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Getting a Footy Hold

Aussie Rules Football reaches out to the untapped Yank talent pool.

For now, U.S. footy retains the innocence and appealing camaraderie of a cozy club sport. It is U.S. rugby thirty years ago. It is American soccer long before our national teams' World Cup and Olympic successes and the stability of the MLS. The geographically isolated Bulldogs play most of their games in California and on the East Coast (traveling at their own expense). They practice at Bible Park, in southeast Denver, on Saturday mornings, setting the contours of the huge field themselves in white lime. After practices and their ill-attended games, they happily take refuge in a bar, quite often the Lazy Dog on South Colorado Boulevard. There, many of them drink Coopers beer, imported from the land of footy's birth.

"We're all very good friends and willing to make the sacrifices," says 28-year-old Ben Harling, a lean, swift western Australian who's been a member of the Bulldogs since immigrating to Denver six years ago. "It takes something special for thirty guys to commit to something like this. No one's on steroids or playing for money or doing it for any other reason than passion for the game." Married to an American, Harling admits to occasional homesickness, and he misses the public excitement the game generates back in Australia. But that's more than offset by his U.S. teammates' enthusiasm. "What's most satisfying for me," he says, "is to have an American tell me how much he loves the game."

One of those players is Jared Jones, a 28-year-old ex-University of Colorado rugby player who converted to footy about a year ago. "I think the game has a long way to go here," he says. "It's really in its infancy, but I'm hopeful. It won't really develop until you get younger players, more college players. A lot of American athletes hear 'rugby' or 'Aussie Rules' and they think the games are just purely barbaric. That's not true, of course; it's a matter of getting people to look at this game, which is really challenging and beautiful, a great combination of skills ."

At the moment, though, Denver remains 8,700 miles and one huge cultural divide from the Aussie Rules hotbed of Melbourne. Whether the twain shall ever meet is anyone's guess -- but the unnamed nineteen-year-old James Waddell is seeking could be the one who finally kick-starts Australia's grand old game on these shores. "Twenty, thirty years from now," Alan Nugent predicts, "I foresee a combined American side beating a combined Aussie side, and that will be great. I'm Australian, but I hope I'm around to see that."

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