IT WAS a brutal lesson from first-year Carlton coach Alex Jesaulenko that resonated with Mike Fitzpatrick throughout the summer of 1978-79.

A lesson that changed the path of his career and sees him now in the Australian Football Hall of Fame.

An extraordinary crowd of more than 43,000 had shoehorned themselves into suburban Princes Park on August 5, 1978 for the round 18 meeting between fourth-placed Carlton and third-placed Collingwood.

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Jesaulenko had been appointed Blues' coach amid turmoil after round six, with just one win from a dismal start to the season, and the side was now surging up the ladder for a meeting with the traditional rival that would decide key finals' rankings.

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Hall of Fame: Mike Fitzpatrick

Carlton champion, premiership captain and visionary administrator joins the Australian Football Hall of Fame

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Fitzpatrick was back in the ranks for just his second match of the season, having missed the second half of the 1976 season, the entirety of 1977 and all of the early turmoil of 1978 while he completed his studies as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford.

He miscalculated the time he would need to get to the ground through the surging crowd and arrived five minutes behind time for Jesaulenko's team meeting, and the message from the coach hit right between the eyes.

"You're late," Jesaulenko said.

"You obviously aren't too interested in playing now that you're back from overseas.

"You'll play today because you're named, but you'll be in the reserves for the rest of the year and you'll only play again in the seniors for Carlton if you show you're interested."

Mike Fitzpatrick in action for Carlton. Picture: AFL Photos

That day, Fitzpatrick was good up forward with some goals in the strong 41-point win over the Magpies but Jesaulenko, true to his word, sent his ruckman back to the seconds and left him there for the remainder of the season as an example to the team as he built discipline around some gruelling training sessions that still live large in the memory for those players.

In the run to and through September, the coach never flinched on his hard line, even as the Blues would bow out to Collingwood in the first semi. The lasting memory for Fitzpatrick for the year was being Peter Moore's stepladder for Mark of the Year.

"Jezza had one clear rule. If you're not committed, you won't go anywhere in anything," Fitzpatrick says.

The message burned, to the extent that Fitzpatrick drove himself that summer to become the fittest he had been in his life, and a Carlton side filled with talented small men – 'The Mosquito Fleet' – was transformed back to power status when its big man took hold of the VFL.

Mike Fitzpatrick in action for Carlton. Picture: AFL Photos

More mobile than his rivals and an excellent kick for goal with good hands, Fitzpatrick had made a strong first impression in 1975, coming to the VFL after debuting in the WAFL as a teenager and being best and fairest in Subiaco's drought-breaking premiership of 1973.

He was promptly Carlton's best and fairest in 1979 and a powerful presence in that memorable Grand Final.

"After the '78 season, I decided I needed to put in a huge pre-season and really get myself sorted out.

"After pre-season in 1979, I felt I was really ready.

"My partner, Helen Sykes, had arrived from England. I was 26 and I was potentially at the peak of my career and I was committed.

"As a team, we just started well that season. It just went from there and the next five years or so were an absolute peak for the team and myself."

That Carlton team of 1979-82 perhaps doesn't get the respect it deserves from history with three flags, some truly electric attacking football and being only denied four consecutive flags by the 1980 Richmond side and a spectacular internal blow-up that saw Hall of Fame Legend Jesaulenko quit the club at the end of 1979.

"We had that nice mix of talented older guys with experience and younger players ready to emerge, putting pressure on for places. That made us hungry and very good," Fitzpatrick said.

It was no myth that the Carlton side trained hard, expected to win, and went hard off the field when they won.

"The training was huge, the footy was fantastic and the social life was outstanding," Fitzpatrick recalled.

"We partied a lot but we had to earn it with success and if we lost, we got completely flogged on the track. Nobody wanted that."

Fitzpatrick had a fleet of talent at his feet, fed them the ball, provided a marking target when resting up forward. He also had the unwelcome job of protector, when the game was played in a different way than today.

Mike Fitzpatrick in action for Carlton. Picture: AFL Photos

"I think I was the last of the short ruckmen," he laughs.

"I had a good leap (at a time when ruckmen jumped high for the ball) and I could take a mark, particularly up forward. 'Wow' Jones and I would have to settle a few disputes that a few of the smaller guys started, although we did have a couple of small blokes who could handle themselves and didn't need us."

When Jesaulenko walked out with club president George Harris just weeks after the 1979 flag, amid a power dispute, Fitzpatrick was promoted to the captaincy, and asserted himself further across the club and the wider competition.

It rankles still that more coaching support around Jones in 1980 was required, but the arrival of David Parkin saw two more flags in 1981-82, with Fitzpatrick at the forefront in a competition where suburban rivalries ruled.

"You'd look at the fixture to check the big Melbourne clubs and see the games against the likes of Richmond, Collingwood, Hawthorn or Essendon and they were huge suburban events. It was just tribal within Melbourne and fabulous to be part of.

"At Carlton at this time, flags were the only acceptable outcome for the club. It's an over-riding feeling through the whole club that we are going to take this, and it's our job to win the flag."

