Australian Rules Football
At 4 AM, TV used to be a wasteland. Even with the advent of cable, the darkest hours were populated by black-and-white B-movies, odd reruns and the occasional preacher desperate for attention. It isn’t much better now, because the peak moment of pre-dawn TV was Australian Rules Football.
ESPN was barely gaining momentum when, without fanfare, they started showing tapes of a sport that combined the high-impact action of rugby with the high-scoring drama of basketball and was simply mesmerizing to watch. Rugged guys in colorful uniforms of sleeveless T-shirts and shorts would run down and across an oval field, passing a large ovoid ball by punching it like a weak volleyball serve, by kicking it through the air or—daringly—by dribbling it in mid-run. Points were scored by kicking the ball throught two tall uprights or between a tall upright and a shorter one. Referees in long white coats and perky hats would indicate the score with mechanical gestures pre-dating “The Robot.”
Without explanation, with color commentary that assumed you were an Aussie fan and simply added to player bios that read like excised drafts of a Crocodile Dundee script, the action and intensity drew you in almost against your will. The play never stopped, and like in soccer, injuries (a few a game) were tended to on the field. I once saw a player knocked down, start getting attention from the trainer, only to bolt up and try to tackle an opponent and get even more viciously knocked out, forcing the trainer to sigh deeply, pick up his equipment bag and run over to the new mid-field “bedside.”
The hand-passing and dribbling seemed quaint and awkward, but the real drama was in “marks,” kicks that soared high and far across the field and were secured by players jumping like—well, kangaroos—to catch it in mid-air. The catches were not unchallenged: short of grabbing the other player, anything went. I saw a player run, leap, plant his left foot in the opposing player’s back for greater height and catch the ball while slamming the opponent to the turf, a catch so spectacular it was shown before and after almost every game.
Scores were often 80 points or higher per team as each goal was worth 6 points and a “behind” worth 1 point. Momentum could and did shift often and in one spectacular match, a league doormat overcame a 36 point deficit in the closing minutes to defeat a perennial winner, a sort of “Cubs beat the Yankees” scenario that was thrilling to watch. So what if I couldn’t tell one team from the other? I know a great game when I see one.
And so did thousands of others, especially in Australia. Despite its size (about 20% smaller than the States), Down Under is not nearly as populated as you might think. At the time, the total population of the country was around 14 million persons, and yet, these matches often had attendance that numbered over 100,000 fans. To give you an idea of what that really means, imagine a Sunday football game in Green Bay… with 12 million fans in the Stadium. All of them cheering, waving, singing, screaming, swaying and stomping their feet in the best soccer-crowd tradition.
The games were exciting, the marks were often spectacular, the close-ups of players who were “veterans” after 20 games and looked like middle-aged hockey players though they were 24 or 25, the drama of athletes playing hard because pride demanded no less and the sheer fun of being able to watch all this at 4 in the freakin’ morning was too much to pass up. But eventually, Life changed its rhythm, ESPN changed its schedule and Aussie Rules Football dropped off my radar. Still, the sporting excitement and pageantry remain a vivid, happy memory of the night’s quietest time.