John was all by himself. He had his own small verdant bubble in the hill endowed—and this is a big thing in Chicago, a hill!, and in the Pool Table Metropolis, no less—bucolic expanses of Lincoln Park playing fields which spreads, as damselfly wings, from Montrose Avenue, a pretty little rolling jewel, an edenic cushion for the dusty, still golden-toothed skull of Uptown to rest on, his lime green shirt echoing the incandescent centipedes of lightning flashing between the city's northern skyline, and he was kicking into the air … something, a fat little alien ball apart from the other implements rolling or sailing about.
It was pleasingly buxom in shape, like a football had been subjected to gavage, the traditional nose points of the gridiron's prolate spheroid softened and the whole thing a lava red that completed the whole swollen football look, and John was taking a few half-speed steps, dropping it down onto his foot as a cigarette butt, and giving it a quick, clean snap of a kick—the kind wherein the knee ends up only slightly ahead of its non-kicking counterpart, the power coming from the abrupt stop of the forward momentum and the quick swing at the knee's pivot, the tibula and fibula and foot as little flail—that saw the fat tick of a ball spiraling end over end, like an uncorked punt, and John ran it down, flashed over there in his neon, and kicked it again.
The ball goes up over and over again, a maritime distress flare on Montrose Harbor, and it occured to me that I was most likely the only other person currently in the park who not only knew what he was looking at, but would respond to it as well. John was kicking the ball used for Australian rules football—hereafter referred to, at the author's discretion, as Aussie rules, footy, Australian football, or AFL—and as he unknowingly lofted yet another signal, I made my way in his direction.
First things first: Aussie rules is not soccer. Australia, like Canada and the United States, refers to association football as soccer—it should be noted, by the way, that this means "soccer" may be the numerically superior name of the game among English speakers, an interesting thought for those who insist on calling it football over here—nor is it rugby. It is, however, something of a chimera, mixing elements of the less parochial football codes, even with slight glimpses of our own gridiron iteration.
According to introductory materials from the Australian Football League (AFL; sometimes the sport is even referred to by the league; it'd be like you and your friends going out to play some touch NFL), the game originated in 1858, when cricketer Thomas Wentworth Wills invented the sport as a way for fellow cricket players to stay in shape during the winter.
Wills' game is contested on circular ovals—a vestigial element, one imagines, from its cricket-oriented origins—between two sides of 18 players a piece. The oval is divided into three pieces, with two 50 meter arcs designating the team's respective attacking/defensive zones, which contain four sets of posts. Two of these, centrally located and 21 feet apart, are the goal posts, which are flanked by smaller behind posts.
A goal, worth six points, is scored whenever a player kicks the ball through the opposing team's goal posts; the ball can sail through, or bound, roll, and bounce, but it must have originated from the foot of the attacking team and it must pass through the posts untouched by the defenders for the full six. If the ball touches the goal post, goes between the goal post and a behind post, or is subjected to any of the other, sort of nebulous (to me) arrangements—usually involving contact with members of the defending side—the team is awarded a behind, worth one point.
There is no offsides, which, in combination with the circular field and teams the size of a small-scale war game, leads to the action looking like something of a swirling maelstrom of flashing arms and thighs, most of which have the bulging curvature of Bass Strait swells during a small craft advisory. The sleeveless guernsey and rugby-short shorts, combined with soccer boots and high, often hooped, socks, give the game an instantly recognizable aesthetic, one quite popular—as my antipodean lover pointed out—with women, and, aside from showing off the often Grecian physiques, useful both in its freedom of movement, of which there will be a lot, and merciful lack of coverage, as Australian winters are not particularly cold.
Players can run in any direction they please with the ball, provided they bounce it every 15 meters or so, which looks absolutely ludicrous and is not altogether unchallenging upon first attempt. The ball is advanced either by kicking it or handballing, which consists of holding the ball steady in one hand before punching it with the other in the direction of one's teammate, another action which is unique to the game and just as much fun—and more intuitive than one would think—as it sounds.
Marking is, far and away, the most magnificent and eye-catching aspect of the game; if anyone has seen a brief clip of footy footage, it is almost assuredly a spectacular mark, aka a specky, screamer, hanger, etc, and it almost always consists of one player scaling another, often ending up genuflecting upon his ladder's shoulders , to snatch the ball from mid-air. Any clean, on-the-flight catch of a kick results in a mark; once caught cleanly, the players steps back from the spot where he caught it, and is allowed to disseminate the ball unobstructed.
