LAKEWOOD RANCH, Fla. -- Dermott Brereton hadn't seen anything like the United States Australian Football League nationals tournament, where 40 footy club teams and more than 1,200 players from across the U.S. and Canada converged this past weekend to contest men's and women's championships in six divisions.
Brereton, an Australian Football League commentator and former Hawthorn star, is on a surfing holiday in the United States with former teammate Chris Wittman, and the tandem made sure to visit America's annual festival of Australian rules football during their stay.
"I'm loving it -- absolutely loving it," Brereton said while surveying two games at once. "The camaraderie has been wonderful, and you can tell the Americans get a kick out of having a competitive environment like this."
While Brereton spoke, Wittman intently shot video of a women's match with his iPhone, impressed by the athleticism and skill. It was a full plate of footy.
"To see five ovals with [simultaneous] games, you just don't see this in Australia," Wittman said. "To see the quality of play and also the women's football is incredible. We just started playing women's football in Australia, and they're already playing it here!"
In a way, Australian football has come full circle in America with Brereton and Wittman here to see the progress. After all, they were members of the Hawthorn team that faced the Essendon Bombers in the first pro match ever held in the States -- a 1989 postseason exhibition at Joe Robbie Stadium in Miami.
For the uninitiated, Australian rules football is contested with 18 players per side on a large oval. It contains elements of rugby and Gaelic football, but also includes aerial play. Teams score by kicking the ball through sets of uprights at the ends of the field. For a more detailed rules overview, click here. The USAFL requires at least nine American players on the field for each team in nationals competition.
On the pitch, the Austin Crows captured their second consecutive Division I men's national championship and third in the past four years with a 39-13 win over the Golden Gate Roos. The game was contested in gusty conditions, with almost all the points scored with the wind. The Crows dictated the tempo, took control early, and did enough to disrupt the Roos' progress while heading into the wind in the second half.
Nolan Cox, older brother of Collingwood Magpies big man Mason Cox, kicked three goals in the final for Austin, which capped an undefeated season. Nolan preceded Mason as a college basketball player at Oklahoma State and took up footy only a couple of years ago after Mason began pursuing an AFL career. It just so happens that Nolan lives in Austin, and he wound up catching on with the Crows.
"I was just looking for some guys to have a kick, so I looked it up online," Cox said. "The experience is awesome, and it's very competitive."
In case you're wondering, Nolan isn't quite as tall as Mason -- 198 centimeters to 211 (6-foot-6 to 6-11) -- but perhaps the question still should be asked. Does Nolan have interest in trying out for the AFL?
"Well," he said with a smile, "I'm 29."
On the women's side, the San Francisco Iron Maidens also battled the wind to earn a hard-fought 9-6 win over the six-time defending champion Denver Bulldogs to capture their first Division I national title. For Jess Estrada, it was a chance to see years of hard work come to fruition. Estrada has been playing footy since 2009 and was co-founder of the Iron Maidens when they began play three years later as a sister team to the Roos. To her, the difficult part isn't staying dedicated to training or absorbing physical punishment in games; it's all the time spent on organization, administration and everything else that goes into maintaining a club off the field.
"I don't think you understand how big this is for us," Estrada said. "We started in 2012 and put so many hours into this. It takes so much to build a team, and we just beat the six-time champions. It blows my mind."
U.S. women's national team captain Hallie Adrian initially balked at the idea of playing Aussie football eight years ago. She had played college basketball at Texas State and wasn't interested in an outdoor game or a kicking sport. But when she moved to Denver, an acquaintance convinced her that footy would be a good way to make friends in a new town. Turns out she liked hitting people, developed a passion for the game, and became an integral member of those six Bulldogs championship teams.
"I think I was meant to play a tackle sport," Adrian said. "I think a lot of us are adrenaline junkies. Afterward, you feel [the bumps and bruises], but during the game, my mind is on nothing but footy."
Eight women's teams participated at this year's national tournament, and approximately 250 female players across the country are affiliated with USAFL clubs. It's a modest number -- but a far cry from 2010, when Estrada and a few teammates had to fly to San Diego just to put together a 5-on-5 game.
"It's absolutely insane," Estrada said. "Now we have two divisions. We have commentators. I can watch myself on [the web stream]. It means so much that this sport really supports women's growth."
U.S. women's national team coach Leigh Barnes said American clubs that rely too heavily on Australians aren't able to have staying power. They might thrive for a while, but it isn't an effective model for sustained success. In order to win consistently at the USAFL's top levels, he said clubs need to be able to continually recruit and develop local players. Barnes speaks from experience, as he helped found the Golden Gate AFL in 2001. Today, the GGAFL boasts five men's and three women's teams and sends the Iron Maidens and Roos to the nationals each year.
"You're only as good as your weakest American," Barnes said. "If you rely too much on Australians, the quality of your team suffers."
Former Sydney Swans and Fitzroy Lions player John Ironmonger has been involved with footy in America for nearly two decades, and in 1998 he attended the second USAFL nationals in Cincinnati. Although there were only eight teams, he said the event "was a great weekend of football for an Aussie who was homesick." He recalls having difficulty at first recruiting Americans to the Roos and the GGAFL. It seemed that when Ironmonger tried to describe the sport, potential recruits imagined something along the lines of American football played without safety equipment -- with players recklessly flying all over the place and initiating hits with their heads. Perhaps the thought of combating the 200-centimeter, 118-kilogram Ironmonger (that's 6-foot-7, 260 pounds here in the States) struck some fear as well.
"At first, it was really hard to get Americans to show up, because they would hear 'tackle with no pads,'" said Ironmonger, now an assistant coach for the U.S. women's national team. "But if you could get them to show up, you usually had them hooked."
One of the people who has worked hard to hook Americans on footy is Perth businessman Tony Fairhead, a longtime member of a USAFL advisory board that includes AFL notables Paul Roos, Peter Schwab and Wayne Jackson. Fairhead helped institute a player exchange program between Australia and the U.S. a decade ago. Aussie players come to the U.S. to teach the game, and Americans go to Australia to learn it. The goal isn't just to teach rules and strategy, but also how to build and maintain a football club in a nation whose sports structure revolves instead around college and high school sports.
"It's goodwill," Fairhead said. "We also try to develop the players as club men and coaches. That's the model they have to learn in order to be self-sufficient."
Meantime, the USAFL is already looking ahead to 2017, and San Diego has been announced as next year's tournament host. The national teams are focusing on the 2017 International Cup, a tournament held every three years in Melbourne and contested by approximately 20 national teams -- not including Australia.
Next year will mark the third time women have competed at the International Cup. The U.S. women have placed third in each of the previous events, and Canada is the defending champion. The men's tournament began in 2002, and the defending champion is Papua New Guinea. The best American finish was third in 2005 -- something U.S. men's coach Tom Ellis expects to improve this time around.
"I'm quietly confident we can go to Australia, make a run at the title, make some noise, and open some eyes to how good the game is here," Ellis said.