Big Texan the best of all Americans in the AFL


“As Mason Cox sprinted toward the football, one thought ran through his mind: attack it. He leapt up onto the back of the defender in front of him, using him as a stepladder to bring himself closer to the dropping ball. He timed his leap to perfection, turning his 6-foot-11 body into a long crane, and plucked the yellow, oval-shaped ball out of the night sky.

“It was a clean and pivotal mark, or catch, 25 meters (27 yards) out from goal in an Australian rules football match. Cox would finish that game with eight contested marks — the second-highest ever in an Australian Football League playoff game — and three goals. His team, Collingwood Football Club of Melbourne, won that playoff game but lost in the grand final — Australia’s Super Bowl — the next week.”

Cox, from Highland Village north of Dallas, played US college basketball and soccer on his way to a degree in mechanical engineering from Oklahoma State University but was recruited by Collingwood in the 2014 AFL Rookie Draft on a category B international rookie contract.

The tall Texan left behind a lucrative and attractive job offer from ExxonMobil in Houston to try his luck at the native Australian game and his route to the AFL is as remarkable as his performance in that game last September.

In 2014 Cox was invited to the AFL US Combine in Los Angeles where, just like the Australian version, participants undergo a series of medical, psychomotor, athletic and fitness tests.

He impressed enough for the AFL to fly him to Melbourne for follow-up ball skill tests and a 2km time trial, which he completed in a very impressive time of six minutes and 50 seconds, which piqued the interest of several AFL club scouts in attendance, as did his vertical leap and positive attitude towards hard work.

Mason Cox in his breakout performance in last year’s preliminary final against Richmond.Credit:AAP

And as they say, the rest is history.

After learning his craft in the VFL during 2015, he made his AFL debut the following year in the traditional Anzac Day clash between Collingwood and Essendon in front of more than 90,000 fans.

As if scripted for Hollywood, Cox took a leading mark on his chest, 20 metres from goal, just two minutes into the game, prompting this memorable phrase from the dulcet tones of legendary WA commentator Dennis Cometti to the TV audience: “He’s a long way from Oklahoma State … he’s a cowboy, as they all are at that university…”

With his parents and two brothers in the stands of the MCG, the Texan dropped the ball to his boot and the Sherrin, a foreign object to Cox only a couple years earlier, sailed through the big sticks for six points.

The foreign Magpie has since become a favourite of the Collingwood cheersquad and his rise in stature as a key forward across the league is truly remarkable … but he is not the first born-and-bred American to play the game.

The exploits of American athletes who have travelled half way across the world to try their luck at Aussie Rules is exquisitely told by US journalist, teacher and fanatic Dockers supporter Gil Griffin in his riveting book Jumping at the Chance.

Griffin chronicles the many attempts and false starts of US athletes seeking to make a name for themselves playing Australian football.

A year before Cox graced the MCG on Anzac Day, Jason Holmes, a former Morehead State basketball player, became the first American born-and-raised athlete to play in a home-and-away AFL fixture.

Having represented St Kilda’s affiliated VFL club Sandringham in 2014 and most of 2015, Holmes made his AFL debut for the Saints as a ruckman on August 22, 2015 as his club fought out a draw with Geelong.

The odds of an American playing in a drawn AFL game must have been very, very long.

St Kilda's international rookie Jason Holmes in 2014 ... he was later delisted by the club.

St Kilda’s international rookie Jason Holmes in 2014 … he was later delisted by the club.Credit:Wayne Taylor

Holmes had an impressive 34 hit outs in his debut and played the final three home and away fixtures. He would play one more game for St Kilda before the club delisted him at the end of 2017.

The ex-Saint however is not the first US athlete to occupy a spot on an AFL club list … that honour belongs to Dwayne Armstrong, an Iowa State graduate, who played football for the university while earning a degree in marketing. He had hopes of an NFL career and at one point was a member of the Los Angeles Raiders practice squad.

But that was not to be.

Instead, through a friendship with the daughter of influential AFL administrator and former league boss Ross Oakley, Armstrong found himself at the MCG watching the inaugural Anzac Day clash between the Pies and Bombers in 1995.

The next year he would be recruited by Essendon, with legendary Bombers coach Kevin Sheedy never afraid to go outside the box.

Armstrong also has the honour of being the first born-and-bred American to kick a goal in an AFL-sanctioned match, which he scored for Essendon against the Fremantle Dockers in a 1996 pre-season match in Northam, roughly 100km east of Perth.

He would remain on Essendon’s list for two seasons but was never able to crack into the senior side. But he does have another distinction to his name – that is being at the centre of one of the funniest moments on a football oval.

The event occurred in a 1997 reserves game against Richmond. As recalled by Griffin in Jumping at the Chance, Essendon had just scored a behind and the ball lay idle in the goalsquare. There was no Richmond player approaching the ball to gather and kick it back into play. I’ll let Griffin take up the story as told in his book:

Collingwood's import from the United States, Shae McNamara, during a game against the Sydney Swans.

Collingwood’s import from the United States, Shae McNamara, during a game against the Sydney Swans.Credit:Sebastian Costanzo

“Armstrong was playing forward that day, but in his role as a defender he’d been practicing kick-ins. So when he saw no one going near the ball – and even though he was at the wrong end of the ground – he picked it up. In front of his bemused teammates and opponents, he attempted a kick-in. An umpire blew his whistle and restored order.”

The first US athlete to ever be drafted by an AFL club and the first to kick a goal in the AFL’s now defunct pre-season NAB Cup is Shae McNamara, a college basketball player for Marist College in New York who also played a year of professional basketball in Germany before Collingwood recruited him with pick 47 in the 2009 AFL Rookie Draft.

McNamara was delisted at the end of the 2012 season without playing a regular season game, being restricted to appearances in the NAB Cup competition only.

There is a sprinkling of other US born-and-bred athletes who have played for clubs in Australia, at the AFL level and across the various State leagues, but none have had the impact of the big Texan, Mason Cox.

But admiration should go to all those from the USA who have taken the challenge to come down under to master a foreign game in a foreign land.

As Griffin rightly says: “By jumping at the chance to be part of the experiment, the American players are all pioneers, regardless of the fame or wealth they accumulate.”

Tony Buti is the state member for Armadale, an author and keen football follower.

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