Mike Fitzpatrick playing for Carlton against Essendon. Picture: AFL Photos

Off the field, Fitzpatrick was rising quickly through the ranks also in his business career, firstly at Telecom (now Telstra) and then with the Victorian Government in a key role that included major international contract negotiations.

"My football balanced my work and my work balanced my football, but it basically meant there was no down time in my life to just relax or do not much," he said.

By 1983, his job had expanded to the point that training sessions were being impacted and a serious ankle injury from late in the 1982 Grand Final had him considering his future – albeit as a young veteran at 30 with 250 games across two states and four premierships in all.

"By the end of 1983, I was slowing down with a bit of age and soreness that affects everyone and it was time for a new part of my life."

The second latter part of Fitzpatrick's life in football is equally significant on the game's history – initially as a club director at Carlton but primarily as an AFL Commissioner and then Chair for a decade.

In his time at the top, the Gold Coast Suns and the GWS Giants enter the competition and the AFLW is created. These are decisions that will impact Australian football long after we are all gone, and with his time given back to the game for no financial reward, but with plenty of hours, plenty of angst and bucketloads of examination and criticism.

Tony Shepherd, Kevin Sheedy and Mike Fitzpatrick on August 25, 2013. Picture: AFL Photos

Why do it and expose yourself to a thousand opinions after you've already had a career's worth of feedback about your playing exploits?

"I had got an awful lot out football and it was an opportunity for me to give time back to the game," he said.

"The AFL has the great advantage that if there is something in the game that needs to be dealt with, we can address with it through the game's leadership right here, unlike most world sports.

"I had a very strong view about the how the game was being played, along with a clear view on what we had to do for the comfort of people going to the game by improving our stadiums, suburban and country facilities, digitise the game by developing the AFL website, app and games, and a few other things.

"I felt all those things needed to change and improve, because our supporters would not tolerate standing around in the rain forever, and it was plainly obvious we needed a much bigger role for women in the game.

"AFLW and women and girls in our game has just been terrific."

Mike Fitzpatrick proposes a toast for Erin Phillips after the Adelaide star won the inaugural AFLW best and fairest award. Picture: AFL Photos

Fitzpatrick admits the pace of the AFLW's growth pleasantly surprised him and remains deeply attached to the role of the Commission in the game and the fundamental changes it can bring.

As Commission Chair for a decade, one of his tasks was to also chair the Hall of Fame selection committee, and this last acknowledgement of a lifetime in football waited while he filled that role.

Across a decade, he quietly told his fellow selectors he wouldn't brook discussion on his candidacy while he was leading meetings, but the recent call from current Chair Richard Goyder was indeed a thrill.

"As Chairman, you used to get to make the phone calls to new inductees and congratulate them on their contributions to our game.

"To be on the other end of that phone call, it was …. just … terrific." There's no break in the voice, but the pause is significant on what it means for him, wife Helen (who was now watched more than 600 VFL/AFL games herself), and the wider Fitzpatrick clan.

AFL chairman Mike Fitzpatrick addressing the media on August 18, 2015. Picture: AFL Photos

It is 50 years next year since St Kilda premiership star Ross Smith led a Subiaco side containing Fitzpatrick to a breakthrough premiership.

The time has rushed and football has given a lifetime of memories and a rich collection of friendships.

"The group of (Barry) Armstrong, (Trevor) Keogh, (Geoff) Southby, (David) McKay, Rod Austin and Perce (Jones) has been an enduring friendship group for 45 years and we still catch up at least once a year. It was an honour to play with them.

"There is another friendship group of the younger players at Carlton like 'Sellers' Maclure and the mosquitos and a lifetime with strong friends like Ross Smith, David Parkin and so many others.

"Carlton still holds a singular place for me. Just playing with those teams, later heading the Blues out, was a treasured experience. I feel I can always go there and it's my club."

Mike Fitzpatrick kicks the ball while playing for Carlton. Picture: AFL Photos

For the usual questions on the best, the rivals, the memories etc, Fitzpatrick says Jesaulenko could do things that no-one else could do, Bruce Doull was the best and most consistent teammate of all the Blues he played with while rival Peter Moore was the onfield measuring stick and now a long-term friend.

Football, study and business life took Fitzpatrick from Perth to Melbourne, Oxford and New York. Even on the other side of the world, he couldn't leave football alone and was helping organise games in Oxford and Central Park.

"I doubt I would have won the Rhodes Scholarship without my football profile, and that opened up so many pathways," he said.

"So much opportunity has come into my life because of football."

Mike Fitzpatrick's career honours

  • 97 games with Subiaco 1970-74, kicking 77 goals
  • 150 games with Carlton 1975-83, kicking 150 goals
  • 11 state games for Western Australia
  • 2 state games for Victoria (captain v South Australia, 1983)
  • Premierships 1973 (WAFL), 1979 (VFL), 1981 (VFL, captain) and 1982 (VFL, captain)
  • 1979 Best and Fairest
  • 1980-83 Captain
  • Director of Carlton Football Club, 1989-95
  • AFL Commissioner 2003-17
  • AFL Chair 2008-17