Essendon tragic BRAYDEN MAY reports on the passing of a Bomber legend; a man whose life story would, in the end, transcend the game he loved and be shared by the family he adored – and the fans who adored him. Anzac Day might never be quite the same without Jack Jones, but Anzac Day at the G stands on the shoulders of this Digger and those who served with him
Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends: John 15:13.
As a 19-year-old Jack Jones was on the frontline – being shot at by the Japanese, watching his comrades die around him and repeatedly (and narrowly) escaping death.
He didn’t have a friend jumping between him and a Japanese bullet or bayonet but his canteen, hanging from his hip, would, in the end, lay down its life for him, taking the hit from a Japanese bullet.
It was a sacrifice that would ensure a dazzling family and sporting future that would end this week.
But in classic Jack style, even that sad moment would come with a flourish.
Jack Jones served in the 24th battalion during the war.
He took that lucky number with him to his beloved Essendon Football Club and his outstanding career there as a Bomber.
Then 24 would be Sarah Jones’ birth date – his first granddaughter.
Who years later would get married on the 24th.
And continue her grandfather’s association with football as an on-air identity with Fox Sports.
Until, finally, on March 24, the life of Jack Jones, soldier, footballer, husband, father, grandfather, great grandfather, family and club icon – and good bloke – came to an end.
But his story passed into legend and will live on.
Scrolling through the world of social media all week, it was clear Jack left an indelible impression on anyone who had crossed his path in all those 95 years – from AFL legends to fans, the message was clear – Jack wanted to talk to you.
Whether you were family, a friend or a stranger.
And that’s the Jack Jones his son John will always remember.
“Dad was a family man who loved people and loved life – that’s how I would describe him,” John said.
“He rang me a week ago and said: ‘I have three weeks max’.
“He lasted a week.
“It was a sad way to see him go.
“He had a great life, but he didn’t really want to go but it was better that he went now in today’s world.
“Dad loved his kids, grandkids and great grandkids. If someone knocked on the door, he would always enjoy their company.
“My father was a legend.”
And his own words, Jack said being kind to everyone was one of the biggest lessons throughout his life.
“I tried to be a good person. I tried to do the right thing,” Jack told the Herald Sun three weeks before his death – where he revealed he had been battling cancer since December.
“My father taught me to treat others how you’d liked to be treated yourself. I think that’s a good motto,” John added.
Before 1995, Jack Jones might have only been a name recognised by the Bomber faithful and his family but Kevin Sheedy’s nationalistic vision of an annual Anzac Day game between the Bombers and their great rivals Collingwood, reintroduced Jack to the world.
The war veteran and Bomber was able to provide a tangible link between the game, all those who had served, and, for Jack, to be able to honour his fallen mates.
In the lead-up to the game each year, Jack’s face would be plastered all over TV and newspapers across the country as the face of the game.
It also led to one of the lesser known but powerfully emotional things Jack brought to the whole experience – taking Essendon’s newest recruits to the Shrine of Remembrance, immersing them in the Anzac story through Jack’s own story and his player bond, that reached out across the decades.
And of course the Anzac Day game was not complete until Jack took his seat amongst the Bomber faithful in a packed MCG.
“Anzac Day was, and always will be, special for our family,” John said.
“Dad loved putting his Essendon tie on and marching down St Kilda Rd. Then he would go off to the footy.
“Unfortunately, he wouldn’t have been able to march this year with everything that is going on in the world.”
John also confessed he had “probably” taken Anzac Day for granted “until I did get a bit older”.
“But I’ve marched on the past 10 Anzac Days, and when you heard all the people cheering him on it makes you realise just how respected he was.
“People in Australia have appreciated him more as the years have gone on. He would be more appreciated now than he was before Anzac Day games started.
“Footy has brought it into the limelight and he loved it,” he said with a warm smile on his face.
Jack was one of the lucky ones to survive the horrors of the jungle war – he was just 18 when he went into the army, was fighting for his life as well as his country as a 19-year-old and was fortunate to be home – minus his canteen – before his 21st birthday.
The things he saw, and suffered, in New Guinea and Bougainville would be, like so many of his comrades, a secret, a mystery to his family because very few of the veterans would openly discuss the war, most would cut off questions with simple answers, such as “I didn’t have to do much”.
John said it would be years before Jack gave his family any details, talk of mates who made it home, and those who didn’t. Young men, like him, who would never get the chance to play footy, have a family, have a future.
The ones Jack marched for every Anzac Day.
