Game day photos: Dave Savell
US Combine photos: United States Australian Football League
HOW DOES A GUY FROM CHICAGO DECIDE THAT HE WANTS TO PLAY AUSTRALIAN RULES FOOTBALL?
It came at a time when I had to figure out what I was going to do post-college. In the big picture, I had opportunities to do whatever I wanted with my life, which, at 22, is bigger than when you are 18, it’s nice. I was getting ready to play basketball overseas when I got an email for a combine in LA. I went initially to see family and have a crack at it because it looked interesting. I saw YouTube videos and I couldn’t believe there was a sport out there that could attract that much attention and I had never heard of it. AFL looked like it combined things that I played as a kid, it was nice to get back outside and put boots on and play something else.
WHO SENT YOU THE EMAIL?
Jonathan Givony, he runs draftexpress.com. He travels across the world looking at players for professional basketball, high school players and college players. The AFL hired him a few years ago to look for a potential tall ruckman. He would bring in about 20 guys a year and teach them some skills, do the combine in LA for a couple of days and have a chance of bringing some Americans out here.
WHAT DID THE COMBINE INVOLVE?
They showed us the 2012 Grand Final fourth quarter on the first day, then after that it was basic handballing, stationary handballing, stationary kicking, just dropping the ball and kicking it, taking a jog into a kick and the basic principles of marking. We then did the repeat sprint, the agility test and a few other things. Tadhg Kennelly (Irish born, former Sydney Swans player) was there, along with Mick Ablett (AFL National Talent Football Manager) and Kevin Sheehan (AFL International Talent Manager). They had six AFL teams there as well.
IF YOU MADE IT YOU HAD TO MOVE HALF WAY AROUND THE WORLD. HOW DID YOU FEEL ABOUT THAT?
I knew I was going to do it at a young age. My dad played basketball overseas for 12 years, so it’s just something that I dreamed of doing as a kid, it was just a different sport. I have had to learn something all over again, which has been the toughest part, but I knew I was going to go and play somewhere. I was ready for it.
WAS YOUR DAD DISAPPOINTED THAT IT WASN’T BASKETBALL?
No. I told him that I got this email for Australian Rules Football and he said, “Yeah, I’ve seen that, that’s the kind of stuff you would like to do”. All the guys he played with in his career agreed. They were all very supportive. They came and watched me play US AFL footy in the city in Chicago.
HAVE YOUR FRIENDS GOT ANY IDEA OF AFL?
I try to explain it to them. I still have friends that ask “How’s rugby going?” I say, “Yeah, it’s good, I’m hanging in there, getting better.” Not many people back home have any clue what it is.
THOSE WHO DO SEEM MYSTIFIED THAT PLAYERS DON’T WEAR HELMETS AND PADDING.
I always show them the Biggest Hits of 2012 and 2013 on YouTube, and they are like, “You are going to go do that?” They tell me to come back and play regular football – NFL – it’s safer doing that!
In all honesty, there is controlled chaos, this is more about skill and strength and speed, whereas NFL is a lot of strength and you are crashing into each other. In footy you are trying to avoid tackles, so, it’s really not as dangerous as people think back home. I feel safer playing this than I do NFL.
YOU LIKE THE PHYSICALITY OF SPORT BUT I IMAGINE YOU ARE FINDING AFL A LOT MORE PHYSICAL THAN BASKETBALL.
Yes, definitely. It’s controlled physicality, which is good. At a young age, I was more of a finesse basketball player and going through college, one of the things I had to work on was being more physical on the court. It becomes an attitude, I still have a lot to learn as to how physical I can be. But, I do love those physical acts that come with the game.
IT’S ALSO A VERY FAST GAME.
I asked (teammate) Tom Hickey, “What do you do in the ruck when the opposition guy tries to jump into you at the ball up?” Tom replied “We will have to talk about it later” because the game’s moving too fast. In basketball, if it’s a dead ball, you get four minutes where you can have those chats with your team mates, but in footy there is no time to strategize. You can do it a bit, but it’s quick, it’s real quick.
DO YOU FIND THE OPPOSITION GET INTO YOU ABOUT NOT ‘KNOWING’ THE GAME?
Yeah, just a couple of times. I’m calling for holding the ball and they say, “You’ve only been playing three weeks mate!” So yeah, every now and then, but that’s fine, it’s not abrasive. It’s a lot worse back home.
YOU LIKE TO IMPOSE YOUR WILL ON THE FIELD. YOU DON’T FEEL INTIMIDATED BY YOUR LIMITED EXPERIENCE?
I respect competition and I think every other competitor who crosses me is trying to do the same thing. When I am trying to impose will, they are trying to play hard. And if someone’s played 60 games in AFL or 80 or 2, or none, I am still going to try to compete with you and dig into you a bit. I respect all my competition but I will have a crack as well. We are all just competing.
AT YOUR SIZE, YOU PROBABLY DON’T COP TOO MUCH.
Port Melbourne’s ruckman was pretty big. He pushed me around a little bit, I tried to get into him as well. I was just trying to hold my ground. The rucks are just as big as I am.
YOU HAVE BEEN HERE FOR A WHILE. ARE YOU HAPPY WITH HOW IT’S GOING?
