Not Jesse Owens in Berlin, not the U.S. Men's Olympic Ice Hockey team in Lake Placid.
History's about to happen, but it won't even register a blip on the American radar. Still, one man from the Southern Bible Belt and another from a Midwestern suburb will achieve an American athletic first.
Eric Wallace, of Winston-Salem, N.C., and Jason Holmes, from Elk Grove Village, Ill., face each other, wearing their familiar tank-top jerseys and shorts. An official with a whistle around his neck holds the ball, ready to retreat and watch them vault upward, furiously trying to tap it to a teammate. But before the improbability of their meeting here at this place, at this time hits home, the umpire bouncing the red, oblong ball inside a chalk-outlined circle on the enormous oval expanse of grass underfoot snaps them into their new reality:
Wallace and Holmes may soon become the league's first-ever, born-and-bred American players.Two Americans — Jason Holmes, left, and Eric Wallace — compete against each other in an Aussie Rules match. (Mark Bruty / North Ballarat Football Club)
Australian Rules football.
It's best known here as "footy" and it's this country's national pastime. Until three years ago, Wallace never heard of it. Holmes only caught fleeting glimpses while late-night TV channel surfing. Until now, at Eureka Stadium, in Ballarat, in the Australian state of Victoria, where the North Ballarat Roosters are taking on the Sandringham Zebras, in more than 150 years of professional footy, no two Americans have ever played in the same match, let alone directly against each other. The Australian Football League (AFL), the country's national, elite pro league, currently includes one Canadian player, three with American fathers and in the past has had a handful born stateside, but raised in Australia. The 2015 AFL season will begin in April and when it does, both Wallace and Holmes may soon become the league's first-ever, born-and-bred American players.
Wallace, the 6'7 Rooster and Holmes, the 6'9 Zebra, were once basketball forwards in the Big Ten and Ohio Valley Conferences — Wallace for Ohio State and Holmes for Morehead State. Now they play the position of "ruckman" in the Victorian Football League (VFL) — an AFL minor league — contesting the center bounces in the "ruck," that begin footy matches, or in this case, re-start play after a goal has been kicked. Ruckmen also must follow the ball as it's being played, contest umpire boundary throw-ins after balls go out of bounds and also be tall targets in a team's forward line so they can "mark" (catch) teammates' kicks and afterward, hopefully, kick goals (for more about how the game is played see the sidebar "Aussie Rules 101").
As rare as American players may be, African-Americans are even rarer in this rural town of about 100,000, 70 miles northwest of Melbourne, best known for its brick and bluestone Victorian buildings and a bloody 19th century rebellion of gold miners against British colonial soldiers. To the curious, buzzing crowd of several hundred, this moment must seem surreal.
While Wallace, who the AFL's North Melbourne Kangaroos signed in 2012 and Holmes, inked a year later by the league's St Kilda Saints, hope to be promoted, the Collingwood Magpies, a third Melbourne-based AFL club (there are nine in the 18-team league), recently signed 6'11 former college basketball player Mason Cox. He's slated to see his first VFL action in March.
It's no accident. For the last three years, an American college basketball guru has steered collegiate basketball players with size, athleticism and limited pro hoops opportunities to under-the-radar, two-day combines run by AFL scouts looking for players on American soil. But before being signed, the former hoopsters must first impress AFL scouts in speed, agility and basic footy skills drills. Then they must survive the league's grueling two-week Draft Combine in Melbourne against top-tier Aussie teenage talent. Finally, they must prove they can adjust to Australian life and find a place within a sporting culture that highly values humility and a team-first ethos. Only then might they make history.
In the Eureka Stadium ruck, Wallace and Holmes take their stances: legs apart, knees bent, arms free. In team meetings leading up to this standoff, Zebras' coaches, in true Australian spirit, "take the piss out of" (mess with) Holmes, showing a spoof slide show of the two men, hyping their anticipated clash. The umpire now holds the footy high overhead, with one hand at each end, then lunges forward on his front foot and slams it down.
The ball rises high and so do these two American neophytes — not only to win this ruck contest and the game, but also, as Cox will learn, to meet their biggest athletic challenge yet.
Jason Holmes (Dave Savell / Sandringham Football Club)
Inside a Brooklyn office, a man keys in digits on his mobile phone to a number in Michigan. He knows the man on the other end will greet his cold call with surprise at best, derision at worst. The caller is Jonathan Givony, a college basketball junkie, founder of the worldwide professional basketball scouting website, draftexpress.com — and, for the last five years, an AFL consultant on the side.
Australian Rules Football 101
Basics: Two 18-player teams (each has four reserves) compete on grass ovals longer and wider than American football fields, trying to outscore each other by kicking an oblong, leather ball through a pair of parallel, crossbar-less goal posts at the oval's opposite ends, 20-feet high and 21-feet apart, for goals. Matches start much like a jump ball in basketball, with a field umpire bouncing the ball in the middle of the field, with two tall opponents battling to tap the ball to a teammate, to advance it.
Players are positioned are in the forward line, back line and midfield, but may go anywhere on the field.
