Illawarra Mercury

The following article appeared in the Weekender Edition of the Illawarra Mercury newspaper on Saturday, April 28, 2001.

Aussie Footy Legacy

GLEN HUMPHRIES ( reports on how the Americans are getting a taste for the game where the big men fly.

ONE Australian Rules team has Psycho Park, a home ground in a sponsor's backyard. Another team's oval features a natural obstacle in the form of a hill players have to run up. Still another team has played a tournament in a farmer's paddock.

Welcome to Australian Rules football in the United States of America.

Footy isn't exactly the biggest sport in the US, so it's pretty hard to find serviceable grounds to play on. For some teams it involves getting up really early and taking over a local park or playing on three soccer fields.

Basically, you play on whatever you can find.
For the Nashville Kangaroos that means a home ground that has a hill and for the North Carolina Tigers, it meant playing the first day of a weekend tournament in a farmer's field.

But it's the Boston Demons who are the lucky ones - they're the ones that have Psycho Park.

It's built in the backyard of sponsor and software multi-millionaire, Andrew ``Psycho'' Blencowe.

``Field space is at a premium in Boston - there isn't much green space, and there is tremendous competition for what exists,'' club president Jon Lenicheck said. ``With this in mind, Andrew cleared and levelled a good portion of his backyard and had two sets of goalposts sunk into the ground at either end.

``He then put up drainage fencing around the border and, voila, a small and serviceable footy ground.''

The Demons started in 1997 when four expats and one American got together to kick the footy (a game of kick-to-kick is how most US teams started).
The club grew quickly, possibly because ``Boston is the sports hotbed in America'', the American-born Lenicheck said.

He was bitten by the Aussie Rules bug after seeing it on late-night TV, but still has a little trouble explaining it to his countrymen.
``An 18-a-side field is too big for most Yanks to really wrap their brains around, they have to see it to really get a grip on it,'' he said. ``I always begin by saying `the game's sort of a hybrid between soccer and rugby, with the goal being to score points by kicking the ball through your opponent's uprights'. That much makes sense to Americans.
``The rest of it - hand passing, ball-up and ball-in, no offsides ... that takes a while.''

In the US, the game is supervised by the USAFL (United States Australian Football League), which was founded over a few beers in an Ohio barn in 1996. There were six foundation clubs, and that number jumped to 18 in about eight months, according to the league's founder Paul O'Keeffe. There are now more than 30 teams.

``There were guys who wanted to have a kick of the footy, but it was too hard (to find a game),'' said O'Keeffe, who is from Broken Hill. ``Once there was an organised league then there were other teams to play against - and that was the reason for its growth.''
In the few years of the USAFL, O'Keeffe said the ability of the American players has begun overtaking the Australians.

``I like it here, because here I'm a good player,'' he said. ``Or, I should say, I was a good player last year, but now the Americans are catching up so quickly, I'm back to being a schmuck again.''

In fact, O'Keeffe believes it is only a matter of four or five years before we see an American player in the Australian Football League (AFL).
Unlike the AFL, USAFL teams don't travel across the country playing every weekend in a traditional season. They can't afford to. American players have day jobs and pay their own airfares.

Instead, they organise their own games when they can, holding tournaments where they invite a number of other teams to compete. Some also compete in one of the four regional leagues.

O'Keeffe's long-term plans include more of these leagues, among them several metro competitions run within larger US cities like New York and Los Angeles. One, the Arizona AFL, already runs a four-team competition in the city of Phoenix.
Each October, the USAFL invites all member teams to compete in the Nationals (provided they can adhere to the rule that only 50percent of each team can be made up of Australians).

Last year, 16 teams contested the nationals with the Denver Bulldogs claiming the title after a two-point victory over the San Diego Lions.
There's also a US representative team - the Revolution. Last year, the team took on - and beat - Canada.

Matt Dainauski played in both the title-winning Bulldogs and the Revolution teams last year.

A self-described ``military brat'' Dainauski is an American born in Perth while his US Navy father was stationed in Western Australia. He left Australia soon after, not returning to Perth until his teens.

It was then the Bulldogs' president had an embarrassing introduction to footy.
``Literally three days after getting off the plane I was thrown into a game of footy between my school and another,'' he said. ``I had never heard of the game, or seen it played. It had the word `football' in it though and I was in.

``I proceeded to make a great tackle and was awarded a free kick for my opponent holding the ball. I promptly ran back, cocked my arm and let that sucker fly.
``Needless to say, school was not very much fun for the rest of the year.''
The schoolyard jibes didn't harm him too much because he retained an interest in the sport - he saw it as a way of keeping in touch with his ``Aussie heritage''.
Dainauski helped found the club in 1998 and only two years later, they're national champions.

Not bad for a team whose numbers drop whenever there's a good snowfall - a lot of the Bulldogs are keen skiiers and snowboarders.

A number of US players signed up after seeing the sport on TV during a bout of insomnia and thinking ``that looks cool''.

But there's another reason for its appeal - it's one of the few body-contact sports the average guy can play.

