A remarkable story of resilience and recovery – and a lifelong love of the Pies.
At first, the 13-year-old Jim McPhee didn’t know the real reason why his left leg had been amputated at his hip. “Bone disease” he was told, at a time when talking about cancer was a no-no, especially for kids.
Jim also didn’t know the even starker truth of his medical prognosis: doctors thought the amputation would buy him only limited time, and that he would survive another couple of years at best.
Boy, were they wrong on that one.
The brutal surgery that cost Jim his left leg was carried out in 1947. Now, nearly 75 years later, Jim is still going strong. And the 87-year-old was recently invited back to the football club that has been a huge part of his life – and which played such an important role in his recovery.
Jim was a local boy who grew up in East Preston and went to Preston Tech. Like many from that area, he was a mad Collingwood fan from birth. He was just like any other kid: played lots of sport, rode his bike, hung out with his mates.
But all that changed late in 1945 when, in his final year of primary school, he was diagnosed with a form of cancer in his thigh, after complaining of pain and stiffness that did not go away. But nobody said the ‘C’ word to Jim during his first stays in hospital (where he wasn’t allowed parental visits for weeks), or when he started secondary school with a calliper on his leg in 1946. All through that year, and into 1947, he endured regular Deep X-Ray Therapy treatments, an early form of radiation.
Eventually, in the middle of 1947, he was told he’d need “an operation”. The day before, his father told him rather bluntly the harsh truth: the treatments for his ‘bone disease’ had not worked, and his left leg was going to have to be amputated. Jim was just 13.
The surgery was carried out on June 23. A neighbour of Jim’s alerted the Magpies to his situation, and the club responded with a care and generosity that even today seems startling. The club rented a blue Astor mantle wireless so that he could listen to the footy (in the weeks to come, the legendary Norman Banks on 3AW would give him a shout-out). No fewer than five current stars, including his hero Des Fothergill and the great Neil Mann, visited Jim in hospital – something which made him a star in both The Argus and Sun newspapers.
Then, when Jim was finally released from hospital and made it back to Victoria Park to watch a game again, he was invited into the rooms and allowed to stay and listen to Jock McHale’s pre-match address.
These were kindnesses that Jim has never forgotten. And they helped enormously with buoying his spirits as he set out on the difficult path to recovery.
“Everything Collingwood did for me was wonderful,” he recalled. “By that stage I felt like I’d already accepted I was going to be one leg less for the rest of my life, but having the players visit, and renting the wireless, was really very kind. And letting us stay and listen to Jock’s speech before the game was an amazing moment. I felt very lucky to have been given that.
“I knew the players were coming (to the hospital) but it was still such a shock to see them standing there and talking to me. Me! I was too overawed by having them there. I didn’t really say much. Des Fothergill was one of my heroes and I couldn’t really believe he was just standing there, with a copy of The Herald tucked under his arm.
“And I can still remember the feeling listening to Jock. He was all emotional and charged up. He talked about what Collingwood was like when he’d arrived there and how the club had looked after him, and how it was now their job to go out and do the jumper proud. I wanted to go out and play myself after hearing it!”
It was only three or four years after his surgery that he learned the truth about his diagnosis – that it had been cancer. And it was much later again before he learned that doctors had thought he’d only last a year or two.
By then he’d already confounded medical expectations. And he continued to do so in the years ahead, carving out an extraordinarily rich life for himself. He’s been a husband (twice, his first wife died at 44 of an aneurism), a father to three kids and a grandfather. He worked as an insurance assessor until well into his 70s, and also had a successful stint running an outdoors and camping store. He learned how to drive, travelled widely (especially through Australia) and became a keen bushwalker. He learned to play a variety of sports, including cricket, golf and table tennis, on one leg. He could often be seen on Victoria Park after matches, playing kick-to-kick with his sons: balancing on his crutches and launching drop kicks so impressive that the legendary Harry Beitzel once remarked about them on radio
And he retained his love of the Pies throughout, witnessing the flags of 1953, ’58, 1990 and 2010. He was still going to Collingwood matches up until a few years ago. And today, just a few weeks short of 88, he’s still as passionate as ever.
So it was a major thrill for him when he was invited to the club’s HQ recently. He was introduced at the team meeting, before he watched training and was given a tour of the AIA Centre. It’s also planned for him to be at the President’s Lunch.
“It’s been an exciting morning,” he said afterwards. “It’s been great just meeting the new players.”
He then recalled a saying that developed after the club’s 1953 Premiership, won in the face of an unprecedented injury crisis. “Half of that side was injured,” he recalled. “It was wonderful (to be able to win). And in the paper a couple of days later, someone wrote, ‘They stuck so tight, to the old black and white, write their names up in letters of gold.’
“I’d love the present players to get their names in letters of gold at the end of this year.”
Steele Sidebottom was one of the 2022 group of players who got to meet Jim, and he was suitably impressed.
“To see him 75 years on from that surgery, still fighting fit, coming along to see the boys train, is inspirational. He’s been a mad magpie supporter all his life … it was good to have him down here.”
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