Rules: Players may only pass the ball to teammates by kicking or "handballing" (holding the ball in one hand while striking it with an opposing closed fist). Throwing or handing off the ball is illegal. So is running with it for more than 15 meters (about 16.5 yards) at a time, without bouncing it. If a player's kick travels at least 15 meters, the player "marking" (catching) it on the fly may either back up from the mark, which an opponent cannot step over, and then resume play, or may immediately "play on," by running, kicking or handballing. Tackling above the shoulders and below the knees is illegal. If a player has had prior opportunity to kick or handball before getting tackled and doesn't, the tackler wins possession. Similar to the NFL's pass interference rules, AFL defenders attempting to "spoil" (bat away) or intercept in-flight balls opponents are trying to mark may not push them in the back, chop their arms or hold them. All infractions are penalized by free kicks to rival players.
Scoring: Goals are worth six points and can travel through the goal posts by air or on the ground. If the ball hits either of the goal posts, or a player touches it before it goes through them, or if a kick goes between one of the goal posts and one of two shorter, adjacent "behind posts," the kicking team scores a one-point "behind." Defenders "rushing" the ball by carrying it across the goal line if there's no option to pass it to a teammate also results in a behind, similar to an American football player conceding a safety. Typical AFL final scores show goals, then behinds, then point totals. Example: Hawthorn's 21(21 goals x 6 = 126). 11 (11 X 1=11) 137 (126 +11 =137 beat Sydney's 11.8 74) in last year's Grand Final.
Timing: Matches are played in four 20-minute quarters, with "time on" (stoppage time) progressively added throughout each, for when the ball goes out of bounds, or after a goal has been kicked and then returned for an ensuing center bounce. There are no timeouts. Six-minute breaks occur after the first and third quarters, with a 20-minute halftime intermission. Each quarter begins - and play restarts after goals - with an umpire bouncing the ball in the oval's center circle (the ruck), with two opposing "ruckmen" battling to tap the ball to a teammate.
Tie scores at the end of regular-season matches result in draws, but in the finals, scores are settled after two 5-minute periods. If the Grand Final is a draw after four quarters, the two sides replay the game the next week.
History: The sport's ancient roots are thought by some historians to rest with the indigenous people of what later became known as Victoria, including the Woiwurrung, Gunditjmara, Djabwurrung and Jardwadjali. They played a kicking game called marn grook ("game ball" in the Woiwurrung language), using a ball made of possum hide filled with fine ashes. Thomas Wentworth Wills, an Australian-born cricketer with a lifetime of personal interaction with Aborigines (and thus fluency in the Djabwurrung language and cultural knowledge of their society), is credited with being a key figure in developing and codifying the contemporary game in 1858.
Organization: The Australian Football League (AFL), the sport's nationwide, elite competition, has 18 clubs - half are Melbourne-based. They draft teens from regional under-18 leagues. AFL teams play a weekly, 22-game season, from late March/early April through September. The top eight clubs play four "finals" rounds, with the survivors playing the Grand Final at the 100,000-seat Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG).
It's early April. Givony is doing what he does every year at this time, just after the end of March Madness. He's contacting about 100 NCAA centers and forwards he's tracked on an Excel spreadsheet, inviting them to the latest AFL scouting combine, which eventually could lead to a professional footy contract. If 60 or so respond to his calls, emails or Facebook queries, it's a victory for Givony. Even better if 20 of the players actually attend the combine. Still, many of his overtures go unanswered, likely dismissed as a scam like the one in which the sender poses as a long lost friend, having a personal crisis overseas and desperately needing an immediate wire transfer of cash.
Today, Givony's target is Evan Bruinsma, a 6' 8, 214-pound, former University of Detroit forward, who averaged 13 points and eight rebounds per game in his senior year.
Inside a classroom of about 20 to 30 students in a strategic business policy class, Bruinsma's mobile phone suddenly and unexpectedly vibrates. He discreetly takes the phone out of his pants pocket, peeking at the screen, but not recognizing the area code. Who can it be now? He's so intrigued he ducks outside, into a hallway to take the call.
"Hello?" Bruinsma asks.
"Hi. I'm Jonathan Givony and I'm with the Australian Football League. I invite college basketball players to a scouting combine in Los Angeles to try out. What are your thoughts?"
This must be a prank, Bruinsma's gut tells him.
A guy with an American accent asking him, a basketball player, if he'd be interested in trying some Australian sport he'd never heard of.
An awkward pause.
"Have you got the right guy?" is all Bruinsma can think to ask. "Are you sure you have the right number?"
"Yes," Givony says.
Givony assures Bruinsma this isn't a reprise of MTV's "Punk'd." He says he'll send YouTube links, so he can see how the sport is played, and how — really — there actually are some other former American former college basketball players he invited to this same tryout years ago, now playing footy in Australia.
"Maybe I'll get back to you," Bruinsma says, then ends what seems like a weird conversation.
The weirdness doesn't stop Givony from contacting more college hoopsters contemplating going pro in Europe or Asia, great athletes who nevertheless have just about reached their basketball ceiling, offering them an unconventional, yet intriguing alternative in pro sports. For Bruinsma, 22, from tiny New Era, Mich., the free trip to L.A. is pretty exciting. The long shot of playing a new sport in Australia might be better than playing in a low-level basketball league in a country with language and cultural barriers. Givony also makes the same pitch to Marvin Baynham, a 22-year-old, 6'6 former forward at Georgia Southern University.
