The sport I never knew existed
What am I doing here? I still ask that question today.
Sometimes I’ll be at training and I’ll look over at the city and go, ‘How the hell did I end up here?’ It’s been a pretty wild three-and-a-half years. A rollercoaster.
I’ve been very fortunate. Back from when I was a kid, there’d have to be at least 20 different moments in my life when a certain thing would have had to happen, and then that led to the next thing, which led to the next thing.
And, miraculously, it’s led me here.
The first moment was when I was maybe six years old and started playing soccer; obviously those skills have somewhat transferred over to AFL. When I was 18, I went to study engineering at Oklahoma State University and I started playing basketball for fun.
As odd as it is, soccer and basketball are probably the two most relatable sports to footy now and it’s funny how those things have come back to me and helped me out in a different way than I ever thought was possible.
When I got to college, I took the same kind of route as my brother Nolan, who helped out with the women’s basketball team – the Cowgirls – for a bit. He did what was called scout team, so that whoever they played that week, he’d run the plays and stuff against them to help them prepare.
So from that, they started talking to me because a girl called Brittney Griner was playing for Baylor and she was like 6’8’’ and just a freak athlete. It was like, ‘We need someone to imitate her,’ pretty much, so they asked me to come and help out.
The men’s team train on the same court, so then they were like, ‘Who’s that guy who’s 6’11’’? We should get him on our team’. They randomly called me up one day when I was in class. I’ve still got the voicemail.
It was like, ‘Hey would you like to play for the men’s team?’ I called up my roommate and said, ‘Is someone pulling my chain? Is this really going to happen?’ Less than two hours later I was at training. It was like, ‘Here’s your kit, here’s your shoes, here’s some ankle braces, get out there’.
GROWING UP, AND UP
My freshman year, when I was 16 or 17 years old, I was maybe 5’10”, 5’11”. So I was above average height but I wasn’t freakishly tall. I didn’t hit my growth spurt till late. I grew six inches in a summer. I came back to school and people were like, ‘What the hell did you eat over the summer? What is going on?’.
Being tall has its ups and downs. If I wasn’t tall, I wouldn’t be here. I wouldn’t be doing this. I wouldn’t have been given these awesome opportunities and living the life I am now.
But I can’t fit in a car – I spent about two months trying to find a car at different dealerships. I can’t fit in an aeroplane. I have a king-sized bed that I sleep diagonally on – so no room for a missus! You can’t go out and not be spotted by people – you stick out of the crowd.
I duck through doorways – I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve hit my head. But every time something like that happens, I think how fortunate am I in life to be where I’m at, doing what I’m doing. Not many people can say they’ve moved half a world away to play – at the highest level – a sport they’d never even heard of.
An NBA draft scout named Jonathan Givony had been asked by the AFL to find them talent: basketballers who might not be going to the NBA but might still be athletically gifted enough to maybe play AFL.
I was fortunate enough that another random thing happened: there were two or three guys on my university team that he was scouting and, when we went to the NCAA tournament, he was watching a game and had heard my story on ESPN.
Once we were done, he emailed our media guy and said, ‘I’m representing the AFL and we have a combine in Los Angeles, and if Mason Cox would be interested to go, we’d love to have him’. I was no college superstar by any standards, so our media guy said, ‘Are you sure Mason Cox is the guy you’re looking for? We have plenty of others!’
But Jonathan had heard the story and thought, ‘He’d played soccer his whole life and just picked up basketball two years prior’. So our media guy got this really left-field, off-the-wall email inviting me to LA. I was about three months from graduating and I thought, ‘Why not?’
We googled it and what came up was AFL’s biggest hits, which was people getting knocked out and getting in fights and stuff, and I was like, ‘Aw, this is pretty full-on. This does interest me a little bit but I’m a little bit worried about my heath!’
What am I doing here? I still ask that question today.
AFL was this thing I’d never heard of and that no-one I knew had ever heard of either. I never even knew it existed. I thought, ‘Is this thing even real or is it like an Eastern European basketball league that’s going to fold, or you’re gonna get sacked, or is it something that I can have a future in?’ Once we heard it was a legit league we were like, ‘Oh, well, we’ll look into it.’
I thought, ‘If worst comes to worst and nothing comes to it, I’ll go back to the job I was going to anyway’. I was starting with Exxon Mobil in the December, I’d signed up for it, finished the interview process. When this came out of left field I thought, ‘Well, I’ve already got plan A in the bank. I can just fall back on that’. I wasn’t going to say no to a free trip to Los Angeles.
There were 25 or 30 people at the combine. It was so random. There was this foreign object that looked like a rugby ball but we’d hardly even seen one of them. Everyone was laughing and sharing this funny experience of being at this place. Most of it wasn’t doing skills and stuff, because we didn’t have any!
