As you crossed the Southern Cross railway overpass, you couldn’t help but be caught up in the festive mood amongst the large crowd of 44,287, meandering their way to the ground. All, at least in part, in attendance to bear witness to history. Pallets of Football Records piled high, in readiness for increased demand were conspicuous, behind frantic sellers trying to get to each customer after their piece of memorabilia. Inside the ground Boomer ‘Record’ caps, on sale for $10, were flying out the door as fans bustled in extraordinarily long queues at the merchandise stands.
As the two teams prepared pre-game, Harvey paid homage to Michael Tuck, the man whose record he was passing by wearing a special long-sleeve warm-up top. In a video played to the waiting masses he might also have been channeling a former games record holder, Ted Whitten, in a message to his detractors he ‘stuck it right up ‘em’. You can watch Boomer thank his detractors for ‘being wrong 427’ times here:
His list of detractors was a long one. Despite an impressive junior career culminating with a best on ground in the 1995 TAC Cup Grand Final with the Northern Knights, there was an overriding thought that he just wasn’t big enough for league footy. Forty-six players were selected before the diminutive 17-year-olds name was read out. Even then, having already selected 3 players, it took all of North Melbourne’s Head Recruiter’s persuasive skills to convince Coach Denis Pagan to use selection 47 on Harvey.
The question marks didn’t end with his selection, his new Kangaroos team-mates needed convincing too. After being dropped off by his parents at the Kangaroos first time trial at the ‘tan, Glenn Archer thought he was an autograph seeking fan rather than recognising him as a new recruit. Even after his identity was confirmed North veteran Ian Fairley was bewildered, jokingly asking “have we drafted a jockey or something?”
As Boomer completed his preparations on this July nigh, in the rooms opposite St Kilda coach Alan Richardson was overseeing the Saints last run-throughs. For Richardson, one of 15 coaches in 2016 to have been still playing when Boomer was drafted, it meant another opportunity to share in a special career moment for Harvey. In Round 22, 1996 Richardson lined up for Collingwood against Harvey’s North Melbourne. It was Boomer’s first AFL game, it also happened to be Richo’s last.
It was no mean feat for Harvey to earn his first game. North Melbourne was flying and on the way to that season’s premiership. Premiership medals aren’t easy to come by and players don’t like to give up their hold on a playing spot when they appear to be just on the horizon.
If the lack of opportunity wasn’t a hurdle enough, Boomer still had a skeptical coach to convince he was ready for any such opportunity. It has been said that Denis Pagan would ask Harvey and another rookie to stay behind after training and compete in an old school drill to test desire. He would line them up, kick a ball away from them and demand they fight tooth and nail to be the man to bring the ball back to him. He would then line them up again and repeat until his curiosity was satisfied that night.
It was a valuable lesson for a young Harvey. No matter the situation, there was always another contest to win. You had to always be ready for whatever question League Football asked of you. It was a lesson he heeded, even 21 seasons into a stellar career, Harvey still lead his club by example when it came to preparation and training.
St Kilda made their way onto the playing arena through a banner with a respectful nod to the record-breaker. With their arrival, the excitement and expectation of Boomer’s entrance began to circle the stadium.
A deserved bipartisan standing ovation greeted the little champ when he officially entered the field of battle more often than any other. A special acknowledgment for him and, with his three children joining him, a special moment he was able to share with his family. Something his oldest son Cooper might almost have been sick of, having joined his dad for seven previous milestones. Even in this deserved moment in the limelight, he was able to take the time to make some little fans day, a guard of honour comprised of young North Melbourne supporters all received a high five from their hero.
The game billed as a ‘Final in July’ never really reached any great heights. Despite the error-ridden contest in front of them the crowd was in great voice, especially whenever Boomer went near the ball. The 1999 Premiership Player, four Time All-Australian, five Time Best & Fairest, EJ Whitten Medallist and member of the North Melbourne Team of the Century although in the Kanga’s leading ball-winners was serviceable if not damaging.
The fact that Harvey’s performances could still be judged in such a manner 427-games into his career was some kind of achievement on its own. Unlike other players in the twilight of their careers, the little champ hadn’t limped to the line he had sprinted to it, at 38-years-old he was still one of the club’s best 10 players.
To put this longevity into perspective, 25 of the players who lined up at Etihad Stadium on this record breaking night were yet to start school when Harvey was drafted, four of whom weren’t even born yet. One of the players whose time on earth had been shorter than Harvey’s time on an AFL list was Jade Gresham. Gresham the St Kilda rookie has a special relationship with Boomer, his father Jamie having played with Harvey in the Northern Knights Premiership side of 1995. If you’ve seen Gresham’s evasion and finishing ability (a pick of the bunch you can see here), you’d have to say he’s listened whenever his Dad’s premiership team-mate has given any advice.
With the result long decided, late in the last quarter, Lindsay Thomas’ mark 12 metres out directly in front, resulted in a surprise, the goal sneak hand passing a certain goal to the record man who made no mistake registering career goal 512. While many detractors who had over time suggested Harvey was selfish may have shared knowing nods, Kangaroos supporters shared pure joy, the moment they’d waited and willed all night had arrived.
Their man had delivered. Again.
At the final siren, all eyes turned again to Harvey, with hostilities ended each player made a beeline to congratulate him.
With that, all that was left was the final recognition. To the sound of another standing ovation, long-time team-mates Michael Firrito and Drew Petrie chaired the man of the hour off the field through a guard of honour consisting of each player and umpire.
With that, the AFL Games Record marker was moved to 427, by seasons end when the curtain came down on his legendary career, he had planted it permanently at 432. While he may not have been able to leave the AFL stage with the fairytale ending he wanted, on this night at Etihad Stadium he was at the centre of celebrations fitting of his achievements in the game.