Givony, 32, personally attends hundreds of college basketball games and practices each year, scouting centers and power forwards for the AFL. Paul Roos, current head coach of the league's Melbourne Demons, known in footy circles for his forward thinking, first called Givony several years ago, at the suggestion of iconic Notre Dame basketball coach Digger Phelps, who he met through a mutual Aussie friend. Roos made a strange request of Givony, asking him to keep his eyes open for athletes who possibly could make the transition.
"I didn't think he was crazy at all," Givony recalls.
"There's not much size coming out of Australia these days. Where's the size gonna come from? There's an unlimited supply of American big men. There are 350 colleges in [NCAA] Division I with 12 guys on the roster and four of them will be 6'7 or taller. There are tons of guys graduating every year and only a handful will be drafted. Some will have meaningful basketball careers and have shelf life. For others, there's not much of a future."
"There's not much size coming out of Australia these days. Where's the size gonna come from? There's an unlimited supply of American big men."Jason Holmes (Dave Savell / Sandringham Football Club)
While some Americans might earn hundreds of thousands of dollars annually playing in Europe, and a handful top $1 million, in lesser leagues the pay is far more modest. One American recently signed to play for a Spanish third-division club for only $1,500 a month.
Bruinsma eventually buys in. Baynham also comes on board. After excelling in vertical jump, agility, sprint and footy skills tests at their L.A. auditions, the AFL flies both men to Melbourne in late September for its Draft Combine. The league pays for their accommodations, meals and hosts them at its biggest event, the Grand Final, the Super Bowl-like extravaganza, featuring its two best teams.
"I had nothing to lose. Plus," Bruinsma deadpanned, "I could get a picture with a kangaroo."
Givony knows a few things about living abroad, having split his childhood between Brooklyn, Miami and Israel, where he rode the bench as a teenager for a youth team in Moshav Ein Yahav, a rural Israeli village. But the man knows his college hoops and has quickly learned Australian football. Before he found Wallace, Holmes and Cox, in recent years he also recruited other college basketball big men: Alex Starling (Bethune-Cookman University), Mark Cisco (Columbia University) and Patrick Mitchell (University of North Dakota). All gave footy a go, but didn't make the cut.
Bruinsma doesn't get his planned selfie with a kangaroo, but he later earns an invitation to join North Melbourne players at a Utah high-altitude performance camp. By then, though, Bruinsma has decided to move on — he signs a deal with a Maltese pro basketball team. Baynham attends that Utah camp, and now anxiously waits at his Fort Lauderdale, Fla., home, hoping for an offer. A strong showing at a high-performance camp, beginning days from now, across the state in Bradenton, with Aussie teens in the AFL Academy and scouts from multiple AFL clubs watching, can only help.
But making it in footy isn't only about talent. While Americans face no language barrier and the Australian culture seems familiar, subtle differences can create awkwardness and tensions similar to what many American professional baseball players experience playing in Japan.
"American athletes are very individual," says Chris Johnson, the AFL's national talent diversity manager, three-time premiership player for the league's Brisbane Lions and member of the league's Indigenous Team of the Century. "Footy relies on teamwork. When Kobe [Bryant] finishes, there'll still be the Lakers. When Peyton [Manning] finishes, there'll still be the Broncos. In AFL, the club will outlast any player."
Collingwood, the AFL's richest and most historically powerful club — as loved and loathed throughout Australia as the New York Yankees are in America — say Shae McNamara, who they signed in 2009 after a college basketball career at Marist College, didn't get that. But McNamara, released after the 2012 season, says politics, age, lack of coaching and the team's strength squeezed him out.
He first tried out for Roos and the Swans before the Pies took a flyer on the 6'8 forward, liking his height, agility, athleticism and his burning desire to be the first to blaze a new trail. At 24, he was a quick study, too, impressing teammates by quickly grasping how to kick with each foot, improving his endurance and learning how to play ruckman and offensive and defensive roles.
Melbourne's footy media, playing on the title of Don McLean's 1970s seminal folk-rock song, dubbed him "American Pie." He kicked a goal in a 2011 nationally televised preseason game against the Swans, but spent the year in the minor league VFL. In 2012, after playing in all three of the club's three preseason games, the stars seemed aligned for him to make history.
But just like the previous two years, it was back to the minors. Collingwood, had won the 2010 Grand Final, then lost it in 2011 and contended in 2012, finishing fourth.
"I was unlucky to be on such a good team," McNamara says. "If I played on a lesser one, I would've had an opportunity. I did well in the preseason, but [the coaches] didn't have the guts and the courage to put me out there on the big stage."
McNamara says he was deprived of sorely needed coaching.
"The coaches didn't have time to baby me," he says. "They didn't really coach me; they sent me to the wolves."
Magpies' management tells a different story.
"Shae had enormous talent and we gave him three years," says Collingwood Recruiting Manager, Derek Hine, while sipping a coffee inside a club-owned cafe inside Westpac Centre, the club's state-of-the-art training facility.
"But he wasn't humble when he came in. We talk a lot here about a new player earning respect within the playing group. In Shae's first week with us, he was talking to us about getting shoe contracts. We have some players in the offseason working hard all day, from 8-to-8. Shae was more of a 9-to-5 player."
Collingwood, in a reloading mode, didn't offer McNamara a contract for 2013. It was bye-bye, Mr. "American Pie." After the rival Hawthorn Hawks chose a younger player over him after a tryout, McNamara left the game and Australia, with only hard feelings.