“When we were younger, he didn’t speak too much about it, but he did start to open up over the years,” John said.
“He would speak about his mates and some of the things that he did,” he said.
Jack told media “we had a job to do”.
“Here I am fighting the Japanese, and they probably didn’t want to go to war, either. But it was either you or me, and that’s how I looked at it. That’s how everyone thought about it.”
The day after his canteen made the ultimate sacrifice, the then Lance Corporal Jones and his mates were sent out again to find the Japanese.
“Unfortunately, five of our blokes got killed that day. I was lucky again.’’
The war ended in months of isolation and boredom – it would be four months before boats were available to bring the Diggers home; so while they waited they passed the time playing footy, cricket and rugby and ran athletic carnivals to pass the time.
Jack’s talents with a footy in hand stood out and clubs in Melbourne didn’t hesitate to contact him when he arrived home.
“Dad had three different letters waiting for him – from Williamstown and Brunswick in the VFA and Essendon,” John said.
“He loved Essendon, so he wasn’t going to knock back the opportunity.”
After getting a trial game in the senior side Monday’s Herald headline was: ‘Jones shines for Essendon, new recruit’.
That trial turned into 175 games, three premierships – plus the famous 1948 draw with Melbourne.
The trial game was the beginning of a remarkable career for Jones.
Jack has been enshrined in red and black – the life member of the Essendon Football Club also has the club’s development academy named after him.
“He has been good for the Essendon Football Club and they have been sensational for him and they are still great to him,” John said of the connection.
“They always looked after him, they loved him. They gave him a 90th birthday – the club treated him like a king.
“He went to every game he went to every club function. He just loved the environment.
“The club wants to put on a celebration for his life but we’re going to have to wait for that given what is happening in the world.
“Our family is extremely grateful for what Essendon did for Dad.”
Jack couldn’t have timed his arrival at Essendon any better – playing in the club’s golden era.
His teammates included giants of the game, such as Dick Reynolds and John Coleman.
Coleman played 98 games, with Jack alongside him for 97 of those.
The last would become a pivotal moment in Essendon’s – and the game’s – history.
“I remember, Jacky Clarke wheeled out of the centre, I was forward so I led,” Jack had recalled.
“As the ball came, a voice behind me said: ‘It’s mine, Jona’.
“I said to myself, ‘That’s Coley, I better move out the way’.
“He went up for the mark, came down, hurt his knee (it was dislocated) and never played again.
“I can remember it as if it was yesterday. There was a big sigh, you know, he went off the ground, was carried off.
“We both retired at the end of the season.’’
Post-VFL football, Jack moved to Albury where he was a playing-coach, going onto to be named in the club’s team of the century and Ovens and Murray Football League hall of fame.
Along the way, his wife Mary (they were together 72 years) was there every step of the way.
And their family continually grew with the arrival of six children - Lynne, Peter, Brian, Tony, John and Anne.
“Dad met Mum at a dance in Ascot Vale,” John said.
“He was a butcher by trade and worked hard all the time, even when he was playing for Essendon.
“Mum was the disciplinarian, Dad just worked and always made sure there was food on the table for our family.
“We went to good schools, went to university which gave us an opportunity to chase our dreams.
“I never saw him angry. I don’t think he ever told me off as a kid.”
While his kids never reached the big leagues, they still did manage to play a high level of football.
That included Tony and John playing in Tongala’s Goulburn Valley League premierships in the 1980s.
And Jack was always there to support.
“One memory that stands out is when I was about 18. I had just started playing senior footy and Dad would always come to training and games,” John recalled.
“We would always have kick-to-kick before we started training and he would be killing me – even though he was 50.
“He was taking big marks and kicking torps. They are memories which will live with me forever.”
Jack and Mary took a liking to the Goulburn Valley when they visited the region to watch their sons play football.
Tony decided to move to Echuca around 1982, before John followed suit five years later.
And Jack being Jack, he had to find a way to help his children adjust to life.
“In 1987, when we bought the Pastoral, Dad and his brother Syd insisted they paint it for us,” John recalls.
“He was such a giving person you just couldn’t say no. I’ll always be grateful for what he and my mum have done for us.”
Even in the final weeks of his life, Jack was putting his family first.
In January, his great-granddaughter attended her first day of school – across the road from the house Jack was born in.
Ninety years to the day.
Jack’s epitaph would be written by granddaughter Sarah, in her tribute video for Fox Footy: “Pop was born in the Bombers’ heartland and he leaves us in Bombers’ hearts”.