Jon Meier, commissioner of the Arizona AFL, said there were local gridiron leagues but that they were out of the reach of most people.

``The American version of amateur football is comprised of many former collegiate-level players,'' Meier said. ``This makes it difficult for the average sports enthusiast to play.

``I have personally found footy to be a great equaliser of men. There is a place for all shapes and sizes, as opposed to American football. You need not be a 6ft6in (195cm), 260lb (117kg) behemoth to play.''

It's not just the sport that's been transplanted in the US; the relaxed Australian attitude after the game is there too.

``I am quite impressed with the fact that, after a match, both teams leave the battle behind them, have a group picture taken and down some beers together,'' he said. ``I do believe the Australian tradition of enjoying the company of your opponents after the match sets this sport apart in a big way.''

Starting an Aussie Rules team in the US isn't always easy - just ask the San Diego Lions' Bill Dusting.

Dusting, who holds the honour of scoring the Lions' first ever behind, jerry-built a team to take on the might of the Los Angeles Crows in the first game on the West Coast in 1998.

``We had many players who'd never played before,'' said Dusting, who is also a USAFL vice-president. ``Three were between 14 and 16, two were Japanese exchange students with little command of footy or English.

``When we arrived at the field, it had 200 under 12s girls soccer players on it. I took our travelling circus to the other side of the UCSD (University of California, San Diego), where we found a small field littered with `field closed' signs.
``They were promptly removed and we frantically started to set the game up.
``Within seconds, a goalpost had fallen and split open the skull of local publican and reluctant player Steve Brownsea.

``In the distance, we watched an awesome, well-oiled Los Angeles uber-team go through quick-fire drills, executed to perfection. We, on the other hand, had done little more than play kick-to-kick for four weeks.'' So it's not much of a surprise to find the Lions got whipped - the final score was 24.11 (155) to 1.3 (9).

But the Lions got better. They've won the last two California AFL premierships, and were runners-up in the 2000 Nationals. And they exacted a little revenge.
In the 2000 regular season they thumped the Crows 28.10 (178) to 6.5 (41).

Dusting agreed that the game has a low profile in the US (``the media is our enemy,'' he joked) but he's been pushing local networks to get out and cover the code. He's even got his sales pitch down pat.

`The consensus is, this is the most attractive spectator sport, regardless of standard, in the world,'' he said. ``This is the best team sport to build camaraderie in the world. This is the best adrenalin rush in the world.

``Give me five minutes and I'll have any `Seppo' begging to play.''

Australian Glenn Fullagher joined his team, the North Carolina Tigers, after searching the Internet for someone with whom he could kick the footy. ``I found the footy club web site and contacted the guy, thinking there was a whole club right here in Raleigh,'' club president Fullagher said.

``When I got to practice, there was just him - and he didn't even have a footy.
``From the two of us, the club has grown to around 25 guys - only three are Aussies.''
The Tigers have been developing the sport in their area, starting up a club at the University of North Carolina and trying to do the same at North Carolina State University.

In Australia, the code is played during the cooler months, but in the US the season goes right through summer. It has no choice.

``It can't be a winter sport here,'' he said. ``Up north winter means two feet (60cm) of snow and -20 degree (Celsius) temperatures - a little hard to play footy in.

``The first game I ever played here was nearly three years ago. It was a six-on-six match in 100 degree (Fahrenheit) heat in mid-July.

``We nearly all died - we had to have a three-hour half-time.''

Showing America the rules

Do Americans think you're crazy for playing without pads and helmets?

Glenn Fullagher (North Carolina Tigers):``Yeah, although we try and play down the roughness of it. Most mums and dads don't want little Johnny playing a game where he might get his head torn off.''

Jon Lenicheck (Boston Demons):``Oh yes, certainly. They also see us come off the ground with bruises, sprains, the odd broken bone, stitches or bloody nose ... and this just reinforces the perception.''

What sort of misconceptions do they have about the sport?

Bill Dusting (San Diego Lions):``Most Americans come to the sport thinking they're going to go at it like cock-fighting; tearing and shredding flesh. Marketing in the early '80s spotlighted brutal, body-breaking contact - which in truth is only a very small part of the game.''

Matt Dainauski (Denver Bulldogs):``People always confuse it with rugby. It normally takes someone to pretend to be a goal umpire signalling a goal before they remember watching it on late night TV.''

What's the hardest thing about teaching Americans to play?

John Meier (Arizona AFL commissioner):``Throwing the ball is a very difficult habit for Americans to break ... in a match at a very crucial moment, at least one time, you will throw the ball. We've all done it and it's rather embarrassing.''

Jon Lenicheck (Boston Demons):``I think the single-most difficult thing to explain is taking a mark. In American sports, the ball is either dead or live, never in between - such as when a player decides if he wants to play on.''

Paul O'Keeffe (USAFL founder):``You have trouble sometimes teaching American football players about how you can't block. They come in and clean you up with a front-on hit and you're like ... `what the hell's that?'.''


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