Today’s rookie draft is the last chance for many AFL hopefuls to win a spot on an AFL list for the 2014 season. They will sit glued to a computer screen and scan the registration numbers hoping to see their name appear. Unbeknown to them there is a group of young men on the other side of the world playing the same waiting game, but their AFL dream isn’t years in a making, its no more than a couple of months old.
Meet Lucas Reed – a 199cm and 100kg tight end from the University of New Mexico. He was cut from the Denver Broncos earlier this year and he can’t wait for another crack at professional sport. His field of dreams is no longer Mile High Stadium in Denver, it’s the MCG in Melbourne, Australia and the Western Bulldogs might just be the side to make that happen.
Then there’s De Andre Thompson, a defensive back and decathlete from a big time school – Texas A & M University. Thompson is an 185cm ball of muscle with a surprising right foot and he could soon be a Bomber.
Thompson and Reed are just two former college footballers hoping to do the seemingly impossible and make the transition from American football into the AFL.
These athletes have been working feverously learning how to handball, kick and mark to compliment their obvious athletic ability.
This movement, or possible movement depending on your level of skepticism, is due to the enthusiasm of a 38-year-old UCLA graduate from Denver with absolutely no roots in Australian football.
Zach Frederick refers to himself as a “business guy”, specially he runs an international export business and when introduced to AFL while visiting Australia he decided to add another product to his catalogue – ex-college footballers.
That was just two years ago and its fair to say he hasn’t been backwards in coming forward in promoting this unlikely athletic transition.
His became an accredited AFL player agent and then flew to Australia to meet with the AFL Players’ Association and as many AFL clubs who would take his phone call.
Convincing former college footballers to attempt this transition was the easy bit. College athletes who don’t progress to the NFL, have little options to continue with professional sport beyond the NCAA, moving to the other side of the world to try a new game is in fact quite appealing.
“They are looking for their next step in life. Our sales pitch to them is, you can go work in a bank, but you are in the top physical condition you will ever be in your entire life right now, so why not extend your career in professional sport,” Frederick says.
“The football players really like it, because in football you may play really hard, play your guts out, but you may never touch the ball. Whereas in AFL you can go and get it, I’ve heard some of our guys say, this is awesome, its like everyone is a quarter back.”
Two years down the track Frederick believes his athletes have improved sufficiently to generate serious interest from AFL clubs and he is on the verge of cracking the market.
Reed is currently training with the Western Bulldogs on their altitude camp in Denver and Thompson will join the Bombers for a trial next month, both athletes are hoping to earn contracts with AFL clubs this season.
“I think we will get it done this year, at least one guy and when they see how it actually works, I think the first domino will fall. The biggest challenge will be finding the supply to keep up with the demand,” he says.
The AFL has also identified the potential of the American market as a source for International AFL talent, and it runs a combine in the States to identify suitable candidates. However the products of this search have so far been basketballers.
Eric Wallace is making steady progress on North Melbourne’s list, Patrick Mitchell has recently signed with Sydney and Jason Holmes by St Kilda.
But, Frederick believes AFL clubs are better suited to looking at American football given the greater similarities, albeit only slightly, to AFL.
“They (AFL) are pretty dead set on basketball players, but personally I think that it’s the wrong route for your game, just knowing what I know about American basketball players and the system.
“In general they are better athletes, the best athletes in America are playing football now. The NFL is our number one sport. At the college level the football programs have vastly bigger budgets. It is a way more sophisticated system.”
Frederick believes the strong emphasis on the importance of ‘team’ and importance of strength and power in the NFL means the ability to make a swift transition is there.
Last year two athletes from Frederick’s program trained with the Gold Coast Suns during its altitude camp, and while their skills might not have been up to scratch, their physicality didn’t go unnoticed.
“They had to be pulled aside and told to ease up a little bit, American football is a very violent sport. The guys are fast and big and powerful. I think that is a pretty unique advantage for a footy club who is willing to bring them in.”
Frederick specifically targets American footballers that play in the tight-end position, these athletes are traditionally tall, fast and earn their keep catching the ball, but there has also been positive feedback from AFL clubs around smaller players who might fill defensive positions.
“That’s been the conventional wisdom because they assume an American is not going to be able to kick and a ruckman has less demand on his kicking skills, we’ll see.”
“Some clubs have said they aren’t interested in ruckman, they are interested in the smaller guys with blazing speed.”
The greatest challenge his converts have faced over the two years are with kicking and endurance running – two components totally foreign to American football. Frederick believes this is less of a factor the second time around.
In conjunction with Richmond Development coach Tim Clarke, Frederick has introduced a heavy endurance based running program and the athletes follow a step-by-step kicking manual to hone the various AFL kicking techniques.
Remarkably the athletes in the program have irregular contact with a coach and they obtain most of their feedback through videoconferences. This is truly a modern recruiting exercise.
This approach appears to be working; the early feedback from coaches and recruiting managers is one of surprise.
“They’ve been able to pick it up quickly enough where the clubs are surprised, they don’t expect an American to be able to kick like that.”
Frederick has four players nominated for the AFL draft period and hopes what some might consider a crazy idea, has the potential to shift the paradigm of AFL football for good.
“If you look what has happened in Major League Baseball with Latin America, I’m sure there was a time when people thought it was crazy you could take a kid from Cuba, who played with a stick and a rock, and put them in a Yankees uniform – It’s not so crazy anymore, it’s a third of the League.”
Given the success of the Latin baseball movement, maybe it isn’t so far fetched that a player like Lucas Reed could make the transition from receiving from the arm of Peyton Manning to marking from the boot of Ryan Griffen.