Weekend read: John ‘Pa’ O’Keeffe – a true football person

by Patrick O’Keeffe


Pa taught me how to kick a stab pass, torpedo and drop kick. I think that I might have been about 6 or 7 at the time. I remember it being an overcast day, in a park not too far from Glenelg Oval. I was eager to impress my grandfather. Unfortunately I never perfected the stab pass to the point that I could unveil it in a game, however I was intrigued by the violent nature of its name. Such matters tend to confuse a 7 year old.


Pa was born into a family that was football mad. Pa’s grandfather is a legend of the Kilburn Football Club. Visitors to the club headquarters pass under the JJ O’Keeffe memorial gates. Pa’s father was also a champion footballer. According to Pa, his legs were like coiled springs, strengthened from carrying huge loads of bricks up flights of stairs all day. As the legend goes, Pa’s father once bet three months wages on a game of football. Of course, he put his money on his team to win. He was the captain, playing at centre half forward. He kicked 15 goals. The team won. I feel that there is a distinct possibility that the term ‘played like a man possessed’ was first uttered that day.


As a youngster, Pa would stand in a paddock in Kilburn, his father would get him to point in the direction he was going to lead. Pa would run for his life until he was hit in the chest by a perfect stab pass that would knock the wind out of him. Sucking in huge gulps of air, Pa would return the ball and they would begin again.


Pa played for much of his career at full back. He claimed to have once collected 60 kicks in a single match. According to Pa, the opposing team kicked 60 behinds. A veteran of World War II, Pa had become accomplished in the martial art of JuJitsu, through his training with the army. Pa applied these skills to his work in the back lines. I suspect that the introduction of trial by video may have curtailed some of Pa’s more effective strategies.


Pa had a short stint as the coach of my cousin’s under 10’s team. Pa was out to develop footballers; he saw age as no barrier to learning some of the finer points of playing football. This didn’t sit well with some of the parents. Times had changed.


Pa loved the Crows. Dad, my brothers and I went to each home game. We drove past Nanna and Pa’s house in Glenelg North to pick up Pa, who would come striding out with his packed lunch in one hand, with his Crows cap perched proudly on his head. Pa was never optimistic of a Crows victory. The opposing coach was always too shrewd, the opposition players always too strong. Conversely, the Crows never knew how to play football. They lacked hardness. There were no “football” players, Ricciuto excepted. They all wanted to look pretty as they pranced up and down the wing. They still played like they did under Cornes. Which wasn’t how football should be played.


Following the game, Pa would find faults with the Crow performance. They may have won by ten goals, though Pa would always find a weakness. A hard marker, though I suspect he was also a life long devotee of the ‘keep a lid on it’ principle. It seemed as though Pa was forever on the verge of throwing in his membership ticket. He never did.


I visited Pa in hospital in late April, 2008. He had just had a malignant tumour removed from his brain. I had expected to see a frail, old man. Pa was sitting up in bed. He told me he was fine. He spoke about how much he enjoyed seeing Kurt Tippett stand up to Dean Brogan in a recent showdown match. He told me how much he liked Jason Porplyzia. Now, he was a real footballer. I told him that my younger brother Alex was playing his first game of the season for the Mitcham Hawks the following day. He told me he thought Alex needed an extra yard of pace. Pa talked to me for well over an hour. The conversation occasionally deviated from football.


As the year went by, Pa’s health deteriorated. His speech became jumbled, with his strength waning almost by the day. Football seemed to awaken his soul. On one occasion, he was watching Alex ply his trade as the Mitcham full back. Right in front of Pa’s vantage point, Alex steamed through a pack of players, bulldozing three or four members of the opposition, before grabbing the ball and sending it deep into attack. Pa couldn’t find the words to express his approval, however it was clear that he approved.


Pa’s great grand nephew, Rhys O’Keeffe, played last season in the SANFL for North Adelaide as a 17 year old. Pa was taken along to watch the youngster line up in the back line against Port Adelaide. I arrived at the game at half time. I couldn’t find Pa anywhere. As a desperate measure, I went over to the Port Adelaide cheer squad, only to find Pa, in his wheelchair, right in amongst the one eyed barrackers from the docks. He was white as a sheet, but he was at the footy. Later that year, Rhys was drafted by Carlton. Pa was so proud. An O’Keeffe in the AFL. I think he always tried to claim Ryan O’Keefe as one of ours, though I think he may have been clutching at straws.


Pa passed away in January of this year. Football lost one of its most loyal followers. Some people dismiss football as just a game. True, football is just a game. At face value. However, football provides so much more than the two hours of entertainment on a Saturday afternoon. It provides an opportunity for people to share in the successes and the failures of players that we may never even meet. Football provides us with a connection to times long gone. If JJ O’Keeffe were alive today, I’m sure that we could chat for hours about football. Football was Pa’s passion, his lifeblood. When the Crows won their first flag in 1997, Pa taped the game onto a VHS cassette, which was labeled ‘1997 AFL Grand Final’. Under this, Pa had written, ‘Hooray, we did it’.




  1. Pamela Sherpa says

    Wonderful tale Pat. I love how old timers know how recognise a ‘real’ footballer when they see one.

  2. Pat,
    I know the footy landscape has changed dramatically, but I’m struggling with a Glenelg North bloke being at the Magpies’ cheersquad, let alone playing for Killburn ( and, for me, liking the Crows…or anything to do with Footy Park). He’s right about the Porpoise. And its right to commemorate such a man. “Heart and Soul” of footy.

  3. Alex O'Keeffe says

    Nice one patty, good memories.. Some of them still crack me up. Bloody crows.

    I suspect the ‘finer points’ you are referring to features the old stamp on their foot and stick your thumb up their bum tactic. I never did master that one myself but I guess they are a harder lot out Kilburn way.. Mitcham would have done well to employ Pa as a special tactics coach.


    Patrick, I’m Bernie’s daughter and as I am bed bound at the moment I was “googling” O’Keeffe (you never know what you’ll find). What a beautiful tribute to Uncle John. I can’t wait to show Dad. He is exactly the same after every Crows match and like your Pa, so proud that an O’Keeffe has made it to the AFL. Well done.

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