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Milwaukee Journal/Sentinel

Rusty Rosen spoke passionately about his sport, explaining how it had enabled him to scratch his competitive itch in a way that softball leagues or flag football could not.

When I saw this game, I said, 'This is it,' " Rosen said. "This is the option for me."

Kicking Some Behinds

Australian Rules Football gaining a foothold in Milwaukee

By Gary D’Amato of the Journal Sentinel Staff

Rusty Rosen spoke passionately about his sport, explaining how it had enabled him to scratch his competitive itch in a way that softball leagues or flag football could not.

When I saw this game, I said, 'This is it,' " Rosen said. "This is the option for me."

And just how long had he been playing Australian Rules Football?

"Two days," Rosen said with a grin.

Rosen, 22, had just joined the Illinois Ironmen, one of 33 teams in the United States Australian Football League. Although he barely knew the rules, he charged up and down the field like a "footy" veteran during a recent game between the Ironmen and the Milwaukee Bombers at Kletzsch Park.

"This game gets in your blood fast," Rosen said. "It's perfect for guys who played high school football or soccer and want to keep doing physical stuff and stay in shape. I see it picking up in the U.S."

Founded by Paul O'Keeffe of Milwaukee and a few other transplanted Australians, the USAFL debuted with seven teams in 1996. Just 4 1/2 years later, teams have formed in most major U.S. cities and more than 1,000 Americans are playing Australian Rules Football. The USAFL has a web site (www.usfooty.com) and even a national tournament.

O'Keeffe, a native of Broken Hill, a small mining town in the Outback, admitted homesickness played a part in the birth of the USAFL.

"It was fun to get involved, go to a sports weekend and meet a bunch of Aussies," he said. "It kept me in touch with my Australian cultural roots. Also, I've got a history in sports administration. I knew I had the ability to get us kick-started."

Despite its growth at the grass-roots level, Australian Rules Football is only vaguely familiar to most Americans. The game was a staple on ESPN in the 1980s, but disappeared, along with other obscure sports, as the cable station's programming improved.

"The perception, when people watched it on ESPN, was that this was crazy football with no pads," O'Keeffe said. "But it's actually more athletic and skillful than it is physical."

Australian Rules Football, or footy, has a national following in Australia, where 16 teams compete in the professional Australian Football League. More than 100,000 spectators annually pack the Melbourne Cricket Ground for the Grand Final, the AFL's version of the Super Bowl.

The sport was invented in the mid-1800s by Irishmen working the Australian coal fields and has elements of soccer, rugby, hockey and volleyball. Actually, it is most similar to Gaelic football, a sport played only in Ireland.

"Tactically, it's a little bit like Ultimate Frisbee," O'Keeffe said. "It's sort of like elaborate keep-away."

Knowing the basics

The game is played on an oval field with no set dimensions, although the recommended size is 164 to 202 yards in length and 142 to 164 yards in width. Think of a 400-meter athletic track around a football field and you've got the general idea.

There are 18 players on a side, all of whom play offense and defense. The object is to score a goal by kicking the ball through four goalposts on either end of the field. A kick through the center posts is worth six points. Players can score one point, called a "behind," by kicking the ball between one of the center posts and one of the smaller outer posts.

Players advance the oblong ball with kicks and hand passes, struck with a clenched fist. They can run with the ball for 15 yards, but then must either bounce it, kick it or hand-pass it to another player.

"It's a very improvisational game," said Warrick Burgmann, a native Australian who lives in Chicago and plays for the Ironmen. "There are no set plays. There's no quarterback or star player. It's really a team game."

If a player catches the ball directly from the kick of a teammate or opponent, he is awarded a "mark" and can either play on or bring the match to a halt while he takes a free kick.

Tackling is allowed and even encouraged, but only between the shoulders and knees. Bumping with the shoulder is legal, but frontal collisions are not. The game is fast and physical, but not brutal.

When some players got a bit chippy during the recent game between the Ironmen and Bombers, the referee stopped play and scolded them.

"I think there's probably less injuries than you have in American football," said Jim Cleary, a native Australian who lives in Madison and plays for the Bombers.

"Because of the fact that the ball is almost always live, you don't want to go to the ground when you tackle someone. You want to stay on your feet. That's critical, because if you're on the ground, you're useless."

A social event

The social element is an important part of the game, too. O'Keeffe explained that in Australia the sports culture is participatory, as opposed to the competitive nature of American sports culture.

After footy games, no matter how rough and tumble, opposing players put their arms around one another and head to the bar.

"You may smack a guy behind the ear during the game," Burgmann said, "but you'll have a beer with him afterwards."

The Bombers are comprised of players from southeastern Wisconsin and Madison. Included on the 2001 schedule are home games June 30 and July 7 at Kletzsch Park, in conjunction with Summerfest. The Bombers also are scheduled to play in tournaments in Kansas City, Chicago and Cincinnati.

The skill level of American footy players is not good, but it's getting better. The U.S. has a national team; transplanted Australians are prohibited from playing on it.

"This is the equivalent to high school basketball compared to the NBA," O'Keeffe said. "It's worlds apart (from the Australian Football League). That's to be expected. It's also good. If I never played ice hockey and went to a rink to play, I couldn't play. It would be too daunting.

"Australian Rules Football isn't like that. Americans watch it for a little while and say, 'OK, I can play this game.'"

The USAFL received a grant from the Australian Football League, and many U.S. teams have "big brother" clubs in Australia. The Bombers, for instance, are associated with the Essendon Bombers, one of the top AFL clubs, and use Essendon's jerseys.

"It's really taken off," Burgmann said. "We find a lot of guys out of high school who have played organized sports, but after that all that's available to them is softball leagues or flag football. Nothing quite like this. It's full-on. It's a contact game.

"When guys see our sport, they say, 'This is what I've been looking for all my life. Where's it been?' "

 

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