"I don't watch it," McNamara says of footy today. "It's out of sight, out of mind."
The footy community frowns on players' self-promoting, self-indulging and especially "whinging" (complaining), which likely cops a coach barking, "Toughen up, princess!" American pro athletes' on-field choreographed celebrations and emotive histrionics may make great TV in the U.S., but doesn't play in Oz.
"I tell the players, ‘Bring it down a notch,'" Givony says. "Be modest. The purpose of their game is not to talk yourself up."
Jason Holmes (Dave Savell / Sandringham Football Club)
The Sandy Dandy
From the follicles of his close-cropped hair to the soles of his size 14 boots, he's got them. Not just from the liters of liquid cascading over and splashing off him. For Jason Holmes, it's more about emotion. He's 24, but inside the visiting club's locker room at Frankston Oval, in Melbourne's sprawling southeast suburbs, he's officially become one of the boys. Since November 2013, he's been sweating, bleeding and bonding with them. Holmes, a lean, 225-pounder with a beaming, boyish smile and a pair of Clark Kent-esque glasses he wears off the oval, isn't totally cool with being the center of attention.
he's officially become one of the boys. He's been sweating, bleeding and bonding with them.
Now, he has no choice.
He can't beg out of a recently invented ritual reserved for all new players, from the youngest, on recreational clubs to the most seasoned, AFL premiership-winning vets: The Sports Drink Shower. All boys get one after playing in their first win for their new club, while joining their new teammates in singing — more like yelling, actually — with gusto, their club anthem. Holmes, only 19 months removed from playing in the post for Morehead State, is now a pro ruckman in his first game for the Zebras, the Saints' VFL affiliate. The Zebras have beaten the host, Frankston Dolphins, 17. 5 107 to 11.21 87 (for more about scoring see the sidebar "Aussie Rules 101").
He doesn't yet know the words, but Holmes recognizes the anthem's oddly appropriate tune, "Yankee Doodle Dandy," and does his best to belt out:
We're the Champions from Sandy
Mates in everything we do
We will show them how to play the game
We'll win the Premiership, too!
We're the team they call the ‘Zebras,'/steadfast, Loyal, Strong and True
When it's rough we just get tough
We're never known to falter/We wear the yellow, black and blue
What a way to break in.
Odysseus has nothing on Holmes, when it comes to long, complicated journeys. In Holmes's early childhood, his father Kevin — who played college hoops at DePaul University in the 1980s — played pro basketball in Europe, Asia and the Middle East, so Holmes briefly lived in Europe as a toddler. After high school in Chicago's northwestern suburbs, Holmes played basketball at Cochise College in Sierra Vista, Ariz., at Mississippi Valley State in Itta Benna, Miss., and finally at Morehead State University, in Morehead, Ky.
A YouTube clip Givony emailed, not his initial phone call, inspired Holmes. He saw Nic Naitanui — the AFL's Perth-based, West Coast Eagles' dreadlocked, Fijian-born star ruckman — flying onto a teammate's shoulders, taking an impressive grab from another's kick.
"I saw ‘Nic-Nat,' that one black man [marking] with all the other players on the field," Holmes says. "I thought, ‘I wanna do that.'"
After Holmes impressed at both U.S. and Australian combines, St Kilda signed him to a two-year international rookie contract.
"I feel like I should be journaling all this," Holmes says, on a fall night at Farm Stand, an El Segundo, Calif., organic restaurant, during a four-hour layover before the 15-hour, nonstop flight from LAX to Melbourne, where he's getting a three-month jump on preseason.
"I'm a big fan of sports memoirs and one day I want to write mine. I was baptized by fire in the VFL. Going into the league finals, I'd think about how hard it's been — a year ago I couldn't kick. I should've been lucky to get [to play] five VFL games, but I played the whole season. I'm gonna learn so many more things this year."
Holmes is so dedicated to his fitness; he turns down another dinner option: fried chicken and waffles at a soul food place. As Holmes finishes a kale chicken Caesar salad, a woman rushes up, throwing her arms around him.
"There's my big ol' boy!" affectionately shouts Holmes's aunt, Deidre "Dee-Dee" Holmes, who has brought her 16-year-old son, his cousin, Corey Crenshaw. The Holmes' are as worldly and athletic as they are tight-knit. Holmes is one of three brothers playing three different professional sports on three different continents. Jason's younger brother, Mark plays pro basketball in Switzerland, while older brother Andre is a wideout for the NFL's Oakland Raiders.
Holmes's competitive edge was forged playing basketball and football against them on the gravel driveway and in the snow-covered front yard outside the family's two-story townhouse, in Elk Grove Village. As the brothers played and scrapped, Holmes heard plenty of trash talk. But not even that, four years of college hoops, and Wallace's advance scouting report could prepare Holmes for the landfill's worth of verbal abuse dumped on him in his eighth game by Collingwood's VFL club's Ben Hudson — an AFL-hardened veteran and master in the lethal oral art of what Aussies call "sledging." From the opening bounce to the final siren that ends the match three hours later, Hudson, a 6'6, 35-year-old whose thick auburn carpet of hair and bushy beard could get him cast as a swashbuckling buccaneer in "Pirates of the Caribbean," was relentless. After Hudson out-leaped Holmes and batted the ball to a teammate to start play, he loudly questioned the tutelage of Holmes's development coach, Paul Hudson (no relation).
