Editor's note: no photographer was available for this assignment. The author had to use his own sketches as substitutes for photos. They are bad, but accurate in spirit.
Do not act like you don't make little disaster plans in your head all the time. The Worst Case Scenario Guide series sold over three million copies worldwide after its debut in 1999 because you constantly make these little plans for yourself and are most likely terrible at doing so. When you have to throw yourself out of a car, roll. If a lion attack is imminent, make yourself look as large as possible, spreading your arms wide and yelling as loud as you can. In event of an earthquake find a sturdy doorframe because you may survive a roof cave-in and suffocate in the wreckage, and that is way worse than being killed by a solid beam crushing your head quickly and mercifully.
You may even have a plan on how to play Aussie Rules football. Your plan is crap, and you should know this from the start. Lesson one: Aussie Rules Football hates your plan.
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I meet the Midtown Bombers and the Westside Bulldogs at a park just south of Memorial Drive in Atlanta. It is an urban neighborhood, a code word for "mostly black and dotted with gentrification cases who like things like Aussie Rules football and stickers endorsing bicycle safety." A few dudes stand in the parking lot on their bikes and wonder what the hell they're looking at; players line up and scan the field for broken glass and golf balls.
Midtown jogs in formation around the field. This seems to impress members of the Westside crew.
"Well, look at that."
"Yeah, but we're not running like that."
"Of course not."
There are Aussies playing, but Americans, too: ex-rugby players, displaced soccer players, and odds and ends who just like a game that moves like Calvinball and hits like rugby union. There are supposed to be a full 18 men on each side, and for the big club, the Kookaburras, there will be. For smaller games like the Bombers/Bulldogs match, they go with the random dudes who show up to the park that day. Today I am "random dude."
The players all looks suspiciously fit for anything you would consider a casual game of footy. This is not comforting.
"Where am I playing?"
I nod. "That's cool. Uh, what does that mean?"
The Bulldogs smile as a group.
"It means you'll be back there with him, and you'll shadow him."
Him is Mike, and he is at least 10 years older than me. Clearly they know what to do with a n00b assignment-wise. As for the rest of the training, it happens in a span of 10 minutes leading up to match time, a time looking ever more serious as we get closer to the bounce.* I'm told a long list of necessary things.
- "Try to kick the ball flat."
- "Don't kick the ball too flat, though."
- "Punch the ball out."
- "At least try to punch the ball out."
- "Okay, that's...let's just have you kick the ball."
- "Maybe you should just try to tackle people."
- "Just stay on the old guy. He might pull something."
- "Be aggressive and come forward on the ball."
- "Stay back and with your man, though."
- "Just stay out of the way and don't hurt anyone."
- "Have fun."
I sign a waiver that includes the magical "INJURY, RISK OF PARALYSIS, OR DEATH" clause any really worthwhile activity includes. This does not look like a lark, a group of expats just chucking around the ball on "teams" in a "park" on a "fun activity with bros being bros." The referee is a mustachioed, fit middle-aged Aussie who walks the field like someone used to a casual but effective use of power. In my imagination he's immediately hopping over landmines on the Kokoro Trail while urging his men forward with a whistle and clipboard.
There are big white goals at either end of the field. Chalk lines circumscribe the cricket oval-shaped playing field. I'm presented the first sleeveless shirt I have worn since the age of eight. The last one died in my only skateboarding accident ever, which ended in a broken arm and me losing a good 30 percent of my skin. This is not a good mental callback.
You forget that Aussies are deeply British. Games are structured and contain rigid rules. Structures keep order. Order is the first friend you make in the wilderness. The wilderness becomes the place you play fun games followed by beer-drinking sessions and tea time if you follow the process well enough. This is how empires are built, and how a people survive a prehistoric continent full of things with fangs, claws, venom, and teeth and become Sydneysiders and Melburnians.
This looks orderly enough, and then the ball bounces and we're off and I remember the other element of all British sports, the most important of all: a thinly veiled excuse for channeling the seething violence order keeps in check.
*The game starts with a bounce of the ball, not a kick, though you can still bounce the ball while running before you kick it, but no laterals, though you can advance the ball by a kind of volleyball punch, too, and...yes, it's confusing. Just go with it.
This is the summary of the match I played in, and please notice something: my name appears nowhere in it. To fill in the blanks of this narrative, I will supply exactly what I was doing during each important bit of the action.
With Western missing Dave's enthusiasm and ruck dominance, Midtown won all the rucks. This proved to be decisive as the first quarter was a Midtown running affair with Simon Davis, playing on the wing, able to get open at will and move the ball forward.
I didn't know what the ruck was until halfway through the match, but it is apparently the part where two players in the middle have a kind of full-contact tipoff. We started winning these later only after Midtown had racked up a five goal lead they kept for much of the match, and when our guy started hitting Midtown's man as hard as he could on the initial jump instead of going for the ball. Turns out that it is hard to go for the ball when an ex-rugby player is chopping you in the ribs in mid-air. Aussie rules is instructive.
What I'm doing: running aimlessly in front of goal chasing a man who is 10 years older than I am and is in far better shape. I go after the ball as it bounces through a mob of rushing players and am thrown clean. I don't even know exactly who hit me or how. It could have been my teammates, it could have been Midtown, or a passing truck could have cut through the park on a shortcut and bopped me nonchalantly to the side. After the game I have claw marks all over my back and cannot explain them. Edit: a passing truck full of werewolves.
