The Game That Unites Us All
By Michael 'Buddy' Spohn
The footy ground I play on every week isn’t what most would use as a template for creating a model football oval. From the first rains of late autumn until the final round of the season, the centre square is completely absent of any living grass. If you include the three pockets that are also covered in mud, the lack of any discernible greenery becomes unavoidably noticeable. If the sun is out during the week, the neighbourhood dogs have their fun digging between training sessions, and the potential to roll an ankle increases exponentially as they leave foot sized potholes all over the ground.
Our ground in Black Rock has not been called beautiful in my time with the club, but it has become my MCG since my first training session there. I feel a sense of belonging to that ground, and to that club, even though my journey there started in another hemisphere.
I was born in Southern California, and as a product of being born an ocean away from Australia, I had never seen a Sherrin football until I was twenty-four years old. Most Australians will initially question the legitimacy of that statement, but in all sincerity, the game had never presented itself to me in anyway until the winter of 2012.
Nonetheless, it took less than a quarter of play before the game completely enthralled me. I would play my first game in June 2013, and since that time, I have worked tirelessly to fractionally improve my football abilities. It is without a doubt the toughest physical endeavour I’ve ever taken on, and the battle is almost always uphill. It’s been three years since I played my first game, and I still find myself at times feeling only slightly more comfortable playing than the first time I pulled the boots on.
As a footballer from a non-traditional background, I have both an internal and external view on the Australian game. My external view leads me to believe the game will forever confuse Americans as a whole. I have an extremely difficult time helping my friends and family understand what I actually do. The main reason for this difficulty is because they have no reference point to draw from.
Have you ever tried to explain AFL to an American who has not seen it? Once you get passed the point they don’t have pads on, you have to explain that players are not permitted to throw the ball. You have to explain that 18 people play on each side. You have to explain that medics, messengers, and water carriers run on the field during play, and that play continues even when players are injured. You have to explain that team support is passed from the blood of generation to generation, and that we get Friday off work so that 100,000 people can fill the MCG to watch “the championship” the following day.
Most games like cricket, golf, basketball, and soccer all have basic principles, and are relatively easy for new onlookers to grasp. Footy’s uniqueness is beautiful to say the least, but it doesn’t come easy to those looking for an easy spectating activity.
From an internal perspective, I am incredible grateful for what this game has given me. This game not only gave me a sport I love, it more importantly gave me the Black Rock Football Club.
The sporting club culture is not something that is readily accessible in the United States. For reasons of insurance, lack of recourses, or flaws in organisation, the competitive club sporting culture does not exist in America. Most athletes, unless gifted with elite abilities, will compete in their last major sporting events just before they finish year 12 in high school. By the time you are 18 years old, your competitive sporting career is most likely over.
As an adult, coming into a culture of competitive sport in Australia was not only a chance to learn a new game, but a reminder of what it was to be part of a team. I was an immigrant, in a new place, with no particular work skills, and no blueprint for stability here in Australia. I had my girlfriend (who would become my wife), and I had the football club. This club allowed me to set a foundation in Australia, and the boys I train with will be part of my life long after our footy days are over.
The last two years has been exceptionally exciting for me as a foreign footballer. I have got to share my experience at Black Rock with fellow patriot Mischa Tucker, as he made the trek from Oregon to spend a season with us in the SFNL. He has had the distinct pleasure of running around in the mud at McDonald Reserve, and he is every bit as passionate about the game as I am.
We have also seen two Americans make their way to the AFL, and Collingwood’s Mason Cox is making a presence felt, improving every week.
No matter what level we play, the Australian game has been welcoming yet challenging, riveting yet heartbreaking. It is a game that has allowed me to plant roots in a foreign place, and for that I will always be grateful for the game of football.
Michael ‘Buddy’ Spohn is the SFNL’s Multicultural Ambassador and a Black Rock premiership player.