Jamie Elliott.

Bright start: Jamie Elliott has attracted plenty of attention despite playing only four games. Photo: Paul Rovere

It's been a hard road to the AFL for young Magpie Jamie Elliott, but he believes the journey has been an education.

JAMIE Elliott was mucking around with his sister when the phone rang. He can remember them racing to listen in when their grandmother answered the call, like they always did. This time, though, he saw more than he overheard: the way she went white, then started to sniff, and shake, and look sad. ''We asked what was wrong,'' he said, ''and she told us the news.''

He knew something bad had happened, but it was much worse than that. Elliott's brother Matthew had been driving from Euroa to Queensland when his car ran off a wet road and into the only tree in sight. Before walking into his brother's hospital room, Jamie told himself not to cry. But the first thing he saw when he got through the door was ''all of the tubes, coming from everywhere on his face and body. It just didn't look right. That's when the tears started to run down my face.''

After Matthew spent his first week in a coma, his doctors suggested it was time to shut his life support system down. The boys' mother, Fiona, wouldn't contemplate it. Elliott understands now how hard it must have been for her to hang in for as long as she did, and is glad that she did.

After 3½ weeks Matthew began to pull through; he is 25 now, doing pretty well. At the time, though, all his brother felt was relief. He felt like things could work out. ''The whole time,'' he said, ''I'd prepared myself for the worst. I'd been through something similar before, and I hadn't been prepared. I wanted to be more ready.''

There are reasons Elliott has looked absolutely ready for his first four games as a Collingwood player. There are reasons why, in front of a big crowd, against a good team at the MCG last weekend, he laid tackles and flew for marks as if he was not fazed at all. When he broke his collarbone last year, six weeks into the Murray Bushrangers' season, he knew that if he didn't learn how to stick to a training program there and then, there was no way he would survive at an AFL club, so he stuck to it. The year before he'd injured his hamstring, not done enough to help it mend and been overlooked, by everyone, in the 2010 draft.

When he was recruited by Collingwood on the first day of trade week, as part of a deal with Greater Western Sydney, he wanted to make the most of the three-week head start he had on the other kids waiting for draft day. He knows he plays for a very good team and that his spot is by no means certain, but he doesn't want to give it up. ''You can't get slack,'' he said, ''in any game or on any day. I suppose that with some of the things that have happened to me and my family, it's bettered me as a person. It's made me not want to give things up, to hold onto what I can. Now that I'm in the team, I don't want to go out.''

MATTHEW'S accident, early in 2009, affected Elliott enormously, for a long time. He was trying out for the Bushrangers as a 17-year-old at the time, but dropped out straight away. The thought of driving unnerved him so much that he didn't want to ever do it. It was only last year, when he had finished school and was working on a farm, that he finally learnt. Or, more accurately, was forced to. ''My boss basically made me drive. He wanted me to do more jobs, so he sat me there and told me to just do it. I thank him for that because it was something I never wanted to do. He broke that fear for me,'' Elliott said.

''It was always in the back of my head, what could happen, all of the risks. Every time I even thought about driving I'd fear the worst. I remember my mum making me drive over to the next town one day, and I was shitting myself the whole way. But all I needed was someone to tell me to do it. That was all it took to overcome it. You can't let yourself think like that, you can't let yourself think about all the things that could possibly go wrong.''

Still, that was what he had become used to. Elliott was born in Lorne but his family moved to Dongara, a small town between Perth and Geraldton, when he was just two. When he was 10 they moved again, to Queensland, after his father Gary was diagnosed with skin cancer. Jamie knew his dad was sick, but he was too young to understand how sick. He didn't really think he would die. The realisation that he would sunk in gradually, over the next few years.

''I think what made me realise how bad it was, was when he couldn't do the same things any more. I used to love kicking the footy with him, and he couldn't do that any more. Then to see him in hospital, lying in the bed, you knew what was going to happen and that it wasn't getting any better from there,'' he said. ''He was my role model. I did everything with him, and then it was all gone. And to see Mum deal with that, to have to get rid of the morphine and basically let him go, I'll never forget that too.''

Things felt tough, from there. Fiona moved her four kids to Euroa, where her mother had a house. She started working three jobs - at a nursing home, an egg factory and in a pizza shop - and studied nursing in her spare time. It meant not seeing her three boys and their little sister as much as she wanted to, but that was the sacrifice she made. ''It's hard, but you have to do it, don't you?'' she said. ''I was thinking: 'I've got four kids to bring up now. How am I going to do this on my own?'''

Jamie, she said, never gave her a moment's trouble. Of the four kids, he was the most thoughtful, bright but quiet. ''He took a lot on. He might not realise how much he took on when he was 10,'' she said. ''He didn't talk about it all that much and he never broke down about it, but he grew up pretty fast.''

He didn't care about things - anything - as much as he had used to. ''When Dad was sick we got away with more than we used to and after he passed it was just mum and she was working a lot of the time, so I got into some bad habits. I started wagging school, just not turning up, not caring any more and when Mum realised what was going on it was a pretty tough time for us,'' he said.

''I think I cherish her more now and respect what she's been through and done for us. I think with what we've all been through, it's brought us together and bonded us more as a family.''

Both of Elliott's brothers live in Queensland. His sister Caitlyn, 18, helps her mum in running the pizza and fish and chip shop, and so does Jamie when he makes it home, like he did briefly this week. Fiona watched him chase down Eagles, then jump all over them, from her uncle's place last Sunday, and loved every second of it.

Elliott can't change what has happened in his life, but doesn't spend too much time wishing he could. ''Of course there are things you would change. Obviously there are, but you can't do that. I think that maybe all these things have come together to make me a better person. At the time, you can only think about how hard it is. But now, I know I want to make the most of things.''