But after an AFL panel of concussion experts gave him the all clear last November to work towards a comeback he defied expectations when he was allowed to run by February and given permission to take part in contact work by April as part of his return-to-play program.
On a Zoom call this week the refreshed McCartin told The Age he has been running, doing weights and hitting the Wattbike with the hope of being on an AFL list when pre-season starts.
Most importantly he is happy after being symptom-free all year and confident enough in the medical advice that left the door open for a resumption to playing football.
“I am good to go. I feel really fit. I feel motivated and I feel like I am going to be fine,” McCartin said.
“It has not been one of those things where I think I have to do it, I really want to do it … and that is all off the back of the medical clearance that I was given about 10 months ago.”
All the No. 1 draft pick from 2014, who is now a free agent, needs is a club to recognise his upside enough to do their due diligence and give him an opportunity.
The Saints, who have no priority access to him, remain non-committal, their position unchanged since football manager Simon Lethlean said on radio in August they will consider where McCartin might fit as part of their post-season list management planning.
“I hope it works out for him here or elsewhere in the months ahead but he’s certainly positioning himself to be able to do that which is great,” Lethlean told SEN.
The clearance to keep the prospect of football alive came after an AFL panel of concussion experts assessed McCartin’s situation.
“When we went into that meeting that day we basically said that if they said to me that they thought that anything I did from this point onwards would in fact increase the risk of me getting another concussion or me getting back to where I was compared to any other player in the league I was going to retire,” McCartin said.
His aim, as he went through a rigorous rehabilitation process in 2019, was a return to normal life after the most recent of eight concussions halted his AFL career and affected his quality of life when he copped an innocuous knock in a pre-season match in Ballarat.
He estimates he’s had 10 scans at the Florey Institute between 2016 and 2019 and his brain was declared fit after his most recent scan.
In 2019 he was a regular at the Epworth Concussion Clinic and he did demanding eye exercises with a sports chiropractor in South Yarra and in Chicago as he overcome conversion spasms (his eyes would cross involuntarily) that gave him headaches.
“[The rehabilitation] was always going to be about getting back to a normal life. It was just last year working out whether that was going to involve footy or not and it does. That was the great part for me,” McCartin said.
McCartin has always followed his doctors so he sees his decision to play as based on sound medical direction, akin to getting clearance to ramp up his activity towards a return to play from any other serious injury. He has had no issue since that clearance.
“All the advice they have given me is the only advice that I can really take on board,” McCartin said.
“They [concussion experts] have said to me is that at the time it was a significant injury and significant in terms of symptoms and how I was feeling but they also said that with the right treatment and the right processes in place that it would all subside and that it would all go back to normal.”
He knows many will ask whether his desire to return is sensible given the impact concussion had on him in 2018 and the increasing concern about its impact but he also provides a beacon for others wondering whether they can recover.
Danny Frawley, who was diagnosed with CTE after his death last year, was coaching at the Saints during McCartin’s time at the club. McCartin loved him and is well aware CTE is a major issue in sport.
He knows retirements due to concussion are common and he was prepared to follow the path of his former teammate Koby Stevens if that was the option presented. McCartin welcomes the discussion around concussion and growing awareness around its impact.
However his girlfriend Lucy, friends and caring family know the path that has led to this comeback underlines how every individual is different when it comes to concussion and support him to the hilt, confident McCartin is not being foolhardy.
“People say, ‘Are you sure it is worth it?’ ” McCartin said.
“And I honestly thought a lot of times last year that’s probably it for me. I felt horrible and felt really crook and thought I don’t know whether I am going to get back from this but the decision is testament to how confident I feel in the advice I have been given from the doctors and how am I feeling.
“[Concussion] is an emotional injury and people feel as though they are looking out for my best interests and think that it is probably best for me not to but I would not be doing it if [I felt] there was any greater risk.
“The main thing [with concussion] is that the person who is going through it gets through it and they get back to a place where they feel really happy and able to live a normal life and for me I am really hoping that is going to involve footy.”
McCartin kicked 34 goals in 35 games for the Saints between 2015 and 2018, his sticky hands and presence inside 50 underdeveloped as he struggled for the continuity needed to fulfil his talent.
St Kilda put him off their list this season to enable him to work on his recovery out of the public eye. They kept the door open to potentially relisting him, allowed him to use the facilities and developed the program that has him fit as a bull. But never has anyone given him guarantees.
“It will be interesting to see what happens. I am hoping to get on a list but where it is at this stage I am not too sure,” McCartin said.
He has made his call and done the work and presented AFL clubs with a decision to make as McCartin explains his rationale clearly and succinctly.
He accepts that clubs will have plenty to consider and he is prepared to jump through whatever hoops they put him through.
“If they have given me the all clear to get back and play and they reckon I am at no greater risk then I’d be stupid not to,” McCartin said.
“I’m 24. I’m not 30. I have got a lot of years. I’m giving it another crack and I would not be doing it if I did not think I had a bit to offer.”
Peter Ryan is a sports reporter with The Age covering AFL, horse racing and other sports.