As one can imagine, a series of quick marks, which resembles, at its best, the dinking and dunking and eventual bombing of an Air Raid offense, can swiftly move the ball upfield; as such, spoiling, or the punching away of the ball before the catch can be made, is of prime defensive importance; basically everyone is a cornerback or a wideout at some point. Tackling also comes into play; if a player is wrestled to the ground before giving up the ball, a similar, uncontested moment is allowed to the defender for kicking/passing.
In the end, the whole thing kind of looks, if one can excuse the slightly too on-the-nose analogy, like a sporting platypus, incorporating elements of soccer—the kicking, the near constant fluidity—and rugby—the physicality, including the manner of tackling—with dashes of basketball dribbling, American football pass catching/defending, punting, and field goal kicking, and all of this contested on the vast, mutable expanses of a cricket oval.
And I really, really wanted to play.
I came across the Chicago Swans when my girlfriend Maggie and I were discussing the national sport of her ancestral home over breakfast one morning on the West Side. Upon discovering that there is a United States Australian Football League—which, it seems, feeds the United State's national team—and that Chicago had a team, she suggested I write a story about them, a suggestion I took to immediately.
I was already familiar with the game, being a rather avid sport junky, but my exposure to Aussie rules mainly revolved around jumper reveals on the Uni Watch blog and the odd clip here or there—almost always a specky, which to me resembles those soaring great whites off South Africa—and some YouTube highlights. I had a favorite team, the Fremantle Dockers, chosen for reasons both arbitrary—a fondness for nautical imagery, chevrons, and, with apologies to Paul Lukas, purple as uniform color—and tangentially belayed by it being Maggie's hometown.
As research revealed the Swans to be an organization more along the lines of a roller derby team—i.e., one travel team, the actual Swans themselves, comprised of the best players, which played other teams cities in USAFL sanctioned contests, and which was then split into Metro league teams, in this case the Lincoln Park Piranhas, the Lincoln Square Tigers, and the Wrigleyville Rhinos—and, like most roller derby teams, inviting of potential participants, the story shifted from the novelty of AFL in America to something more involved: Could I actually play the game? Be the aluminum swan, vis-a-vis Plimpton's Paper Lion?
Making a metro team, my Swans pointman, and Tigers coach, Brian Hoyt informed me via email, was a given; anyone who comes to play is allotted a slot. Only the 22 best, however, make the Swans, and, once there, only the best in America can join the Revolution, the USA squad, compete in the International Cup in Australia, and perhaps even be invited to try out for an AFL team. These are long shots, of course, fever dreams for a sportswriter who weighs a wiry 145 soaking wet and, since playing lacrosse in high school and being captain of his minuscule Catholic college's track team, has dealt more often with bowls than balls and batons.
But to play—that was a given, and an extremely important one, at that. Those of us who used to be athletes, even in the loosest, lowest sense of the term, sometimes lay sleepless at night, missing not only the obvious aspects of our erstwhile lives—the camaraderie, the glow of glory, no matter how cold and faint—but the less obvious ones as well: the pain, the suffering, the challenge. For me, in particular, surrounded by the kind of adult struggles which are only exacerbated by a career with zero security and the capriciously cruel, feast-or-famine nature of an Atlantic City slots parlor, what I missed most was the concrete fight; the knowledge that I could work harder, could run, lift, practice, could struggle, hustle, bleed, and fight back. I could take control of one aspect of my life, could run it down, bring to bear against it—literally!—sinew and tooth and bone, could corporeally, concretely, empirically win. And so I answered John's flare.
Let me tell you something about the Australian football: It is a mercurial thing, surprisingly amenable to being punched and punted with reasonable accuracy in a fairly short amount of time—the first thing I did, after introducing myself to John, was to ask if I could see his ball; as they are expensive and almost impossible to find stateside, this would be my best chance to touch one outside of the auspices of a team activity, and, my cursory once over complete, I handballed it—successfully!—to him, in a move which was meant to convey that footy was not completely outside of my ken, a kind of winking, hopefully not all that pathetic gesture of future solidarity—and well suited to catching and handling, even for someone with smaller hands, such as myself.
