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Getting a Footy Hold

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

HELP WANTED: Tradition-rich athletic team seeks nineteen- or twenty-year-old American who can run like crazed jaguar for two solid hours. Must leap like Michael Jordan, kick leather like David Beckham, possess hand-eye skills of Champ Bailey. Awesome physique not essential, but uncommon courage required -- job involves frequent collisions with others. All experience levels considered, but successful candidate will be durable, ferocious and good-natured. Oversized egos need not apply. Must be willing to relocate to Southern Hemisphere. Enthusiastic beer drinker preferred.


This, more or less, is the young athlete James Waddell is searching for here in the United States. An Aussie-born team scout living in Denver, Waddell is not running such a classified in this or any other newspaper. But this is the guy he's looking for, the guy he believes he'll find in the next year or two -- the first American recruited to play Australian Rules Football at the major-league level back home in Melbourne. For a storied club called the Collingwood Magpies -- the New York Yankees of their game.

Are you ready for some football? Aussie football?

If so, you're probably too light for the NFL and too small for the NBA. You may have played high school and/or college soccer, maybe some rugby, and you might know your way around a basketball court. Volleyball? Good. Ice hockey background? That's fine, too. Sprinter? Oh, yes. You'll definitely need some speed. And you won't mind giving and taking the occasional bone-rattling hit. Without benefit of helmet or pads, of course. You are modest and willing to commune, post-game, even with your hated opponents -- most often in a jam-packed public house. For the combination of skills summarized above, you'll be paid something like $100,000 a year, maybe a little more.

When most American sports fans think of Aussie Rules Football (those who think of it at all), they have vague memories of huge armies of scar-faced players -- eighteen on a side, actually -- throwing and punching and kicking a slightly fatter version of our own football around a huge expanse of grass three times the size of a soccer field, apparently in compliance with a set of rules that leaves us Yanks totally mystified.

The one thing we recall from those misty old images on ESPN is what the ref does when a team scores. Remember? A serious-looking umpire in a starched white jacket and a brimmed white hat, looking for all the world like a waiter at a country club, stands behind an ultra-tall set of goalposts and thrusts his outstretched thumbs and forefingers forward at waist-level -- the double-six-shooter draw of a B-Western gunslinger.

That's the game we're talking about. Aussie Rules Football. "Footy" for short. It's a passion in Melbourne and Sydney and the rest of southern Australia. But it remains virtually unknown here in the States -- despite the self-sacrificial efforts of almost forty American club teams and a U.S. National side that finished a respectable fifth last year in the international tournament played each fall Down Under.

Wanna know a well-kept secret? A local team you've never heard of, the Denver Bulldogs, are more than a bit of all right, mate. They may wear secondhand jerseys -- footy players call them "jumpers" -- donated by the more famous Western Bulldogs of the sixteen-team Australian Football League. But since their founding in 1997, Denver's Bulldogs have won the national championship of the United States Australian Football League (USAFL) four times -- including the last three straight. But who would know? Tom Ellis, a 36-year-old Texan who didn't start playing footy until he was 31, explains the game's quandary: "When I first played Aussie Rules, I fell in love with it. I'd played American football in high school and was on the track team [pole vault] in college, but I immediately thought this was the best game I'd ever played -- the most demanding, the most creative, the most fun. But most Americans have never seen it."

If James Waddell and the Collingwood Magpies have their way, that will soon change. In more than a century of AFL play, black-and-white-clad Collingwood has won sixteen league championships, most recently in 1990. Like the major-league baseball teams that began scouting all of Latin America seriously in the 1970s and the NBA, which started scouring Eastern Europe and Africa in the 1990s, the Magpies see the U.S. as a vast, untapped talent pool -- a huge country with a population more than ten times larger than Australia's 20 million and a superb system of college athletics.

"The law of averages says it will happen," Waddell believes. "We will find an American college junior or senior with the right combination of skills for the highest level of Aussie Rules football -- a very good athlete, but one the American pro teams are not knocking on his door. Here's another opportunity to make a six-figure salary playing professional sports."

Waddell, who spent ten years on the other side of the divide -- scouting Australian baseball players for the New York Mets -- began his American Idol search last Saturday afternoon under a suburban soccer dome on Arapahoe Road -- looking carefully not only at the Denver Bulldogs (who have a higher percentage of U.S. players now than ever), but a dozen members of the U.S. National Team (all U.S.-born and raised), nicknamed the American Revolution. The Revolution's Aussie coach, Boston-based heart surgeon Alan Nugent, believes Collingwood is on to something. "Absolutely," he says. "America is a recruiting gold mine for Aussie Rules. Young Americans with aptitude will be able to pick this game up, and they will love it. After [the Magpies] sign the first American, all sixteen AFL clubs will immediately be in the U.S. recruiting." And U.S. sports television -- an essential element in building popularity here -- may show renewed interest. As it is, a new cable network called All Sports TV is scheduled to air several USAFL games this season. How many cable systems carry All Sports? Not many.

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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