They play like the men down under
This article is originally from TimeOut magazine by Tim McCormick. See the original article here.
GOING POSTAL Rest assured that even though there’s no Foster’s in the frame, this is Australian rules football.
Photo: Hayley Mccormick
Although it’s brilliantly sunny on the day we visit the home pitch (Waveland Field) of Chicago United, the city’s lone Australian rules football club since the Chicago Sharks and Chicago Swans joined forces a few years back, it’s difficult to tell just what the crikey is going on. That’s partly because of the pair of softball games underway on adjoining fields and the precocious puppies rolling around on the sidelines. It’s the first practice of the season, and the relaxed vibe continues with wives enjoying 312 brews and kids chasing around their remote-controlled cars.
Relaxed, that is, until you cast your eye to the field and see 36 burly men scrambling after a football that’s slightly larger than NFL size. “Footy,” as the game is sometimes lovingly referred to, was developed in the 1800s by English colonizers as a way to keep cricket players in shape during the off-season. But the game’s similarities with cricket end with the fact that both are played on an oval field about 450 to 500 feet in diameter.
Here’s the gist. Each team of 18 tries to advance the ball to the opposition’s goal posts. At the ends of the field, four posts are set up, with the two inner ones referred to as the goal posts. Every time the ball is kicked (and it must be kicked for a point to register) through the inner goal posts, six points are racked up. If the ball soars through the outer posts (known as the behind posts), one point goes on the board. The team leading after four quarters of play (Chicago United plays 15-minute quarters; some leagues play up to 25-minute quarters) will be hoisting Foster’s in a fit of victory.
But since the game is a mash-up of rugby, basketball and soccer, scoring isn’t as easy as it sounds. As Chicago United vet Dave Worniak puts it, the game consists of “pretty light rules on what you can [or can’t] do.” After the initial tip-off (similar to what you see in basketball), teams will move the ball down the field through a series of dribbles, punch passes (the ball is hit with a closed fist) and kicks (the best-case scenario, as any kicked pass caught allows you a free kick). All the while, you’ve got the opposition hoping to tackle you to force you to cough up the ball. Any time the ball goes airborne (though throwing the ball is forbidden), the game turns into a free-for-all with every man jumping, leaping and lunging for the ball.
Locally, the team has enjoyed more than its share of success, beating up on squads from cities like St. Louis and Milwaukee to go undefeated during last year’s Mid American Australian Football League (the oldest in the States). At nationals, they ran into a bit of a buzz saw against teams from the coasts where the Australian emigrant populations are a tad larger.
In an effort to ensure the club is always stocked with fresh blood, Friday evenings are set aside for “Friday Night Footy.” “It’s a chance for everyone in the club to get out and play a game, since not everyone plays on the travel team, and also to encourage new players to come out and give it a go,” Worniak says. Post-game revelry at the Globe Pub in North Center certainly doesn’t hurt the cause (neither do the frugal $50 dues for first-year players).
Of course, the team is well represented by lads from Down Under. Many of them found out about the league through the grapevine of the Australian Consulate, which sponsors Aussie pride events such as the celebration of Australia Day—the day in 1788, January 26 to be exact, when Captain Arthur Phillip arrived at Sydney Cove.
Other players ended up on the field through a friend of a friend, or out of curiosity after having passed the action at Waveland.
According to native Aussie Rohan Ward, “It’s definitely a social thing, but once game time comes, it’s pretty intense and pretty physical.”
See if you’ve got the stones to join up for Friday Night Footy.
- Thomas Shearman