"'Huddo' didn't teach you that one, did he?"
Later, after Hudson won another ruck contest, he yelled:
"This isn't basketball, mate!"
Holmes wisely resisted matching wits. Gradually, the tide turned, both in the ruck and on the scoreboard. The Zebras and Holmes got more physical. Suddenly, the "hitouts" — the all-important metric tallying the number of times a ruckman wins the ball from a center bounce, boundary throw-in, or ball-up, tilted Holmes's way. The more Hudson jawed, the more Holmes realized he was succeeding. He wasn't annoyed; he was flattered. When the game ended, Holmes had 27 hitouts, versus only 17 for Hudson. Most importantly, the Zebras won by 44 points. Afterward, Hudson still had to have the last word. He told Holmes:
"Well done, mate."
Hours after Hudson's handshake and compliment, the match's umpires, who rank its three best players, paid Holmes an even greater one. The VFL player with most umpire votes at season's end wins the league's highest individual honor, the coveted J.J. Liston Trophy, awarded to its best and fairest player. Holmes was sitting on the couch of the apartment he shares with a teammate, playing video games, when he looked at his phone and saw a text from another teammate:
Jason Holmes (Dave Savell / Sandringham Football Club)"He's representing the USA in the proudest way. He's respectful and cooperative, warm and engaging."
"You picked up a Liston vote!"
"Jason was on, I was off," recalls Hudson, who gleefully admits the on-field banter is gamesmanship. Now retired, he runs an academy for developing ruckmen and is the Lions' ruck coach. "He threw me around a few times. I don't reckon I got my hand on many of the center bounces. He surprised me. He's athletic, he can run and he was hard to move around on."
In a team-oriented game that doles out individual merits on scales, in five of the 19 games Holmes played in, his coaches ranked him in the team's top-five of his team's performers. St Kilda's former head of football, Chris Pelchen, who recruited and signed Holmes, rates his season as an eight on a scale of one to 10, but only a five when compared to opponents who've been playing footy their whole lives. In character, though, Pelchen gives Holmes a perfect score.
"We asked him if his motivation to come to Australia was financial," Pelchen says, "but Jason has never asked if he could have more money. We learned his basic desire is to take on something new and be the best. He's learned the history of our club on his own initiative. He's representing the USA in the proudest way. He's respectful and cooperative, warm and engaging."
But like other AFL American hopefuls, Holmes has a blooper reel, albeit a small one. One gaffe, in a game against the Williamstown Seagulls, left him momentarily embarrassed and caused opposing fans to laugh out loud. After taking a mark in his team's defensive end, he saw a speeding teammate flash by, about 15 meters away, screaming for the ball. But Holmes's attempt to hand-pass — striking one end of the ball with a closed fist, while holding it in the other hand — went well behind the teammate, helping gift the opponents a goal opportunity.
"He's got a lot to learn around the ground and he struggled with his kicking early in the year," says John Mennie, the Zebras' longtime CEO. "But the supporters love him. When he gets the ball, people go quiet and they're like, ‘Oh, what's he gonna do with it?'"
Unless they traveled to Avalon Airport Oval for a road game against the Werribee Tigers, most missed seeing the best thing Holmes did with the ball all year. Holmes outran an opponent deep in his team's forward end, correctly read a long kick's flight, leapt over a second opponent and marked it on his chest, about 15 meters from goal.
In three earlier contests, he had missed shots on goal, settling instead for one-point "behinds." This time, despite having to kick from an acute angle, Holmes booted the ball majestically between the posts for his first goal.
His smile was bright and as he raised up his arms and hands to high-10 his teammates, they mobbed him. More chills for Holmes and an eventual win for the club. St Kilda finished last on the AFL ladder in 2014 and is rebuilding, which might bode well for a Holmes debut this season. But the team brass is adamant: It won't gift Holmes a game for history's sake.
Mastering his position's finer points — "leading," (finding open space for teammates to kick to him) and building his "tank" (developing more endurance) so he can keep pace for four quarters — is Holmes's offseason mission. So is perfecting his kicking. His own American football-playing brother is the best predictor of whether he'll make it in the Australian game.
"Jason always plays with fire," Andre Holmes says. "When he sets his mind to being good at something, he does well."
The bigger the fire, the more chills might come.
Eric Wallace (Adam Trafford / Ballarat Courier)
He doesn't yet know it — that'll come a few whirlwind seconds from now — but Eric Wallace is about to perform footy's most daring feat. It's a thing of beauty: rare, acrobatic, and, well ... RIDICULOUS. The unfolding scene is more like something from a CGI-enhanced action flick like "The Matrix," or "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," in which a freakishly skilled martial artist bends gravity's rules, freezes time, and then defeats a bewildered antagonist.
In the colorful language of "footyspeak," there are hundreds of hyperbolic synonyms and phrases for all parts of the game. These sacred few are reserved to describe a mark taken in spectacular fashion: "specky," "hanger," "screamer," "ripper," "monster grab." In this instance, they all apply.