Get those fat fuckers on the ground or in the rain, however (with being wet and on the ground obviously the worst case scenario) and prepare to be made a fool of. The rotund shape lends itself to bounding, in the American football style, with maddening irregularity, and the same luxe curves which allow for easy handling while dry turn, to borrow a phrase, slippery when wet. Even more frustrating is the bounce, as, if you manage to hit the ground on the correct point of that swollen little belly, the ball will obediently bounce right back up in to your hands; miss by a millimeter, or hit some hitherto unforeseen deviant topographical feature, and it cartwheels away gleefully, most likely into the arms of the enemy.
As the clouds gathered over the city and a few other Swans straggled in for practice—including Hoyt and Minutes, who would become crucial to my natal career shortly—boots were donned and jokes exchanged. After a quick warm up jog and a static stretch circle, we began with skill-driven line drills, handballing to each other in every iteration—high, on the ground, off handed—before moving in to some close quarters kicks.
The kicking, aside from the limitations on physicality my small frame may provide, was my greatest concern coming in; I played little boy soccer, as many my age did, up until eight grade, but even then my foot skills were limited at best. You could certainly kick a lacrosse ball, if you wanted to, but it was not exactly a crucial aspect of the game, and track would be of little help, outside of perhaps some mechanical nuances. Seeing me badly launch a few wounded birds, Minutes took me aside to work on my albatross.
He instructed me to drop the ball perfectly downwards onto my kicking foot, to make impact along the lace tops; within a half-dozen tries, I had begun to nail the general idea, if only straight line, unmolested, and a few yards apart. Still, that I had begun to kick any properly at all was a great relief to me.
My spirits were further buoyed in a variation on the triangle drill, wherein three lines, tracing a great triangle clockwise in streaking patterns, would attempt to mark a kick on the fly from their counterparts. The regularity of dropped/miss-kicked balls—this is not an easy action, especially as the rain had begun to fall—led to a premium on hustle and backing up the fellow in front of you, two things independent of skill and therefore right up my alley, and when at long last I finally struck my man on the run and on the hands, the chorus of attaboy sentiments lofted me into believing, for the first time, that I could perhaps do this.
In fact, unlike other tight knit, niche enthusiasts, the Swans were as accommodating as their online solicitation sounded. No groaning or mockery met my feeble attempts, of which there were many, and every individual's success was cheered, as it should be—as it was—as the team's. These were men who wished to share their game, wanted it to be your game, and if such a thing sounds a given, I can assure you it is not.
Similarly refreshing was the lack of swaggering, amateur machismo, which is so often heightened, in inverse proportion, to the stakes of the athletic contest being measured (this is a phenomena something like what is encountered in academia, the old saw about the sniping being so brutal because the stakes are so small). Despite being surrounded by soccer teams—always a popular rec sport, one must imagine that, with the mighty influx of passions afforded the game every four years, the rosters are engorged right now—a favored target of full contact player's ridicule, not one word was said. A rugby team was gently disparaged when they moved into the way of our conditioning relay, but the laughingly added caveat that they were bigger than us (that's twice, now, I've identified with them), and therefore allowed to impede as they saw fit, highlighted the good naturedness of it.
The conditioning, which included a lovely little drill wherein everyone drops for ten pushups, sprints up-hill—in Chicago!—to perform ten more, then rolls like thunder down the hillside for the final mad rush and drops to a final set of ten, all under two minutes, the first time, and a minute thirty, the next, the aforementioned relay race, and the running required of all of the skill drills, would have been no problem for collegiate sprinter me. For party good time sleepless sportswriter me, they were nigh insurmountable challenges. My triceps surae locked and spasmed; worse, a dim fog and something like the sound of cicadas rose in my ears and my head began to float. By the last grueling pushup and stretching circle, I had felt more dead and alive than I had in years.
The next three days were spent in pain; a knot developed in the bloody bundle of cords which comprise the hamstring; the conch-like curves of my calf muscle radiated pain with the slightest touch; the wrist of my predominant handballing hand, injured many years ago in a blindside collision with a Naval Academy-bound lacrosse defenseman, felt as if it were rusting.
None of the ailments had subsided by the time I descended the stairs of Addison station on Friday night, into a slowly dispersing blue crowd of apres game Cubs faithful who had witnessed a late afternoon mauling of the Nationals.
A few blocks east, Boystown, in the midst of PRIDE, resembled either the sticky, sybaritic patina of a party or a Dionysian prelude; scattered chemical toilets and revelers in various stages of undress were suspended between saturnalias, one girl, perched sobbing on the back of a firetruck on Waveland, painfully so. The night was stifling, intermittent relief provided by the winds coming off Lake Michigan, still brumal with the polar vortex's chill.