They didn’t expect you to be able to hit a kick 20 metres ahead of you; they were happy if you could just get it close. They were more testing your athletic abilities. I did really well in the 3 kilometre time trial and the jump test and a few other things. At the very end, they gave us a ball to kick around and, given my soccer background, I guess it was a bit easier for me than some of the other guys.
So they probably thought, ‘He’d be the tallest AFL player to ever play and he runs faster than some of the guys that are a fair bit shorter than him and he’s got a decent leap, so we’ve got all the puzzle pieces, we’ll just get someone to put it all together and who knows what will happen?’.
I think having that soccer and basketball background helped. All the five clubs who were there were interested: North Melbourne, Richmond, Collingwood, Port Adelaide and Fremantle. It was a standard contract, so that at the end of the day it wasn’t about money but about where you’d fit in the best; where you’d enjoy the company of the coaches and thought you’d progress and mature.
So a free trip to LA had turned into a free trip to Australia and, in between, my brother became my agent – kind of. I didn’t think I needed one, because I wasn’t going to be a professional footballer. Like my parents, I was going to be an engineer.
But my brother was taking all these AFL calls at 3am, so by the end of it, me being a bit cheeky, I said, ‘Well, I think it’s only fair since my agent did all this work, he should come with me, too’. So Nolan gets a week or two in Australia, red-carpet treatment from the AFL and he’s just lapping it up, downing beers and living the life, which was cool. He’s still asking for his cut, his two per cent!
When I flew back from Australia, I was only home for 24 or 48 hours before I was to leave for a two-month trip to Europe. I told my family, ‘I think I’m going to do this’, and I had to call Exxon Mobile and tell them I didn’t want the job anymore, what had happened in the past month, and try to explain what AFL was.
I had to cancel my apartment in Houston and get all my stuff back to Dallas to be able to move it over to Australia. I spent the whole last night trying to organise things and get my bag packed. It was very stressful.
I was no college superstar by any standards, so our media guy said, ‘Are you sure Mason Cox is the guy you’re looking for? We have plenty of others!’
I had a mini-freakout on the flight from New York to Frankfurt. On that plane was probably the first chance I had to really think about how big a life decision it was. I thought, ‘What have I just done? I’ve just spent five years getting a degree in engineering, got a job that people would kill for, that would take me through to retirement’. It was the yellow brick road everyone takes and I had it perfectly laid out for me and I’d just made a left on to an unpaved road that I didn’t even know existed.
But I thought about the long-term and when I’m 40 or 50 years old. During a long chat on St Kilda beach, my brother had helped me realise that I’d look back and say I’m glad I took that risk. Whenever I’ve made a decision, I’ve always thought, ‘I’d rather be saying ‘what is rather than what if’’. Whether it was going to work out or not, it was going to be a cool time.
I knew Sydney. That was it. I’d never even heard of Melbourne before I went there.
I moved over in the August. It was a whirlwind at first. You start off with pretty much zero skill, so I was in every single day working on my skill set with our development coaches Craig McRae and Anthony Rocca. The learning curve was massive.
You’re picking up little nuances here and there, and just trying to understand the basics. But you’re seeing progress every single day. Then once you start getting the hang of everything, it somewhat tapers off, compared with the beginning when everything was so new and there was so much information being thrown that you’re just trying to digest it all and spit it back out, and understand how the mechanics work and everything else.
Learning to handball was not too bad, although hitting a moving target was pretty hard in the beginning. Kicking was pretty tough but getting the ball drop right and all that sort of stuff was more just repetition than anything.
But I still don’t like the bounce too much. I kind of find it funny every time I do it, because it’s just not something in my repertoire. I always have a bit of a cheeky laugh after those.
I was fortunate enough to debut on Anzac Day, 2016. I remember when they told me I was, ‘You’re f***ing kidding me, aren’t you?’
I knew Sydney. That was it. I’d never even heard of Melbourne before I went there.
So much stuff’s going through your head. The family’s in town and everyone’s taken a last-second flight to come see you, and then you actually get out on the field and hear the national anthem and everyone’s quiet and you’ve got the nerves everywhere. I was amped up. I just couldn’t believe it, really. But then I had a bit of a look around and thought, ‘This is pretty cool, this is something I’ll never forget’.
I kicked a goal in the first two minutes and after the game, Brodie Grundy and Darcy Moore were like, ‘There’s no way that just happened. That an American playing a new game kicked a goal with his first kick on Anzac Day from his first mark’.
It was a bit of a wild day and probably the most memorable part was when my family and a few of my friends all went to dinner after. Obviously, it was a massive, awesome day and I loved it but I never thought I’d have my whole family in Australia at the same time to experience it with me. For it to happen on that day was beyond comprehension, really.
