the Old Dark Navy Blues. A tough and experienced centreman from Numurkah in north-western Victoria, McKenzie had been picked up by Carlton from his local club, and fast-tracked into a team assured of a berth in the VFL finals.

A few weeks later, McKenzie played the game of his life in front of 58,000 fans at the MCG, when Carlton went down to Collingwood in the 1920 Preliminary Final. Making only his fourth appearance for the Blues, McKenzie clearly took the honours over the Magpie star Charlie Pannam, although Collingwood as a team adapted to the muddy conditions better than Carlton, and ended up 24-point winners.

The contrast between the excitement of a huge, excited crowd at the MCG at finals time, and the horrors of trench warfare that he had endured in France not long beforehand must have been vivid to “Croft” that afternoon. An eloquent and principled young man, he had written a diary of his wartime experiences, and it was treasured by his family long after he died at the tragically young age of 33 on Armistice Day, November 11, 1927, from a ruptured spleen he suffered in a football match.

McKenzie was born into a farming family at Tallygaroopna, near Shepparton in Northern Victoria, on February 17, 1894. He was sent to boarding school at Melbourne’s Wesley College in 1909, and in his four-year stay he proved to be an outstanding all-round sportsman. He was School Athletics Champion in 1912, and a regular in Victorian representative rifle shooting teams from 1910 to 1912.

After completing his studies, Croft returned to Tallygaroopna, where his father had established a butchery to capitalise on his beef farming interests. Croft was still “learning the ropes” of the business in August, 1914, when Australia and Britain declared war on Germany, but he volunteered to fight and was called up in 1917. On the day he embarked on a troop ship bound for Europe in December of that year, he began writing his diary.

After training in the Middle East, McKenzie was sent into the line in France in June, 1918, just as the Germans’ last great offensive crumbled and the Allied armies began pushing them back toward their own borders. In his diary, McKenzie faithfully recorded all the highs and lows of his military career, from the adventure of travel in foreign lands to the intense fear, death and destruction on the battlefields. In one poignant entry, he wrote;

“ . . . It almost makes one cry to see all these young men lying dead in thousands around us. The cream of the world. This is not the correct way of settling international arguments.”

When the Armistice of November, 1918 stopped the fighting at last, most of the Australian troops clamoured to be sent home immediately. McKenzie however, was one of those happy to stay on. He transferred to a motorised transport company, and continued working in the war zone for another six months before eventually making it back to Australia in July, 1919.

Meanwhile, his family had sold their business in Tallygaroopna and relocated to nearby Numurkah. On his return, Croft supervised the various properties his father had purchased over the years, while taking on the role of captain-coach of the Numurkah Football Club (coincidentally also known as the Blues). In those days the Goulburn Valley Football Association played their matches on Wednesday afternoons, so when Croft agreed to play for Carlton in 1920, he also continued to represent Numurkah in important matches. That arrangement seemed to suit both parties, and while he was at Carlton, McKenzie led Numurkah to Premierships in 1920 and ’22.

In his second season at Princes Park in 1921, McKenzie was switched to defence, and saw September action again when the Blues finished off a consistently good year as minor premiers. Croft played in a back pocket when Carlton took sweet revenge on Collingwood in the major Semi Final, only to then be denied the flag by Richmond, who upset the Blues in a desperately-close Grand Final on a muddy MCG.

McKenzie’s career - like Carlton’s form – tapered off after that massive disappointment, although he did play finals football for the third successive year in 1922, when the Blues went down to Essendon by 5 points in yet another nail-biting Semi Final. McKenzie wore his number 15 guernsey only twice more after that, and his last appearance came in a particularly rough and ready encounter against St Kilda at Princes Park in round 2, 1923. The Saints won that torrid game, in which two Blues – Bert Boromeo and Rupe Hiskins – were reported and later suspended for a combined total of nine matches.

In the years after his VFL career ended, McKenzie became an even bigger celebrity in his home town when Numurkah won another hat-trick of Premierships in 1924-25-26. But tragedy struck in the following year in a game against Strathmerton, when Croft suffered the injury that took his life.

Long afterward, locals remembered McKenzie’s funeral as one of the biggest Numurkah had ever seen, with many Carlton ex-players and officials in attendance. Included among them was Rod McGregor, who had become a close friend during and after Croft’s time with the Blues.

Footnotes

In April 2015, Croft's descendants bought his war diaries to Carlton.
Here, club historian Tony De Bolfo writes about the occasion;
http://www.carltonfc.com.au/news/2015-04-16/carlton-footballers-wartime-diaries-surface

Articles: Tragedies in Blue

Blueseum: Summary of playing statistics for Croft McKenzie | McKenzie's Blueseum Image Gallery