The Swans were hosting a children's birthday party when I arrived, small bodies and smaller balls flying about as the nippers played what appeared to be a little round robin tournament. I desperately tried to warm up, fearful that my legs would betray me, and found Maggie on the sideline, black flask of vodka in hand.
My original plan, to sit out a quarter or half, get a feel for the game, and shoot photos, was scrapped immediately. With not enough men to play a full 18v18 match, I wold be pressed into service from the opening bounce (by the way, games start with a bounce). After divvying the arrivals up into Tigers and Rhinos, I was officially made the latter and pulled on my first Aussie rules jumper, a rather chic number, if I do say so myself, in the colors of the Chicago flag, predominately powder blue with red collars, numbers, and right aligned red and white strips. I grabbed the smallest guernsey I could find, an XL, which only accentuated my lath-like appendages in comparison to my teammates.
Playing defensively in the backend, my main focus was to stick to my man and prevent him from receiving the ball, particularly on a mark. Trotting out, my first-ever opponent, a rangy fellow named Sam, welcomed me to the game. Upon learning it was my first time, he assured me that I would get the hang of it. "Everybody's first time is a little crazy," he said. "But if you stick with it, the difference between their first game and their second is huge."
Whether the later part of Sam's prophecy is true remains to be seen, but I can attest to the former. That swirl of action and muscle I mentioned a few thousand words ago is no less confusing from inside the din; being small and relatively fast, any potency I can boast in a game comes primarily from my knowledge of said game, i.e., using my understanding and speed to ensure that, even if I am not the strongest or most talented member of the team, I can be in the correct place.
Lacking this athletic awareness, a creeping hesitancy—should I stay next to man? Move towards the glut of people scrapping for the ball?—and tired legs hamstrung my effectiveness as around me raged a contest which shifted seamlessly from roiling, scrapping dog fights to graceful, aerial loping. I managed to put myself around the ball, which Swans head coach, and game umpire, Anthony Hendrie seemed pleased about, even if I did not quite know what to do with it (at his urging, I tried to maneuver myself behind my teammate with the ball for the duration, as from that position you can serve as both safe potential outlet and navigator) and I managed to inadvertently cheat only a hand full of times. The first time came on a tackle after a mark; a blatantly illegal move, and one which occurred to me halfway through as I thought to myself that it was unusual my opponent was not even attempting to get away. I almost repeated the mistake later on in front of our goalposts, letting go at the last second.
The other fouls involved my favorite aspect of the game, handballing; when one is being tackled, a handball or kick before going down is the only course of action. My first touch, in a panic, I pitched the ball rugby style, which was mercifully uncalled and did not, it seemed to me, greatly affect the games outcome. A second instance of passing was, in my defense, not on purpose, as my arms became wrapped up in such a way as to prevent even a little rabbit punch, and the forward momentum tossed the ball lose.
My goal heading in to the contest was, first and foremost, to not get killed; a distant second was to do something, anything, that would unequivocally help my side. The moment came in the third quarter when, in a move which made me feel like Richard Sherman in the back corner of the end zone, I performed my first, of hopefully many, spoils, an over the back striking of the ball with closed fist that sent me into personal ecstatics, even as my calves seized agonizingly and I took to limping when not sprinting.
The rest of my game augured in from there, twice, refreshingly, literally—there is something pure and even good about getting nicely tackled—as a meandering onto the offensive side of the field left me even more impotent than I had been before, but the Rhinos won, 96-74, and, most importantly, I had survived.
My efforts were met, with the most part, by congratulations and support and finally a cold Modelo tinny, a suitable ending to what was the most enjoyable introductory game of my life. Even Maggie, who, exposed thighs aside, did not care much for footy even when she lived in Australia, seemed proud. The clear and present sense of accomplishment—I had wanted to play this game, I had struggled to play this game, I completed playing this game, albeit a slightly different version of it—served as an anodyne; the physical expression—to a breaking point—as catharsis.
A few days later, with the next official Swans function beneficently weeks away, my paroxysmal legs locked so badly I was reduced to walk around my apartment en pointe, a ballet of pain.
B. David Zarley is a freelance writer and book/music/art critic currently based in Chicago. You can follow him on Twitter at @BDavidZarley.