The Roosters are on the road at Simonds Stadium, in Geelong. Wallace charges forward from the middle of the ground as a booming kick arcs toward him and a pack of three other players like a descending cannonball. In one motion, Wallace soars, plants his left knee on the left shoulder of the opponent in front of him, swings his right knee up and off the same opponent's right shoulder and extends both arms forward, over a teammate's outstretched hands. Wallace is completely unaware of an opponent's swinging fist directly behind him, trying to bat away the incoming projectile.
"Ohhhhhhhhhhhhh!" the awed crowd roars a second later, after letting out a big, audible gasp, after Wallace — hanging in the air above and beyond everyone else — snatches the footy with both hands, pulling it into his broad chest.
Then, these opposing fans do something entirely unexpected — they burst into robust applause.
That understated cool defines Wallace's demeanor. It masks his competitive fire scouts first noticed three years ago.Eric Wallace (North Melbourne Football Club)
"He took an absolute screamer," recalls Melanie Whelan, the Roosters' beat writer for the daily Ballarat Courier. "Geelong's fans are very parochial. Normally when a rival player does something great, they're quiet. It was a big respect thing."
After a field umpire awards Wallace the customary free kick after a mark, he stoically rolls up off the ground after landing on his back, calmly hand-passing the ball to a teammate.
That understated cool defines Wallace's on- and off-field demeanor. It masks his internal, competitive fire AFL scouts first noticed three years ago in Los Angeles, at the league's inaugural American combine. In one drill, invitees practiced bouncing the footy, which players must do once every 15 meters (about 16.5 yards) while running. It looks deceptively easy, like dribbling a basketball, but the oblong ball bounced in every direction off other aspirants' errant hands. Wallace had it down in minutes, as if he'd done it for years.
Still, Wallace's learning curve remains steep. He was assigned to the VFL Development League in 2013, then last year served as the Roosters' sole ruckman. Often, the team's home games are played in harsh winter weather, including stiff winds and biting cold rain. Wallace's head coach is Gerard FitzGerald, a warm, fatherly figure and six-time VFL Coach of the Year, including three league premierships. All his players call him "Fitzy." Except for Wallace, who calls him what he called Thad Matta when he played forward for at Ohio State, before moving on to DePaul and Seattle University: "Coach." His humility continually brings a bemused smile to Fitzy's face, especially when he's recalling Wallace's adventures last season, marked both by screamers and howlers.
"Man, that field is big," FitzGerald, says, inside a room in the Roosters' headquarters, chuckling and saying Wallace's first words after he stepped on the Eureka Stadium ground. When the coach repeats Wallace's words, he lovingly impersonates his ruckman's subtle Carolina accent with an exaggerated voice somewhere between Tom Hanks' movie character Forrest Gump and old-school cartoon rooster character, Foghorn Leghorn. Fitzy tells this story about Wallace taking footy baby steps in one game:
"He took a mark in the forward 50 meters of the ground and there was no one between him and the goal," FitzGerald begins. "The umpire waved his arms to play on, but the big fella thought he was waving him to stop. And he stops. Later, I asked him, ‘Why didn't you play on?' He says to me, ‘Coach, I didn't think I could do that.'"
Wallace's first game was daunting. He got a tongue-lashing in the ruck from — who else? — Hudson. In the first center bounce, Wallace jumped too early. Hudson easily won the tap.
"They don't teach you that in the handbook, do they, mate?" Hudson asked.
Next time, Wallace was ready.
He perfectly timed his leap, winning the tap — and catching Hudson's ribs with his knees. Remembering Hudson's first barb, Wallace faced him, smiling.
"That's the problem," Wallace said. "I can't read."
His statement couldn't have been more sarcastic. Wallace's development coaches say no one studies his role harder. He's the first to upload to his laptop, video footage of the most recently played game. He's the first to get footage of the next match's opposing ruckman.
Wallace's size and explosiveness earned him two nicknames. FitzGerald and the North Ballarat boys call him "The Big E," but Wallace prefers the second name, inspired by an AFL talent evaluator's description of him as "a beast of an athlete."
"I don't think I've heard my first name the whole time I've been here," Wallace says with a chuckle, while sitting inside a conference room at North Melbourne's headquarters, in one of the city's working-class, industrial areas. "I love being called ‘The Beast.' It has an intimidating connotation."
If Wallace intimidates, it's through intensity and determination. When he gets in the car for the 90-minute game-day commute from Melbourne, he gets in the zone, mixing opera, gospel and hip-hop, on the car stereo. Wallace comes from a devout Christian family — of his great-grandmother's 13 children, six are pastors. His grandfather is a bishop. Like his father, Monty, who for years worked the overnight shift for a battery manufacturing company, Wallace has never tasted alcohol.
Last season, only a year after feeling "lost" while playing in the VFL Development League, Wallace heard rumblings he was being considered for a call-up to the big club. Each week he competed against AFL-experienced opponents. Sometimes Wallace looks as if he's first stopping and thinking about what he's going to do while on the oval, but his coaches insist his game sense is improving.
In the Geelong game, featuring his "absolute screamer," Wallace took two other contested marks, racked up 38 hitouts, kicked a goal and made three tackles. In basketball, it would be like having a double-double in points and rebounds, with some key assists, blocked shots and a couple of monster dunks as add-ons. Wallace earned his own Liston vote for this game. For the year, he kicked seven goals and averaged 35 hitouts per game.
