Column: Playing Footy

UM-MSU match up tough, but Aussie Rules Football tougher
John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

Players on both sides of the Michigan-Michigan State game will tell you it’s the hardest hitting game of the year. No one can doubt the guys who’ll go at it tomorrow are some of the nation’s toughest men.

But the best athletes I’ve ever seen, and perhaps the toughest, I found on the other side of the world, playing Australian Rules Football – or “footy,” as they call it.

American football is dominated by specialists: huge linemen, speedy receivers and tiny kickers – all with their own, very specific jobs. But in Aussie Rules Football, all 18 players on a team have to be able to catch the ball, run with it, pass it with either hand and kick it with either foot – all on the run. And when an opposing player gets it, they have to chase him down to make the tackle. That’s why footy players all look the same: big and strong, lean and mean.

Every season these guys play 26 games, which run 90 minutes each, on a pitch three-times larger than a U.S. football field, with almost no stops in play or substitutions. They only have four guys on the bench. So, they have to run over 10 miles each game. One team’s trainer told me, “These guys are probably the best conditioned athletes I’ve ever seen, and I once worked with the Penn State football team. They’re strong, they have great endurance and most can run the 100-meter dash in 11 seconds.”

And they’re tough. With only one official watching 36 players, a lot goes on behind the play – heck, most of it goes on behind the ref’s back. The Monday papers are filled with colorful examples of opponents getting to know each other in ways Miss Manners never mentioned. Imagine the NFL without equipment, whistles, or penalties, and you’re pretty close.

How tough are they? In the first five minutes of the Grand Final one year, the star forward suffered a concussion, and dropped to the grass. When the trainers lifted him to his feet he threw up, but just a few minutes later he came back to make a spectacular catch and kicked a goal that set the tone for the game. In the same quarter his teammate was tackled so hard he broke a rib, which punctured a lung. Both players were sent to the hospital – but only after they finished the remaining three quarters to help their team hold on for a dramatic victory. It is the stuff of legends – or just stupidity, take your pick.

Small wonder the sport’s most important statistic is not points or goals, but games played. Survival is the measure of success. Only about 5% of players get past 50 games – or about two seasons’ worth.

League officials do their best to punish dirty play at the weekly tribunals, held in a Melbourne courthouse, but they’re foiled by the players’ absolute determination to lie through their broken teeth – on behalf of the very guys who broke them. That’s right: the Footy Code requires victims to tell the most outlandish stories about their injuries – “I hit my head on the cupboard,” or “Oh, that? Shaving accident,” and of course, “It’s just a flesh wound” – often by phone from their hospital beds, even as the videotape at the tribunal shows them taking elbows, fists and knees in the very places you would least like to take them, just to protect their attackers from punishment.

Why stay mum? If you squeal, the whole league will pound you. “Whatever happens on the field, stays there,” one player told me. “You just wait ‘till you see him next time.”

A player named Kevin Sheedy set the standard for revenge when he played an additional year in the sport’s minor league system for the sole purpose of exacting revenge on an opponent who had duffed his hero, Ian Shelton. When he finally played the offender a year later, Sheedy left the poor bloke in so many pieces he could have been sold for parts. Once the victim regained consciousness, he told the tribunal, “I just took a tumble.”

So, whatever happens tomorrow at Michigan Stadium, it probably won’t be quite as violent as an Aussie Rules Football game. And that’s fair dinkum.

No worries, mates.

About the author: John U. Bacon lives in Ann Arbor and has written for Time, the New York Times, and ESPN Magazine, among others. His most recent book is “Bo’s Lasting Lessons,” a New York Times and Wall Street Journal business bestseller. Bacon teaches at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio; Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism; and the University of Michigan, where the students awarded him the Golden Apple Award for 2009. This commentary originally aired on Michigan Radio.