Ian McKay began his South Australian National Football League (SANFL) career in 1946 and gained state selection that year. From 1948 to his retirement at the end of the 1955 season he captained North Adelaide, leading the club to two premierships in 1949 and 1952. In 1950 he was the first full back to ever win the Magarey Medal, presented to the Best and Fairest player in the SANFL.
Perhaps he is best remembered for an exceptional high mark he took in the 1952 Grand Final over Norwood's ruckman Pat Hall. In 1977 he was selected at full-back in the SANFL 'Team of the Century'.