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    Lockdown rediscoveries: AFL footy

    Lockdown rediscoveries: AFL footy
    by Drew Pelto, AKA *censored*

    St. Patrick's Day 2000. I was 15, only half-awake after stepping from a flight halfway around the world on my way to being an exchange student in Tasmania. Twenty-one years later it still seems like this was just the beginning of a three-week long dream: fortunately a few photos, a collection of Aussie coins, and an otherwise inexplicable love for Cadbury's Picnic bars and meat pies prove this was reality. But there I was, sitting in the first row of the upper deck of the Melbourne Cricket Ground, throwing an oblong red ball back down to the field after a goal kick by Winston Abraham.

    Australian football is different from any sport we have here in America, or really anywhere else in the world. Its elements are descended from the same shared roots as soccer, rugby, and the American, Canadian, and Gaelic forms of football-- mob football games played on Shrove Tuesday in the 1500s where groups of men from neighboring cities would try to transport a ball by any means necessary on foot (hence football; it was played on foot rather than horseback or some other transportation form) into the opposing city's town square. Footy, as the locals call the Australian version, is played 18-on-18, bigger teams than in any major organized sport found anywhere else. It's on a cricket oval as long as 200 yards and as wide as 170 yards: compare this to soccer at "only" 125x75.

    There was a time ESPN used to show a few games late at night to fill in gaps in programing. Fox Soccer Plus will carry a lot of games as well. If you're really lucky you can find Fox 504, the Fox Footy Channel that typically has 24/7 coverage-- live games, classic games, recent replays, and other shows related to the sport. Being at home all day with a TV package that has a lot of worldwide channels, it has given me the time to rediscover the sport and see what I've missed over the last twenty years, and in the years before I got to go to that lone game.

    Your first time watching footy looks like controlled chaos and a frankensteining of several sports-- but its code of rules predates them all, in existence since 1858. A basketball style tip-off from a bounce rather than a toss-up, kicks that resemble rugby and soccer, underhand volleyball serve style passing, North American football style tackles and big hits, fights that look like hockey roughing penalties (punches will be heavily penalized, but wrestling and shoving matches are common after high and hard tackles), contact that would be blatant pass interference in the North American game but is somehow permissible here, and finally a kick goes between posts, a guy in a suit makes a motion like he's yelling "BOOYAH!" and waves some flags as the crowd and players celebrate the goal. And then we do it all again.



    BOOYAH! Unfortunately current goal umpires have a bright yellow polo and cap rather than this stylish look that was common through the mid-2000s

    I'll be honest: I'm far from an expert in this game, but I love watching it. I can't tell you who the best players or the best teams are right now, and pay no attention to trades, transfers, and drafts. Even my knowledge of strategy is limited. But I can at least explain the basics for you.

    Every team typically has three fullbacks (think American football safeties combined with a soccer goalie and basketball center playing defense), three halfbacks (think linebackers combined with hockey defensemen), three midfielders (similar to soccer midfielders), three half forwards (a hybrid running back-wide receiver and soccer forward-midfielder), and three full forwards (think basketball forwards and centers at the offensive end). The final three are your ruck (big tall guy who takes the opening bounce), your ruck-rover (typically gets the ball off the ruck's tap and provides a outlet pass from the center of the field), and the rover (usually a very small and very fast player who can complete a clearance and open play up to the midfielders). You also have four players on the bench.

    The goal is simple: kick the ball between the tall goalposts for six points. If you hit a goalpost, have a ball go behind a goalpost and a shorter behindpost, or have the ball go between posts in a way other than kicking, it's a one-point behind. So when you see a score of North Melbourne 16-11-107, it means the 'Roos scored 16 goals and 11 behinds for 107 points. The games are often high-scoring affairs. Goals lead to a center bounce, a behind leads to the defending team having a free kick.

    There are limitations-- no contact from behind, no tackles above the shoulders or below the knees, no head contact, no slinging tackles with arms pinned to the body. But a lot of contact is allowed: you can jump on the back of a player to go up for a mark (the name for catching a kicked ball) and have contact like basketball players boxing out for a rebound while going for a mark. The ball is moved by running, kicking, or a handball, which is passing a ball via a closed-fist hit: throwing of the ball is not permitted in any direction nor are direct handoffs. You're also wearing no pads so those hits are even less fun on the receiving end.


    Handball technique demonstrated with a vegemite sandwich, courtesy of Men At Work

    Any kick of more than 20 meters that is marked leads to an undisturbed free kick if the player chooses to take it. Marks made in the defensive half of the field or with room ahead often will forego the free kick in an effort to get the ball moving upfield quickly. Marks made for a possession change or with a decent scoring opportunity will often see players take their time to set up an accurate kick. And as long as you take your mark before the end of a quarter, you are entitled to a free kick on-goal even after the siren sounds.