"He's come a helluva long way," says Gavin Brown, the North Melbourne development coach who has closely worked with Wallace.
"He just needs to bide his time."
Mason Cox (Collingwood Football Club)
The Texas Timber
Side by side, they walk together.
The older man's steps are small. The younger man's are giant strides.
Their endpoint is the same; not just any spot on any patch of grass. Since 1859, it has been the most hallowed ground in Australian sport.
It's the ruck, on the Melbourne Cricket Ground — the "MCG" or more simply, "the ‘G" — an arena whose physical grandiosity is matched only by its storied history. Australians call this cavernous cauldron, whose 100,000-seating capacity places it among the world's top-10 largest stadiums, "the home of football." Collingwood and three other AFL teams are tenants and every Grand Final since 1902 has been contested here, save five.
The two men stop at the center circle. For the older man, it's a destination, for the younger one, American Mason Cox, perhaps it's his destiny. The ‘G is empty today, but come the Australian fall, it becomes a raucous vessel of energy and color the younger man can't possibly imagine.
Derek Hine, the Magpies' recruiting manager looks up at the towering, 230-pound, 23-year-old Texan alongside him.
"And this," he continues, spreading out his arms to highlight the ground's expanse, "could be your workplace."The Melbourne Cricket Ground (Getty Images)
"This is our home," he tells Cox, fresh after his graduation from Oklahoma State University. "And this," he continues, spreading out his arms to highlight the ground's expanse, "could be your workplace."
A few days later, Cox signs an international rookie contract with the Magpies.
But Collingwood's chief rival for Cox's services wasn't any of the three other AFL suitors. It was an American corporate giant. Before officially becoming a Magpie, Cox had a difficult choice after earning a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering: move across the world from his Highland Village, Texas home and try a new sport he'd only known about for a few months, or report to Houston to work in project management for Exxon Mobil.
Cox, whose parents also are mechanical engineers, was finishing up his senior year capstone project, overhauling a cutting process to help a Tulsa metal manufacturer, while going through interview rounds with the corporate behemoth. Then he got an email from Givony, who'd seen him play on TV and learned that he'd also played soccer.
"Hey dude," Cox told Connor Schuman, his close friend, OSU roommate of three years and fellow mechanical engineering major, "you will not believe this."
"What the hell?" Schuman said, looking at the email. "What do they want?"
Cox, a first-team Academic All-Big 12 winner, took some time to read and digest the message.
"Should I do it?" he asked.
"Hell yeah," Schuman told him. "Why not?"
Next thing Cox knew, after killing it at the U.S. combine, he flew to Melbourne for a different kind of job interview. There, a timed, 2-kilometer run awaited him. Midfielders, Australian football's elite endurance runners, often about 7 to 8 inches shorter than Cox, usually complete this in 6 minutes. Cox finished in 6 minutes, 50 seconds, remarkable for his size. Scouts also marveled as much at his vertical leap as his appetite for work.
"We look for little clues," Hine says. "We were out having a coffee with him, getting our first impression. We noticed he held the door open for a couple of women. He's very humble and very polite."
Cox was equally taken.
"Derek was on top of everything," Cox recalls, carrying a yellow footy used for night matches, inside the Westpac Centre.
"He came to the airport to meet me, called me every day and was with me every step of the way. I saw it all in college, players getting wined and dined, but I felt like if Collingwood was gonna take care of me like that, they'll do it if I sign with them. It's a successful club culture. You can see it upfront. It makes you want to be successful."
Hine already has a reputation in the game of being a devoted caretaker of young players. Marty Clarke, a professional Gaelic football Irish recruit Hine signed nine years ago, became part of Hine's family after the recruiter took him in, to live with his own children. Clarke would have two separate three-year stints at Collingwood, with a return to Gaelic football in between.
Once Cox came home, Schuman knew which path he'd choose.
"He was never the type of person to sit behind a desk," says Schuman, who has accompanied Cox on camping trips in the Arkansas Ozarks and on biking and kayaking excursions in Texas. "He'd be miserable sitting there and putting on a suit every day. He sees life as one big string of experiences and he wants to experience everything. He'd have a lot more fun and be a lot more fulfilled if he tried Australian football."
Still, the Exxon Mobil job would be tough for any new college graduate to refuse.
"How're you going to break it to them?" Schuman asked.
"I'll think of something," Cox replied.
Eventually, Cox told the Exxon Mobil recruiter what was in his heart:
"I have this amazing opportunity," he said, "and I can't turn it down."
So instead of trying to cram into a corporate cubicle, Cox is fitting in with new teammates, in a new city, country and sporting culture.
"I didn't want to be behind a desk 30 years from now, thinking about what I could've done," Cox says. "This is the time of my life to take risks. I could've been making money for a big company, or making it for myself. I could've taken the easy way and gone the corporate route."
"I didn't want to be behind a desk 30 years from now, thinking about what I could've done."
Unlike his college basketball days — in which Cox played a total of 24 games in three years and averaged just 2.4 minutes a game — he has a lot more teammates' names to remember. In Australian TV interviews, Cox is unassuming.
