Mason Cox's amazing journey from basketball to Anzac Day

In a staggeringly fast transformation, Oklahoma State University graduate Mason Cox will become only the second American to play in the Australian Football League when he lines up for Collingwood in the Magpies' annual blockbuster against Essendon on Monday.

Two years ago, he had never heard of Australian rules football. But after shining at the 2014 international draft combine in Los Angeles, the the 211cm Dallas native is set to make his AFL debut in front of more than 80,000 fans at the spiritual home of his new sport: the Melbourne Cricket Ground.

Cox has amazed onlookers with his rapid development, and he left Collingwood no choice but to select him for the annual Anzac Day match against the team's fierce rivals.

The Magpies and Bombers are two of the traditional power clubs of the AFL. They lock horns every Anzac Day, one of Australia's most important national occasions and the anniversary of the first major military action fought by Australian and New Zealand forces during World War I.

The Anzac Day clash is the biggest game of the AFL calendar, besides the finals series. It will be a fierce occasion for a first-gamer, but Cox has already shown he is comfortable taking on any challenge thrown his way.

The 25-year-old is following in the footsteps of St. Kilda trailblazer Jason Holmes, who became the first American to play AFL when he was selected for three late-season games last year. Both Holmes and Cox are ruckmen, traditionally the tallest players on each team who compete for the ball at the center bounces that begin matches or restart play after a goal has been kicked.

Cox was the biggest athlete -- in Australia or abroad -- to take part in the 20-year history of AFL testing when he tried out at the international combine in 2014. As well as his size, his athletic capabilities had clubs salivating. He impressed with his speed and agility and his ability to handle the oval-shaped ball. He recorded elite vertical jump scores, including the second-highest left-footed running leap ever documented by the AFL.

"He ran three seconds flat for the 20-meter sprint, and 11.59 minutes for the three-kilometer time trial," Kevin Sheehan, the AFL's national talent manager told afl.com.au. "But it was more his skill overhead and his hands. He's mobile, agile and a good decision-maker. He was the absolute standout, no doubt."

Several clubs were interested in recruiting Cox, but he signed with Collingwood in May 2014 as an international rookie and has spent the past two seasons learning his craft in the second-tier Victorian Football League competition.

Once settled in Melbourne, Cox adapted quickly to the "foreign" game and rapidly improved his aerobic fitness, football skills and game awareness.

"Every quarter, I just want to keep learning everything I can," Cox told Collingwood Media. "I'll take in as much information as possible. It's really about just getting repetition at this point. I'm enjoying it so far, and I'll just keep ticking away."

The new cult hero said he was inspired by Holmes' Round 21 debut for St. Kilda last season.

"It gives you a bit more of a kick in the butt to try and do better, I guess, to see someone like Jason succeed and show it is possible," Cox told Fairfax Media in February. "You kind of want to be up in the same position as he is.

"Everyone kind of rolls the red carpet out for you when you first get here and say, 'Oh, you will get a game in X amount of years.' But to see it actually happen, it's now not something that people just talk about. It's real."

Holmes has yet to add to his three-game tally this year, but he told ESPN in March that he believed it was only a matter of time before more U.S. athletes followed his path.

Holmes, a 26-year-old Chicago native who turned his back on a potential professional basketball career to join the St. Kilda as an international rookie in late 2013, is one of three Americans on AFL lists, with Cox and Carlton's Matt Korcheck, who played basketball at Division I Arizona.

"Oh, 100 percent," Holmes, the younger brother of Oakland Raiders wide receiver Andre, told ESPN of an over-supply of basketball players trying to get drafted in the NBA.

"There isn't as much demand for the 6-foot-8 power forward-types, and they have dreams to do something amazing, but then [if they don't make the NBA] it's, 'Wait a minute, I might be at home making pennies and playing in front of [only] a few hundred every night, and there's this amazing sport that looks exciting, and I might have the potential and I love a challenge -- why not.'

"And you fall in love with [AFL] so quickly, you really do."