Suport: Aberdeen Tigers' first grade coach and captain Daniel Hoogerwerf with Alex McKinnon's third cousin, Ben Clark at McKinnon Oval this week. Photo: Dean Osland
Despite his successful NRL career, Alex McKinnon always made it a priority to return to his home town of Aberdeen.
The 22-year-old had been laughing with the Aberdeen Tigers first-grade senior team only a couple of days before his devastating injury – which has left him with serious spinal injuries in a Melbourne hospital bed – as he watched them play a trial match in Greta.
On Tuesday the Hunter community remained ‘‘gutted and feeling flat’’ about what had happened. But they stand ready to do ‘‘anything to help’’ when Alex’s father Scott, mum Kate, and girlfriend, Teigan Power, give the green light.
Aberdeen Tigers players show their support for their homegrown hero. Photo: Dean Osland
Speaking on Tueday night at McKinnon Oval – named after Alex’s grandfather, Mal – Aberdeen Tigers first-grade coach captain Daniel Hoogerwerf said his team planned to dedicate the season to Alex, just as the Newcastle Knights have done.
‘‘It’s going to be one of our goals after last season when we couldn’t win a game,’’ he said before training last night. ‘‘This year the focus is going to be to compete and succeed – we’re going to play for Alex.
‘‘One of his good mates who grew up with him pulled out [from the team] when it happened.
Alex McKinnon (back row, third from left) with classmates at St Mary's Primary School, Scone.
‘‘I had a bit of a chat with him and said that Alex wouldn’t want that.’’
Alex’s cousin Ben Clark, who works as a boilermaker, said he was also trying to remain positive.
‘‘It’s hard to put words to it really,’’ he said. ‘‘I’ve been struggling but you just have to stay strong and keep praying every day.
Alex McKinnon (right) holds an under-16 player of the year award in 2007. Photo: Robert Peet
‘‘He’s only two weeks older than me so we grew up together. Everyone [in the family] is hopeful.
‘‘I used to play footy with him from the age of 5 to about 12.
‘‘We won the under-11s grand final together, that was pretty special.’’
Mr Clark said he and Alex had always kept in regular contact despite his cousin’s sporting commitments away from home.
‘‘He’s unreal, he’s nice and he’d do anything for anyone,’’ Mr Clark said. ‘‘He hardly ever drank growing up, he was always dedicated to his football and that’s how he got to where he is – dedication.
‘‘He was just following his dream.’’
Assistant coach of the seniors team David Dever has known Alex since he was a baby.
He said everyone in Aberdeen knew the McKinnon family.
‘‘We all stand ready to help when his family say the time is right,’’ Mr Dever said. ‘‘My father and Alex’s grandfather were on the Aberdeen Rugby League committee together. I played [football] with Alex’s father too.
‘‘Alex had always set himself the goal to play in NRL and he’s done that so the next thing would’ve been to go to NSW and then Australia.
‘‘He never took any short cuts, mate, he was one of the good guys.
‘‘For these kids in the junior Aberdeen Tigers to know him so well, it shows what he’s put back into our community.’’
Mr Dever’s son, Cooper, 14, agreed, saying Alex always took time to kick the ball with the younger kids and give them tips.
‘‘I’ve sent him a couple of messages, wishing him well,’’ he said.
Curtis Irving, also 14, struggled to talk about what happened to Alex.
He said the McKinnon family lived next door to him. ‘‘I look up to him a lot; I see him as someone who has done really well,’’ he said.
Aberdeen resident Bec Johnson said that Alex was in the hearts and minds of everyone in the town.
‘‘It’s just horrendous, he has worked so tirelessly to get where he is in the footy career,’’ she said.
‘‘We’re all feeling pretty flat.’’
Tracy Dent worked with Alex’s father Scott in the town’s abattoirs before they shut down.
‘‘It’s terrible. I don’t think they’d be coping,’’ she said. ‘‘Everyone is sad, it’s not right because he tried so hard to [achieve his football dream].’’
Aberdeen Tigers junior president Pete Emery said there was ‘‘no place like Aberdeen’’ when it came to people looking out for one another.
‘‘They are good genuine people, there wouldn’t be junior rugby league here if it wasn’t for Scott,’’ he said. ‘‘We’ll do anything we can to help them.’’
The McKinnons and Alex’s partner Teigan thanked the public and media on Tuesday ‘‘for the ongoing show of concern and support’’.
‘‘While there is a lot of detail being reported about Alex’s condition, it is important to remember that it is still early days for him post-injury,’’ the McKinnon family said.
‘‘Those close to Alex know he is strong, and that he is a fighter and, that alone, is reason to remain hopeful.’’
Since emerging from an induced coma after surgery to repair vertebrae broken during a tackle against Melbourne Storm on March 24, there has been much speculation about the young Knight’s health prospects.
The Knights club on Tuesday urged fans and the general public to remember it was still early days in terms of McKinnon’s recovery.
‘‘While Alex’s condition continues to improve, his body is in the first phase of recovery,’’ a club statement said. ‘‘As previously shared, [Alex] has movement in his right arm and the uncertainty remains in the extent of further recovery. The doctors explained any regeneration and recovery could be up to two years.
‘‘To members, fans and all who are sending their best wishes, thank you.’’
NRL chief executive Dave Smith said he would discuss the league’s ongoing support for McKinnon with the player’s family and the Knights ‘‘at the appropriate time when there was a better understanding of Alex’s needs moving forward’’.