Title: Will the game from Down Under go over in U.S.? Australian Rules Football remains an obscure game in this country, but the younger generation may kick 'footy' to new heights.(Suburban Living)
Date: September 30, 1999 Publication: Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL) Author: Bush, JoeByline: Joe Bush Daily Herald Staff Writer
Joe Nicoloff looked like a boxer who had either lost a fight or survived a lot of punches to win one.
A shiner, not very well-concealed by sunglasses, encircled his left eye. His lower lip carried 22 stitches.
But the West Chicago resident did not stand out in this crowd. True, he was the only one wearing shades indoors at 9 p.m., but his injuries barely drew a second glance from the men standing around the bar drinking beer. Many sported injuries inflicted on each other a week before during a game of "footy" - the ironically affectionate nickname for the rough-and-tumble game known as Australian Rules Football.
During that game, Nicoloff bashed heads with another player and had to stop playing, but that didn't discourage the 6-foot, 235-pound former Division III football player. He couldn't wait to play again.
"It's an awesome sport," Nicoloff insists. "It's constant motion. There's always something going on during the game, and that's a lot different than American football."
Different? Yes, but footy is so different it might never attract a large following in the United States. Can a nation that has been slow to accept soccer, the most popular game in the world, embrace an obscure game from Down Under?
"Right now we're dealing with a sport no one knows," says Paul O'Keeffe, an Australian living in Milwaukee who serves as the president of the 2-year-old United States Australian Football League (USAFL). "Our goal is not to take on the big four (football, baseball, basketball, hockey). Right now we're based around participation."
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Three years ago, Australian Rules Football existed only in obscure nooks and crannies of the American sports scene. Today, about 30 teams across the country are linked by the USAFL, which has not-for-profit status, a 14-member executive board and a man devoted to drumming up interest in the game among kids.
In August, the first international game on U.S. soil was played on a makeshift field on the grounds of Naperville Central High School. (Nicoloff's team, the Chicago Swans, defeated a Canadian rival.)
The event failed to attract much attention. Most members of the small crowd were related to a player either by kinship, friendship or marriage, and the streaker who sprinted across the field at half-time was unmolested by security officers, since the event had no security officers.
Ironically, Australian Rules Football is more obscure today in the United States than it was in the 1980s. Then, ESPN and ESPN2 regularly broadcast highlights and games of the Australian Football League late at night.
Today, only satellite-TV owners can watch AFL games and highlight shows, and the Australian Football Association of North America (AFANA) - a fan-based lobbying organization - is working to increase TV exposure.
But another important way to increase interest in the game is to recruit the young.
"If you actually want to grow the game, you've got to get the kids to play," says AFL executive Andrew Catterall, who has been in on the AFL's fledgling strategic plans for the sport's international development. "If in 25 years there were 200,000 people playing footy (in the United States), that would be fantastic."
The Australian Football League recently gave 45,000 Australian dollars ($30,000 U.S.) to the USAFL, and part of the money was used to pay expenses for former AFL star Paul Roos to conduct clinics around the country.
Roos, 36, who played more than 300 AFL games before retiring in 1998, has seen enough talent and ability in his clinics to make him believe Americans could get into footy.
"There's a real potential over here, and I've said this to some of the people back in Australia, that one day an American could play professionally in the top league back home," Roos says.
Australian Rules Football requires 18 players on each team to advance the ball by running with it, kicking it to a teammate, or passing it by propelling it with a fist.
The running, leaping, catching, tackling and kicking continue nonstop for four 25-minute quarters on an oval field more than 50 percent longer than a football field.
While America undoubtedly has athletes with enough strength and stamina to play the game, the skills unique to footy - kicking under pressure to a target, punch-passing to a teammate, developing spatial sense - come only with experience.
Because of this, Australian expatriates tend to be the team leaders on the USAFL clubs. Half of the Canadian national squad that played in Naperville was Australian, and the Chicago Swans are striving to increase the number of American players.
The unwritten USAFL goal is to eventually field teams with American players who have grown with the game.