I do touch the ball once in the first period, a moment of sheer terror when the lima bean bounces my way. The options menu in my head reads "a. punch ball, b. kick ball, c. click here for what you are going to do."
I click option "C." This happens.
I lateral the ball like I'm playing rugby. Drill Sergeant Wallaby comes over to me and claps me on the back.
"You aren't going to get the ball ever if you do that again, mate."
Mike informs me that he did not tackle me on the play in order to see what I was going to do. He stares at me and nods his head as if this question has been answered for him definitively. Lesson two: Aussie Rules will make you very disappointed in yourself.
I help give up one of the goals in the first period, and we trail at the first break 44-13. Mood: casual.
The second quarter summary from the official recap reads:
After their slow first quarter start, Western started getting into the game, with Wayne Kraska and the late arriving Adam Ellison pushed into more defensive roles, this helped contain the Midtown forward advances. Two goals to Western's Chase Trujillo, the diminutive half forward flanker, gave his team inspiration and they clawed their back into the game.
This is true. After an odious start, my teammates start having a very good game, driving the ball forward with accurate kicking and generating a few goals. The pace seems to have picked up, which is good for the Bulldogs and bad for me because it means Mike has now decided to run the whole quarter, and I am sucking wind like Eddy Curry toting his own bags through an airport.
I compensate by giving Mike the Bruce Bowen treatment and leaning into him with my elbow buried into his back.
"You're going to have to go sideways, Mike."
He goes around me every time I say this. It gets to be quite the running joke. I touch the ball a second time, this time flailing with my foot at a skipping ball punted deep into our goal area in another blind panic. To my shock, it goes forward and away from harm in no particularly strategic direction. Lesson three: Australian Rules Football is sometimes fun via random competence out of blind panic.
Prevailing mood: spirited, but still casual. Halftime arrives and we're down 67-32.
Third quarter highlights take a turn for the sour.
It was turning into a typical Western performance as they showed renewed vigor and had the Midtown players on the back foot. Goals to Trujillo, Bacon and Kraska buoyed the team. Although still losing on the ruck, Western players, like Brent Kewley and Wayne Mitchell, were throwing themselves into packs in an effort to get back into the game. But for all their effort, a late goal from Russ Barner meant that Western had only gained a goal on the Midtown lead, leaving them over 4 goals behind at the last break.
What I was doing: now being subbed, because suddenly in the third the mood went from convivial to a bit nasty. I come off the bench to relieve our back line, specifically a huge man playing without shoes, to show you where I was in the hierarchy. I was replacing people who WEREN'T WEARING SHOES.
I promptly assist in our rally by panicking in a scrum for the ball and lateraling another pass to allow a kick on goal. In fire situations, I am the man who just dumped kerosene on the blaze. A few minutes later the shoeless man comes back in, and I am on the sidelines. Lesson four: Australian Rules is a reminder that though you may be bad at sports, you will be really bad at Aussie Rules because it is a hard sport.
We still trail 80 to 51 at the end of the third. Mood: frustrated and mounting.
Fourth quarter highlights are an example of why everyone else's sportswriting is superior to ours (even on rec league sites):
And true their previous games, Western ran out of puff in the last quarter and they allowed Midtown to kick the first 4 goals in quick succession...The final score justified Midtown's dominance of this game and there can be no complaints about the result.
What I was doing: watching us run out of gas on the sidelines, as it might have been worse had I been in on defense, and that would have been horrendous indeed since Western ends up losing. I also saved the ref the trouble of not being able to foul properly, something we seemed to excel at down the stretch as frustration mounted and tackles got the fine edge of defeated anger to them. i contribute by petting a friendly Aussie Shepherd who sits next to me on the sideline. It is my best contribution to the team on the day. Lesson five: Aussie Rules is humbling.
The whistle blows, and the Westside Bulldogs lose to the Midtown Bombers by a final score of 125-65. Prevailing mood: resignation.
Afterwards everyone circles up, "good games," and there's brief announcements. Nationals will be in Austin, it is announced. The huge barefoot bro I relieved barks out "Everything's bigger in Texas!"
Westside's temporary captain replies "I better go there for my dick's sake."
Everyone adjourns for beer. I turn in my jersey. I touch my knees, both still functioning. Ears: intact, and still sitting firmly attached to my head. The violence promised by reels of AFL Youtube maim-montage never materialized. Oh, one player was firmly decleated on a boundary kick, sure, with our best defender running through him like an enraged PCP-smoking hobo through a wet cardboard box. It looked magnificent and sounded even better, the rush of air flying out of the poor victim's lungs followed by the audible thud of him hitting the grass.
For the most part, Aussie Rules is about fast processing in a crowd. Imagine a zombie movie on fast-forward where you carry a particularly tasty head full of precious brains. Your brains are nice, but the zombies really want the foie gras blue-ribbon brains you're carrying. You then have to run through a mall full of them while advancing it forward both quickly and accurately while using your feet and a ridiculously inefficient secondary way of hitting it forward. The head is really slippery. You have to kick the heads into a Macy's at the end of the mall. You are wearing hot pants. This would make a really amazing sequence in a film and serves as a decent metaphor for understanding Aussie Rules.
As for learning anything worst case scenario lessons, Aussie Rules has one you can carry to any department of life: when in doubt, act quickly and kick the ball forward and hope someone competent can do something with it. Everything else is assuming you're competent. This would be a bad assumption for the general "you" in life, and for the specific "me" on the field.* The final lesson: Aussie Rules understands people are not good at things most of the time.
*All of them. Any of them. Yes.