    Long runs are uncommon: the ball has to touch the ground every fifteen meters. Players will often bounce the ball while running, but it is tough to do so on a true sprint with any sort of control so kicks, handballs, and a lot of short-distance movement are more common. Once in a while you may see a fast player with a lot of open space get a three-, four-, or even five-bounce run but those are quite rare.

    Over the past few decades there has been a growing amount of crossover from Australian to American football, mostly as punters. San Diego Chargers Pro Bowl punter Darren Bennett is the best-known: he was an AFLer for the West Coast Eagles and Melbourne Demons. You can also add in Ben Graham, formerly of the NFL's Jets, Saints, Cardinals, and Lions and played his footy with the Geelong Cats. Sav Rocca, the 6'5" 265 former punter for Philadelphia and Washington is one of the AFL's greatest players, with 748 goals for Collingwood and North Melbourne. Chris Bryan punted for Tampa Bay after playing 40 games for Collingwood and Carlton. Kentucky Wildcat Max Duffy could find himself in the NFL after having played three games with Fremantle in the early 2010s. Joel Wilkinson came the closest to making it as a non-specialist: formerly of the Gold Coast Suns, he spent time in the Cardinals and Giants minicamps as a cornerback in the mid-2010s. One of Notre Dame's earliest coaches, Pat O'Dea, was a former VFA player, a predecessor to the AFL.

    On the reverse side, former basketball players are finding the possibility of making the transition to being ruckmen. Only two born-and-raised Americans have played in the AFL-- former St. Kilda ruck and college cager Jason Holmes, and former Oklahoma State center Mason Cox who is currently a ruckman and forward for Collingwood. Cox is 6'11" and tied with two others for being the tallest player in league history. On the women's side, the late Jacinda Barclay though born and raised in Australia, went from playing baseball on Australia's National Women's Baseball Team, to American football in the Legends Football League, to Australian football in the AFLW before her untimely death in October at age 29.
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    Mason Cox takes a mark for Collingwood against Richmond

    One thing I really like about Aussie rules is that there's not that much difference between the men's and women's games. I don't follow women's basketball much: the lack of thunderous dunks takes away a very entertaining aspect. I don't enjoy women's hockey: the lack of hitting and physical play just leads to a bland game. But the AFL Women, despite having lower scoring games, keep the same sort of physicality-- the only change is a ban on any sort of slinging tackle. They've only had an officially sanctioned national league since 2017, but every report I've seen says the play is improving every year. I've been watching the ladies a lot since their 2021 season is just starting-- and my North Melbourne squad had one of the top women's teams last year before the season was cut short. My wife has been watching and asking "Wow, why couldn't I have known about this game twenty years ago?" So we went and bought a ball off eBay to kick around when the weather warms up a bit. We're starting with a kids' Size 1 ball. My Size 4 women's' and teens' size is lost somewhere in Ohio.

    If you've never seen the AFL, I urge you to check it out if given the chance. The Fox Soccer Plus channel often carries games, there's Fox Footy, you can seek out YouTube clips-- it's not exactly easy to find games over here in the States, but they can be found with some digging. If you like football, basketball, hockey, or soccer, the game will likely have something you'll enjoy.

    For an intro to Australian Football, and further information on finding it on this side of the Pacific, visit https://usafl.com/intro

    CURRENT TEAMS: Carlton Blues, Collingwood Magpies, Essendon Bombers, Geelong Cats (pronounced jell-LONG), Hawthorn Hawks, Melbourne Demons, North Melbourne Kangaroos, Richmond Tigers, St. Kilda Saints, Western (formerly Footscray) Bulldogs, Fremantle Dockers, West Coast Eagles, Adelaide Crows, Port Adelaide Power, Brisbane Lions (formed by a merging of the Brisbane Bears and Fitzroy Lions), Gold Coast Suns, Sydney (formerly South Melbourne) Swans, and Greater West Sydney Giants.

    ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Drew Pelto is a long-suffering Cleveland sports fan who made the mistake of following an AFL team with only four Premierships in its 96 year history, though it's still better than picking Melbourne or St. Kilda (NFL fans: think Browns and Lions, respectively). He also likes Collingwood because they gave him a free hat. He lives in Texas with his wife who likes Brisbane, and two cats who have voiced support for Geelong.
    Last edited by *censored*; 03-16-2021 at 02:57 PM.

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