Players find camaraderie, competition in 'Aussie Rules'

Tuesday, August 10th 2004, 8:08 pm
By: News On 6

RICHARDSON, Texas (AP) _ When professional marketer Scott Hunt e-mailed the Dallas Australian Rules football club about attending games, the immediate response was that he should join the team instead.

Initially hesitant, he gave it a try.

Six years later, he's a mainstay for the Dallas Magpies, one of seven teams that play in the Mid-American league, part of the United States Australian Rules Football League.

Such stories are common in Aussie Rules, where athletes and couch potatoes alike are welcome to hoist a beer with the blokes or take to the field for a little ``footy'' _ a soft-sounding name for the bone-crunching matches that involve tackling but no pads.

``I moved to Cincinnati six years or so ago and met the team at a bar,'' said Kyle Strenski, who so excelled at the sport that he was named to the U.S. national team.

Strenski, 28, recommends Australian Rules Football as a great way to get acquainted with a new city. Hunt, 35, goes even further _ comparing his experience to finding a second family.

``We have parties together, go out together, support each other,'' he said.

All this male bonding doesn't officially commence until after the matches, a couple of hours on Saturday in which friendships are put on hold.

``Punching somebody in the face might be illegal, but that's about it,'' said Hunt's wife, Valerie, who provides ice to battered and bruised players on game day.

Aussie rules is played with an oval ball bigger than the one used in the American version. Players may catch, kick and pass the ball by punching it _ but they can't throw it. Runners are required to bounce the ball every 15 meters, about 50 feet, and can score six points by kicking it between two large goal posts.

Among the most spectacular plays is a ``mark,'' in which players leap on opponents' backs to make a catch.

American converts sometimes date their connection with the sport to the early days of ESPN, the cable television sports network, when the airing of games produced a cult following. Australian expatriates are more likely to link the activity with fond recollections of their homeland, where Australian rules football is a staple of the winter months.

``To be 14,000 miles from home and to be able to have the sport here in America is pretty special,'' said the Magpies' Stuart Rackham, a research and development chef who has been in the United States about four years.

Nationwide, about 2,000 players participate on teams in the United States Australian Rules Football League, said Hunt, who serves as the organization's spokesman. About half are Australian, with the number of Americans steadily increasing.

Players don't get paid, but in the Mid-American League, the best players are named to traveling squads, earning weekend road trips to battle league rivals like the Chicago Swans, Nashville Kangaroos or Atlanta Kookaburras.

Americans who spent their youth playing Little League baseball or Pop Warner football look for guidance from Australian teammates like Rackham, who says players don't have to be superb athletes, since certain positions in Australian rules football require less athleticism than others.

The sport ``doesn't discriminate against anyone,'' said Rackham, 28. ``Once they come out, they're hooked.''

American Sean Stover, whose brother Chad helped found the Magpies, said he likes the contact of the sport. Unlike American football, though, ``you're not laid out every play, so you don't have to spend time recuperating.''

A few loyal fans huddled under umbrellas on a recent rainy Saturday afternoon in suburban Richardson to watch the Magpies and Dockers slide around in the water and knock each other to the ground. A mixture of Australian and Texas accents filled the air with cries of ``Go 'Pies.''

The Dockers, who didn't have a single Australian playing for them on the day they faced the Magpies, lost 64-14. The outcome earned the right for Dallas to sing the team song to the tune of the ``Yellow Rose of Texas.''

Hunt and Strenski then focused on an evening of fellowship that lay ahead.

``You go out and beat each other up,'' Hunt said, ``then afterward you go to the pub together, and you're one big happy family.''