Maybe that's what has his fellow Magpies flocking to him. About a month after Cox arrived and settled into a Melbourne apartment, veteran Magpie Alan Toovey brought him to the annual AFL Players' Association awards dinner, posting an Instagram photo playfully describing the new recruit as his "date." Cox now wears the No. 46 "jumper" (jersey), last worn by Marley Williams, a teammate with whom he has quickly bonded. Another teammate, Nathan Freeman, has routinely dropped by the Westpac Centre to help Cox with his kicking.
Collingwood's original plan was for Cox to work out for a month, beginning in September. Cox, however, insisted on staying until Christmas, then returning this month, to train with his teammates in their rigorous, preseason program. He'll get plenty of weight lifting to add bulk and an insane amount of conditioning to develop endurance.
"The development coaches tell me he's two to three months ahead of schedule," Hine says. "I'd be reluctant to put a ceiling on him. His kicking has improved."
Cox, who speaks with more Texas droll then drawl, is a little surprised by the public attention he has gotten in footy-crazy Melbourne, where a man of his height easily stands out.
"Coxy!" one footy fanatic recently yelled to him, "you signed with the wrong club, mate!"
"Holy crap, you're the American we just signed!" another fan shouted.
"Coxy" is what footy fans call "tall timber." If Cox makes the AFL, he'll be the tallest player in its history. Aaron Sandilands, the four-time All-Australian (AFL All-Star) ruckman with the Perth-area, Fremantle Dockers — and the current player Collingwood officials say they're molding Cox after — currently holds that distinction, but is .4 centimeters shorter than Cox.
"I have my own personal goals of where I want to be," Cox says. "I'd like to be starting in the VFL [this] year."
Cox heads outside to the Magpies' training oval, with the majestic MCG visible in the distance, for sprinting drills and kicking practice. And more kicking practice. And even more kicking practice, as late morning becomes afternoon, then afternoon becomes evening.
But that regimen is cake, compared to the preseason Cox and his teammates are now surviving, in the three-month lead-up to the start of the season. AFL preseason routines are legendary for their intensity. Several teams train overseas, in varying environments, from the Rockies' thin air to Dubai's scorching heat. Repetitive skills sessions, match simulations and strength training come standard, as does endless conditioning. Boxing drills are welcome breaks from the daily running the boys do, putting "miles into their legs" to get match-ready by April. According to a recent University of Queensland study, the "average" pro footy player runs the equivalent of 7 miles a game.
All-important team bonding sessions also are covered in preseason, as team fitness coaches orchestrate arduous trekking, cycling, river rafting, caving and ropes courses.
While Cox toils to make the MCG ruck his office and adopt as his new wardrobe, the team's classic black-and-white-striped jumper and shorts, Holmes has trained harder than ever at a Saints' camp in the alpine region of New Zealand's South Island. Wallace also is putting in work. All three of them are keenly aware, though, that sweat equity alone won't win a spot on their respective big club's match-day lineup, its "best 22."
At Eureka, meanwhile, the battle between Eric Wallace and Jason Holmes ends. If they're being generous, Australian football historians will record their unprecedented encounter with a footnote. With his 29 hitouts, four marks and two tackles, Wallace wins — but more importantly, Holmes's team, Sandringham, defeats North Ballarat, 18.9 117 to 12.10 82. Wallace earns a vote from his coaches as one of the club's best performers. Holmes mostly plays understudy to a more experienced ruckman, but amasses 14 hitouts, takes two marks and makes two tackles.
Through the course of their improbable, shared journey, they've bonded. Hours later, back in bustling Melbourne, they'll text each other to see about hanging out. But right now, as they walk toward each other on the field, their muscles, like their minds, are drained. They're exhausted. It is all, still, so new, and still so very far from home.
A quick handshake — and maybe a knowing smile, silently acknowledging how far they've come and how much farther still they have to go — is all they can muster.
Even in this moment. ★
Hey, mate, wanna play?
Though many Americans mistakenly assume Australian rules football is rugby, footy may not be as obscure in America as you might think. There may be a group of amateur men and women playing it in your city.
The nonprofit United States Australian Football League (USAFL) has been in operation since 1996 and today boasts nearly three-dozen clubs across the country in multiple divisions. Some men’s teams, like the Orange County (Calif.) Bombers and Kansas City Power and women’s clubs such as the Boston Lady Demons and New York Lady Magpies derive their nicknames from the eponymous AFL clubs that have donated to them jerseys, shorts, balls and other equipment. Other USAFL clubs, such as the Tulsa Buffaloes, St. Petersburg Starfish, San Francisco Iron Maidens and Columbus Jillaroos created completely original identities.
The USAFL season runs through spring and summer, with teams competing in an annual national tournament two weeks after the AFL Grand Final, in mid-October. Most teams are coached by Australian expats and players are a mix of people of varying ages, skill levels and experience, from both countries. An American national men’s team, the USA Revolution and a national women’s club, USA Freedom, compete around the world in international tournaments, including the recently held International Cup, in Melbourne.
If you’d like to give footy a go yourself, visit www.usafl.com.
Gil Griffin is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles with his wife, Arlene. Since falling for footy 16 years ago on his first trip to Australia, he has authored a semi-regular column for the AFL’s Fremantle Dockers’ website and written about the game for the league’s official publication, The AFL Record. He also can occasionally be heard as a guest commentator on the podcast, BigFooty Dockers. He is a full-time grade advisor and English and journalism teacher. Follow him on Twitter at @statesidedocker.