The early signs of Jimmy Bartel's greatness

Cat Jimmy Bartel's first game was Peter Riccardi's 200th and Dustin Fletcher's 173rd. Riccardi recalls the trio featuring in a passage of play that would define a career that has invited universal admiration.

''I remember I nearly killed him,'' Riccardi said. ''I kicked one out in front of him, and it was a little bit too far out in front of him. You know what Jimmy's like, he's that courageous. Dustin Fletcher nearly cleaned him up coming the other way.''

David Johnson was also making his debut that Saturday night at the MCG, and a much-hyped father-son named Gary Ablett. The three young players were close and rapt to share the moment; Johnson's career would stretch to 79 games, but he feels privileged to have witnessed Bartel's up close via his work in player welfare and development at the Geelong club.

''I feel very lucky that one day I'll be able to tell my son I spent a lot of years with Jimmy,'' Johnson said.

Bartel's own reflections ahead of Thursday night's 250-game milestone typically project out, not in. He feels fortunate to have played in a successful era, grateful to the club for managing that period with an eye to both now and the future. He can't separate one premiership as more special than the other two, nor does one teammate stand alone for influence.

''I got to see how ruthless a competitor Matt Scarlett was; Corey Enright just week in, week out - I don't think I've ever seen him beaten. Cameron Ling, we all know how hard a footballer he was. Joel Corey ... there's so many.''

That Enright, Steve Johnson and James Kelly are still with him enlivens the daily toil. ''Just watching Stevie up close is unbelievable, and how Kel goes about it ... 12 years I've been able to share that.''

His thoughts on Ablett are uncommonly generous: ''I've probably enjoyed his success and watching him play more than my own.''

He remembers the classic local boy's nerves after graduating from fan on the terraces to hopeful on the training track, not feeling he had the right even to use the nicknames of those around him. ''There was a lot of first-name basis for a while.''

His assessment of what has made him as a player - ''a bit of luck, I reckon; I've been fortunate with injuries, good timing'' - is jarringly modest. Yet if Fletcher had matched him game for game, the veteran Bomber would not be breaking Simon Madden's games record this week, he would be within five of Michael Tuck's.

Riccardi recalls how then-Geelong-coach Mark Thompson was hard on Bartel and his soon-to-be-famous contemporaries, making them earn their stripes and place. Johnson remembers a teenager who was not the fittest or fastest, but was always keen to hear what could make him better.

Bartel knows the early years (he played just 11 and 13 games in seasons one and two) shaped him: ''If I didn't go through the hard times early in my career I probably wouldn't have had the length of career I had, I might have been out the door in two or three years.''

Johnson calls him a ''very, very smart man'' who leads an especially balanced life - not just with ball in hand but in the time he spends with his mother and sisters, the part-time studies that have long been a worthwhile distraction, and in the diligence with which he approaches his preparation and recovery. After a decade as a delegate, Bartel recently moved on to the players' association board, figuring there are interesting issues aplenty around the modern game, ''and I wouldn't mind being at the players' table while those discussions are being had''.

He will doubtless lead a meaningful post-retirement existence, but said that for now he is doing what he loves, so has no time to ponder finding a second love. But Johnson is clear how Bartel will approach whatever it is: ''One thing I know about Jimmy, if there's a challenge he'll take it on board and want to grab it with both hands. If he wants it, he'll get it.''

Going on to possibly become only the third Cat to play 300 games is not a carrot in the same way as helping the latest crop of talented youth put Geelong on the top of the pile once more. ''Hopefully, the group coming through is very similar to the group we formed 10 years ago,'' Bartel said. ''I'd like to ride on the coat-tails of their success for a little bit.''

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