JOHNNY Longmire seems to be a closed book to most people; they can't quite get a handle on him. I know that because I'm often asked: what's he really like?
Well, I'd say he was a lovely bloke who's sensible, responsible, hard-working, quite serious at times - and trustworthy. So trustworthy that, when the Kangaroos went on an end-of-season trip to Las Vegas in the mid-1990s - and I don't recount this tale lightly given the tragedy that recently happened there - there was only one person I wanted to look after my cash, and that was ''Horse'' Longmire.
I knew that if I'd had too much to drink and lost a bit on the tables, I'd want to delve into my stash of cash and try to win that money back. So I wanted someone to save me from myself when I wasn't thinking straight.
I gave Horse my wallet and said: ''Put this in the hotel safe and don't let me get my hands on it, right?''
I totally trusted him to look after it - and me. He was also a big, strong bloke, so I knew he wouldn't crumble when I put the pressure on him to get it back. But, sure enough, that night I dropped a bit at the casino and straight away made a beeline for Horse. ''I need my money,'' I said.
''Nup, you can't have it.''
''Horse, give me the money, I need it now. Give me the code to the safe.''
''No, you told me not to let you have it. So you're not getting it.''
This conversation went on for quite a while before he said: ''OK, well take your (expletive) money. But don't ever ask me to do that again if you're going to put me in that position.''
Of course, he was right. I had put him in an unfair position. But that's Johnny for you: honest, responsible and straight as a die.
I've known Johnny since we both played for New South Wales at an under-12 carnival in Darwin. He was from Corowa-Rutherglen and I was from Wagga and we were presented with our team tracksuit before we left. It was light and dark blue and had ''NSW - Under-12 Interstate Carnival'' embroidered on it and I thought it was one of the best things I'd ever seen. ''Longers'' won the towel for best NSW player at that carnival, but that was no great surprise because he was just a superstar player as a junior.
It wasn't long before he was being chased by every VFL club; I don't think there was one club that didn't want a piece of him.
The other interesting part of that trip is that Greg Miller, the Swans' - and, later, North Melbourne's - recruiting officer was in Darwin watching the carnival. Even though it was a small-time under-12 event, he was up there doing his scouting and
research. Who could have guessed that, several years later, after Greg had left the Swans and joined North Melbourne as recruiting officer and football manager, that he'd recruit Johnny and me to the Kangaroos.
But there's no doubt that John was the player who had really caught his eye and was considered the gun recruit. Of course, we were tied to the Swans, being local boys, but Greg happened to be at AFL House in Jolimont one day in 1986 or '87 when he bumped into the Swans' chief executive, Ron Thomas. Never one to let a chance go by, Greg spoke to Thomas about Longers and me; they agreed on the spot to a $60,000 transfer fee for John and $10,000 for me. John was the great catch; I was just the set of steak knives thrown in. That's how we both ended up at Arden Street.
In those early days, when the young Kangas players were staying at various club houses in Moonee Ponds, Strathmore and Kensington, Johnny was a bit of a practical joker. He lived with Brenton Harris, Chris Lindsay, Liam Pickering and myself at different times and I remember he'd sneak around to the other houses at night and play little games on the other guys, silly stuff like putting a wig on a mophead and banging on bedroom windows in the middle of the night.
He was just a teenage country recruit who liked a laugh as much as anyone. He was a good guy to be around. On Sundays, he'd like to have a beer like everyone else and was one of the first in line for that, so he was no prude. But he always had a sensible and serious side to him; he always knew when enough was enough, when to leave a party and go home, that sort of thing. Unlike some of the rest of us, Johnny knew when it was time to pull up stumps.
Horse was a hard trainer but wasn't a guy who spoke a lot. Later in his career, I remember him chipping young guys who weren't training hard enough or who were cutting corners with their preparation.
Some guys get voted into club leadership groups and think it's all about talking more. That's not the case. Some leaders prefer to lead by action not word. We had a few of those at the Roos, such as Anthony Stevens and John Blakey, who didn't say a lot, and I'd put Longers in that category, too. But when he spoke, people listened: you knew when he wasn't happy.
John had a successful but injury-prone career at North and he experienced a whole range of different emotions over the 10 years or so he was there. He was a gun full-forward who kicked 98 goals in the 1990 season as a 19-year-old. He kicked 14 one week against Melbourne and 12 against Richmond and needed just four goals in that last home-and-away game to crack the ton but kicked 2.8.
That year, he won the club best and fairest (and Coleman Medal) and kicked eight goals to help NSW upset Victoria in a memorable state-of-origin match. He was a superstar in the making. Imagine someone younger than, say, West Coast's Jack Darling nearly kicking 100 goals, winning the league goalkicking award, his club's best and fairest and starring in state of origin.
He kicked a lot of goals over the next five years, averaging more than 70 a season, but did his knee at the start of the 1996 season and missed out on our premiership that year. I remember seeing him in tears on the ground after the grand final - knowing Longers, they were tears of happiness for his teammates.
That surgery affected his mobility so when he came back in 1997, Denis (Pagan) played him in defence where he could run more in straight lines, and also gave him spells in the ruck.
He played in our 1999 grand final side but, even then, it was a close-run thing. I remember Denis asking me about John before that grand final. There was a discussion about Horse's form and whether I thought he should play. I had no doubt in saying he'd do the job for us; I was very much in his corner.
As it happened, Jason McCartney got suspended for the grand final so it became an academic argument. Horse played and did a good job and earned the premiership medallion he missed out on three years earlier. And that was the last game he played for North Melbourne, or anyone else.
But did I think he'd go on to coach an AFL side and be good enough to get that side into a grand final? Sorry, but that thought never crossed my mind. I never pictured him as a coach and never thought he wanted to be a coach.
How wrong I was. Johnny's done a hell of a job with the Swans this year. I said eight weeks ago I thought he should have been named coach of the year and that was well before the finals series had started. I can't speak highly enough of him and how his team has performed this year.
No one will be happier than me if big Horse can complete that journey from the Darwin under-12s carnival to the biggest stage of all on Saturday and join that elite group who've played in and coached premiership teams.
Wayne Carey is a columnist for sports opinion website backpagelead.com.au