Mum’s still a bit wishy-washy on the rules but Dad’s full into it, he knows more about Collingwood than I do. My brothers watch every single game at home – even at 4am and both have started playing USAFL. They’ve played in the national championships and got medals and they always throw it at me that they’ve won a grand final and I haven’t.
I’m like, ‘It’s USAFL. Come on. Let’s be real’.
People always ask if it was a culture shock coming here and honestly, a little bit – but not a massive one.
You can keep up with what’s happening in the States and obviously Donald Trump is a massive news story now. It’s been interesting, because when you live in America, you don’t really think about how people in other countries see you, or care about their opinions.
Having almost a third-person’s perspective of America from Australia, just how crazy things are, the gun laws and other stuff, it just opens your eyes to a few things in the States that you mightn’t agree with, whereas before you just accepted that’s just the way it is.
I was fortunate enough to debut on Anzac Day, 2016. I remember when they told me, I was, ‘You’re f***ing kidding me, aren’t you?’
Here, there’s some different little terminologies that people use. I used to call people buddy a lot. I’d say, ‘How you going, buddy?’ Or, ‘What are you up to, buddy?’ I’ve realised that apparently some people take that as a negative, as a bit condescending. But I never thought of it or never meant it like that. So now I’ve changed it to mate. Now I sound like a true Aussie, which is just dreadful.
In Aussie culture, I’ve found that it’s normal that everyone puts each other down, everyone talks crap on each other and at first, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, these people are quite rude to each other’. Then you learn it’s a bit of a joke – it’s just how people are.
I’ve been here for almost three-and-a-half years, I’ve got permanent residency and I might get citizenship in a year; so I feel like I’m a bit of a local now, which is a bit weird. The family just kind of laughs whenever they hear an Aussie accent but that’s just how it is.
I used to be looked at as a project player, as this novelty who was only getting a game because he’s American. So I’ve had a bit of a point to prove, that I’m not some guy who’s gonna come in for a year and you’ll never hear about me again.
I’m here for a long time and here to do something quite amazing and unique.
At the beginning, a lot of people were super-negative. That’s fine. That’s part of the job. Everyone’s got their own opinion and that’s what makes them so passionate. As a player, you have to realise it’s not always gonna be peachy; for whatever reason, some people are always going to hate you or they’re gonna love you.
Within the four walls, they’ve pretty much told me, ‘We’re invested in you’. I’ve got a three-year contract, so after one game they’re not going to say, ‘See you later, we’re not going to play you ever again’. That wasn’t what we’d agreed to; nor would it make sense for them to do that.
Now I sound like a true Aussie, which is just dreadful.
So, I was suspended for the second game and the third game, and they put me right back in. I think it was a bit of a faith thing from Bucks and the rest of the club to say, ‘We understand you might have one or two games that might not be so great, whenever they may be, and we still have faith that there’s plenty of good upside to you’. I know the coach has got the confidence in me to go out there and perform my role every single week, so that’s been a massive change in the past two years.
I don’t listen to too much in the media. After round one, some guy came up to me and said, ‘Have you been reading about what’s been said about you on social media and how people have been bagging you left and right?’ I just looked at him and said, ‘Do you really think I’m dumb enough to go on social media right now? Come on’.
You have a game where you don’t take a mark and you get reported, and you know people are around saying, ‘Why did we sign this guy? Blah, blah blah’. You’d be stupid to look at that. There’s no point in putting yourself down through other people who obviously don’t know what’s going on between the four walls, so whenever you’re having a bad game, you just need to ignore it. You don’t need to look at it. That’s easy.
I was fortunate enough for things to click on Queen’s Birthday against Melbourne. That big-game environment brings a bit more energy, I guess, and because it’s all been such a whirlwind to me, I think I have a bit of a different perspective of AFL to most players who were brought up playing footy.
I just have a bit of a laugh whenever I look up at 85,000 people at the ‘G’ and think that there’s probably only four people there who genuinely know who I am as a player and a person. It doesn’t faze me as much, I don’t think, the pressure and what people are going to say about you.
I think to myself, ‘Looking back three-and-a-half years ago when I was just picking up a Sherrin and had never heard of the thing, no one pictured me to be here, no one expected me to be here, including myself and really, I’ve done more than I could ever imagine and everything else is just a bonus’.
I’m just enjoying life and whatever else comes my way, it’s just another experience and adventure that I’m fortunate enough to be able to live. To go out on the MCG and hear people chant U-S-A after I’ve kicked a goal, that’s something I’ll never forget.
It’s fun, it’s awesome and it’s such a great thing that my brothers were there chanting it, too.
It’s something we’ll talk about for the rest of our lives.