It’s not just that Mason Cox is 211 centimetres – 211.4 to be precise. It’s not that he can jump higher than any AFL wannabe the league has ever tested, and it isn’t that he can cover 20 metres in three seconds flat. What makes the American most interesting is that five clubs really want to sign him, and that they’re spending this week trying to convince him to choose them.
For Cox, it has all been a little confusing. Two months ago he was at college in Oklahoma, and had never heard of Australian Rules football, let alone picked up a Sherrin. At the end of April he was in Los Angeles at the third US combine, to run, jump and (try to) kick in front of recruiters from six AFL clubs. On Saturday the 23-year-old graduated from his engineering course and by Sunday he was on his way to visit Collingwood, Port Adelaide, North Melbourne and Richmond.
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US draft prospect Mason Cox, standing at 211cm, says he's not in Australia for a holiday as he contemplates the serious possibility of becoming a future AFL ruckman in Australia.
“It just kind of got thrown at me randomly,” he said. “It’s been crazy, you know, absolutely insane. But that’s just how life goes, and you’ve got to make the most of every chance.”
This is a big one, and the competition for his extremely raw services means Cox isn’t like Shae McNamara, whose YouTube clip caught Collingwood’s attention, or like Mike Pyke, who had a DVD sent Sydney’s way while he was still playing rugby in Canada six years ago.
Collingwood took him to the MCG and asked him to imagine it full of fans. Port Adelaide had promised tickets to Adelaide Oval for Saturday’s match against Hawthorn. He was due to meet recruiters, coaches, football managers and anyone else who could convince him that their club could develop him best, with Fremantle also lining up a meeting. Others were keen to have a chat too, but the AFL limited his visits to those clubs who had flown over to see the combine.
Whichever club gets him will have to pay – Cox has a job as a mechanical engineer at ExxonMobil waiting for him back home – but the money doesn’t matter as much to him as the chance to be a professional sportsman and to master the strange game he has spent the past three weeks researching like mad, with the help of his older brother Nolan, who has become his accidental agent as the clubs have started calling, wanting to know even more about him.
“Obviously you look for the best opportunity out there to, you know, develop my game and go from there,” said Cox, who grew up playing soccer, rollerblade hockey and whatever else was going until he grew more than 20 centimetres as a 17-year-old and found that basketball suited him best. “It’s whoever has the best resources to get me where I want to be. It’s a new sport and I have a lot of things to work on, so that’s going to be the biggest thing for me.
“Everyone’s giving their pitch and you’ve got to take what you can from it and make the best decision.”
Cox was invited to the combine by Jonathan Givony, a professional talent scout who has strong contacts in the college system and has been able to sell the idea of a possible career in football to basketballers likely to miss out on NBA or European league contracts. Nineteen athletes attended the recent combine and there were more on a waiting list.
The AFL wants to encourage clubs to look outside Australia to expand the talent pool – and considers the American basketballers an obvious fit for the ruck – but not at the expense of young players closer to home. The question of how to create more and better opportunities for kids living in remote communities, and new Australians, is a key part of the league's talent pathway review that is now well underway.
Cox has figured some things out already. That you either love or hate Collingwood. That kicking is the hardest part of the game to pick up. Followed by bouncing. And handballing. That he really wants to pick it all up, that he’s willing to keep practising and that it doesn’t matter where in the world you are, people love to talk footy.
“The first day I was here I was recognised by someone and got a picture with them,” he said, smiling. “Before I even got on the plane, we were in LA and we ran into two guys that played basketball in the States and they’d looked it up on the AFL website and said, 'we actually know who you are but we didn’t want to be rude about it.’
“It’s been kind of crazy, but it’s like a religion out here, it really is, and that’s awesome for someone like me. Coming out here and having an opportunity to do something like this is something that’s a once in a lifetime opportunity.”