"I think if we can get it in the schools over here," says Roos, "get it to kids that are 9, 10, 11 years of age, and develop similar to our kids back home, then with the added athleticism, and if they do get those skills early enough, that they could be very, very good players."
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To that end, the USAFL this year hired Wheaton resident Jeff Norris, a junior-high teacher at Komarek School in North Riverside, as its junior development coordinator.
Norris taught footy in his P.E. classes seven years ago, well before the USAFL was a twinkle in O'Keeffe's eye.
He liked the participation potential above all - even if a team is reduced to 14 players, that's still more than an American football team. He also reduced the sport's level of contact by making it like touch or flag football.
"My kids at the school just went wild," Norris says. "They loved it."
Norris runs an annual summer camp, which this year brought in about 50 kids from 10 years old through high-school age.
Two years ago Norris took a youth team to Australia for some games, and last year an Australian team made the reverse trip.
Local channels 2 and 9, as well as ESPN and ESPN2, have featured Norris and his programs. St. Viator High School in Arlington Heights has added footy to its p.e. classes.
"Once Americans see the game, they'll fall in love with it," Norris says. "It has everything Americans want."
Norris says some of his top players are girls, and many of them got a chance to show off in the co-ed youth exhibition game played before the United States-Canada match in Naperville in August.
"Every kid has a chance when we play," Norris says proudly.
Norris has developed a teaching curriculum named AusKick in preparation for widespread school acceptance, and the USAFL has encouraged member clubs to recruit grade schools in their area. Once school administrators are interested, Norris will pounce.
"My own vision of it is starting to take shape," Norris says. "I just want to help our kids."
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Footy is particularly well-organized in the Midwest - Cincinnati, Nashville, Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Louis, Kansas City - and California, which has its own league, the four-team California Australian Football League.
Each club handles its own business, such as dues, travel arrangements, schedules and sponsorships. (When they played in Naperville in August, the Canadian team sported polo shirts embroidered with the Labatt's Brewery name, while the Swans have a relationship with Jacob's Creek, an Australian winery. Air New Zealand is the major sponsor on the 1999 USAFL handbook.)
Roos, who makes his home in California with his American wife, is pleasantly surprised with the sport's progress.
"I admire all these guys for the work they put in," Roos says. "They're a lot further advanced than anyone back in Australia probably realizes."
There are older footy leagues in other countries - England, Denmark, Germany, Canada, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and Japan - but none seems to be as ambitious as the USAFL.
"(The AFL) has really stood up and listened this year," says USAFL president O'Keeffe. "I think they've been surprised. They're taking a wait-and-see attitude."
The AFL's Cutterall agrees. The small amount of financial support the league provides the USAFL carries more opportunity for the U.S. league than risk for the AFL.
"It's not a core strategic priority of the AFL," Cutterall says of the state-side growth. "We're willing to provide support. I'm sure in time if the USAFL identifies some hot kids, I'm sure the AFL would come look at them."
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So the United States is years from producing AFL-quality players.
O'Keeffe says for now, the USAFL will concentrate on solidifying its base, managing its growth, attracting national sponsors, and developing its Web site (usfooty.com) and its youth and umpire programs.
For now, guys like 29-year-old Schaumburg native Sean Quinn are simply getting their kicks.
While in law school in Indianapolis, Quinn was in on the sport's formative years. Indianapolis, Louisville and Cincinnati fielded the only teams and played each other over and over.
He moved back home and formed the Swans and has seen the sport's popularity grow. He expects that the Chicago area will sprout another team by next season.
Quinn has had a bad knee since high school, but with 18 positions to choose from and not as much violence as you might think, he's able to hold his own.
Neither he nor any of the guys he plays with will ever play for the AFL, but they can enjoy its game well past the day when some American bloke does.
For more information about the Chicago Swans, call team president Rick Martinez at (847) 895-0825.
This material is published under license from the publisher through the Gale Group, Farmington Hills, Michigan. All inquiries regarding rights should be directed to the Gale Group.
COPYRIGHT 2009 Paddock Publications
COPYRIGHT 2009 Paddock Publications
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