Yeah, I am. When I came in I didn’t know what I was getting in to. You have just got to take it at face value. It’s always a grind every day to get better, and get to the level all the boys are at. Even today after training, I was just walking off, thinking half the things I did at training today, I could not do with any kind of confidence, or just do in general, seven months ago. I just take everything day by day, so it doesn’t really shock me too often. But when it does, it’s like, ‘alright, let’s keep getting better, let’s do it again tomorrow’.
DO YOU MISS BASKETBALL?
I would be lying if I said that I didn’t, but I love what I am doing, so I don’t really think about it at all. I try to watch the NBA but I don’t say I wish I was out there. I am happy with what I am doing and where my career is at. I feel like I am making progress and I have the potential to help the team win one day, that’s the goal.
WHAT SKILLS ARE MOST TRANSFERABLE FROM OTHER SPORTS YOU’VE PLAYED?
Probably boxing out in basketball (sticking out your forearm to make contact with the opposing player to position yourself between the other player and the basket). As a ruck, a lot of times I am throwing my body into somebody else’s and they are throwing their body into me trying to clear space, so boxing out is pretty similar. You can be more physical here, use your hands and be more tactical. Reading the flight of the footy in the air would be similar to baseball where, when the ball is hit, the wind can grab it quite a bit and you have to get under it and judge it from a distance. In footy you need to be able to quickly read the flight of the ball and find the drop zone. The flight patterns are different, but it’s pretty similar.
YOU HAVEN’T GROWN UP WITH THE GAME – IT’S A MASSIVE STEP TO TAKE.
Yeah, people say, “You are going really well”, even team mates and friends, but I set high standards for myself. I have goals. I want to play footy; I want to win a Grand Final. I wouldn’t have come here if that wasn’t the ultimate goal. These are just little steps and I don’t get too worked up about them, excited or upset, because I know that there is a bigger picture and that’s the one that will take me back one day and I will try to soak it in then.
Everything else is just a stepping stone for me. I know the effort I am putting in. I know where I came from at Day One, where I am now, and where I want to be. I don’t look at it too much as, ‘Oh, I’ve done all this much’. I want to do more. Thinking forward, I guess.
HAVE YOU ALWAYS SET THAT HIGH STANDARD FOR YOURSELF?
I think so. Maybe at school I was a B average. I was good at it but I wasn’t the highest standard. Basketball was my sport and I was always setting high standards for that as well. I just love a challenge and I think that when there is a challenge I go for it. It’s that much more exciting. I am more driven.
DO CROWDS HERE ACT IN A SIMILAR WAY TO THE THOSE BACK HOME?
At college games they are all up and about screaming for no reason, which is one of the greatest atmospheres to ever be around – 20,000 fans just screaming for no reason. You get a foul and they all yell ‘You, you, you, yooouuuuuuu’. It’s unbelievable.
I was able to go to the (AFL) Grand Final, and in that game, every specific play matters, and you can feel the ‘Ooohhhhhhh’ from the fans, but I love a regular game where the second half gets really intense and the fans get really intense. You can feel it.
WHAT’S THE TOUGHEST PART BEEN SO FAR?
It changes from week to week and probably month to month, but I would say fitness. I think, in the end, whether it’s getting my kicking right, or (forward) leading patterns (designed to create one-on-one marking contests as often as possible), or understanding the rules, it always comes down to fitness. The fitness level required is the highest I have ever done in my life. The way I feel after games, I have never felt before. I think footy players are the most fit people in the world – the most well rounded athletes.
So the better shape I am, the longer I can run, the longer I can play. Sometimes I know where I need to be but I am exhausted, so I think once I can get my fitness above par, it will open up doors for me on the field.
WE HEAR A LOT ABOUT THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN SIX DAY, SEVEN DAY AND EIGHT DAY BREAKS. DO THOSE EXTRA DAYS REALLY MAKE A BIG DIFFERENCE?
At my first six day break – my first two – I couldn’t believe how big a difference that one day made, but after half a season, I now know, that when you have a six-day coming up you just have to make the preparation to recover more quickly. I think I am managing it better than I was before, but it does make a difference. You embrace an eight day break if you can get one.
WHAT DO YOU DO WHEN YOU ARE NOT PLAYING FOOTY?
Watch TV, movies, get off my feet. It’s pretty simple. If I had my Xbox, I would be playing Call of Duty.
DOES AUSTRALIA SEEM LIKE A VERY SMALL COUNTRY?
At first when I came out here, yeah, but there are still four million people in the (Melbourne) metropolitan area, and that’s pretty big, so it doesn’t feel too small – maybe it does in regard to the news. There are 20 million people here, and 250 million back home and a whole bunch of stuff is going on in the news because there are that many people there.
HOW HAVE YOU COPED WITH CULTURAL DIFFERENCES – DIFFERENT NAMES FOR COMMON ITEMS?
I was having a chat with one of the boys, sometimes I want to say ‘lollies’ but I definitely don’t say ‘choccy’- I call chocolate ‘candy’, and petrol ‘gas’. I kind of mix it up. It’s different in the ‘States too – it’s regional. Soft drink can be ‘soda’ but we say ‘pop’ in the Mid-West.
HAVE YOUR TEAMMATES GOT YOU ONTO VEGEMITE?
Oh no, that’s not happening. I tried it. I don’t understand what purpose it serves. I don’t like it.