American Mason Cox is the latest import to pick up Aussie rules, but he’s different to converts of the past.
He’s tall. A fool would think that’s all. Mason Cox is unprecedented. He was, self-admittedly, not “elite”; no Stynes or Kennelly. They’d at least competed at the top level of something before they arrived, even if it was a native game ferociously sustained by provincial followers, barely known to the rest of the world. At least in that way, Gaelic football was like Australian rules. And even then they made rookie mistakes. Jim Stynes, the Irish folk-tale, made the most infamous error in AFL/VFL history. Sometimes Mason Cox threatens to surpass it as his shiny, smooth new abilities transform into just enough bristly rope when met with an unfamiliar challenge. Then he’s irresistible to those who want to fashion the noose.
But no adventurer was ever paralysed for fear of ridicule. He’s certainly not. Awkward, dorky, gawky, gormless – he’s heard it all. AFL prigs, prudes and pedants label him little for fear that he might dare to grow.
He’s no Folau or Hunt. They excelled at other games, though they ultimately failed to tame the unicorn of Aussie rules. Neither was he a son of migrants, brought up playing the game, like Jesaulenko, Daicos, Houli, Daw. He was the issue of two engineers from Dallas, Texas.
He was seemingly no potential elite athlete, either. He had a certain repertoire, if only the sport existed to showcase it – not that sport attracted him. He loved study. But therein lies a secret: the brain of an engineer.
He won’t die wondering. He’s no stranger to being a stranger, but serendipity seems to tail him as he wanders down various holes – rabbit holes, loopholes, wormholes – from one happening to the next, powered by a certain disposition: conscientious, unassuming, buoyant, dogged. Unquestioning as Nehemiah, he’s accepted each opening and gone in.
This was no Yao Ming, selectively bred, patiently reared and purpose-trained. He grew suddenly tall at 16, taking semester break at around 5’10” and returning six inches closer to the clouds, to everyone’s wonderment. He saw the upside. So did coaches. The maxim applies everywhere: the tall ones don’t get shorter as a contest wears on. Often at combat’s crossroads stands a towering man, a spindle in fortune’s machinery.
At Oklahoma State University, he took up basketball as recreation. The head coach noticed him – or rather, his height – and Cox enlisted as a walk-on. In six minutes against Texas, he swatted the best college dunker, got two steals and two points in a game he’d barely played, then gassed out. “Engineering was the path I was going to take”, he says.
The AFL Draft Combine rolled into town and the path changed. They were met with incredulity by Oklahoma State’s media manager. “You sure it’s Cox you’re looking for? We’ve plenty of others!” His soccer background intrigued them – a sport utterly dissimilar to Australian rules, but not as dissimilar as basketball or American football. He was part of the championshipwinning Edward S. Marcus High School team. They reasoned he might have some
tricks. The promise of a free trip lured him to LA, and the combine. That went well.
He came to Australia to explore this curious new territory (he’s been exploring it ceaselessly ever since), his brother with him posing as his agent. AFL clubs were interested. Another wormhole was about to take him somewhere he’d never contemplated. Then a loophole kept him there.
It was a recruiting coup. Wealthy Collingwood could pay him handsomely as an international category-B rookie, outside the salary cap. Cox only joined the official list in 2018, so they’ve managed four years of careful development, minus cap pressure. That’s gone much better than expected.
So well, in fact, that Cox was one of two audacious calls at the end of 2017: Collingwood stuck with coach Nathan Buckley and Buckley stuck with Cox. Buckley, enduring extraordinary personnel problems like some kind of protracted penance, had every excuse to write the man off. It wouldn’t have been considered rash. He hasn’t just tolerated Cox. He’s kept him like a secret.
Cox sensed the coach’s quiet dismay in 2014 when his first handball went metres over Buckley’s head. Around that time, Craig McCrae was drilling him one-on-one. Cox took a mark at training. “There was no one in front of me, so I just took off. I ran about 50m toward goal and everyone just stopped and started laughing. I said, ‘What’s going on?’ They said, ‘You know you have to bounce the ball.’ Craig said, ‘We haven’t got to that yet, guys.’” Yep, Cox had nothing, so forgive him if those lapses seem egregious.
It’s easy to depict Cox as an exemplar of the cliched Big Thinker who just doesn’t know any better, yet. Pollyanna, Walter Mitty, Sancho Panza. The dreamer, forever a schemer. But he’s an engineer. It’s an engineer’s habit to act upon an idea.
It’s easy to believe he has one enormous trick, like a fiddler crab. He says: “If I wasn’t tall, I wouldn’t be doing this.” But even a fiddler crab wields his singular implement with subtlety. Cox concludes, rightly and realistically, that, being taller than anyone else, today or in history, he’s capable of the unprecedented. He’s woven intricacies into his game and his rapid progress at least matches Stynes’ at the same stage. It’s impossible to overstate it. To better understand it, let’s look at his world the way he might – with the eyes of an engineer.
“Mechanical engineering takes five years of study and I put it in the back pocket to try something I’ve never heard of,” he says. “It was a bit of a risk.” He’d just landed a prime job at Exxon Mobil when he informed them he was going to Australia to play a game he couldn’t even begin to explain. But in order to understand a situation, one needs to go to the “real place”, where the work is done. In the engineering world, this is known as “Genchi Genbutsu”, or “go and see”.
Turns out Melbourne, and AFL football, are real places. He wonders if he understands them. “How did I get here?” he often thinks when he looks up at training and scans the skyline of a city he’d never heard of until 2014. He knew only of Sydney before he arrived, and that “every animal kills you, and if you come at all, you come for the beaches and remember, every animal kills you”.
Acting first, then working it out, is what he does. “Wherever you are is where you’re supposed to be.”
Like a self-powered dynamic system, driven by its own kinetic energy, renewable energy, or a combination of both, Cox has plenty of his own fuel. Height is inexhaustible. Cognitive ability is endlessly renewable. Apart from physical advantages, Cox’s sporting IQ enables him to sum up and adapt. Endowed with “active structure”, he’s able to alter himself in response to environmental changes. He has an engineer’s aptitude for dealing with counterbalance – idiosyncrasy he calls it – in opposing players and game dynamics. Genetics and environment, including family, have also endowed him with the kinetic energy of high motivation.
Cox’s elongated levers endow him with “actual strength”, as distinct from “poundfor-pound” strength, or strength-toweight. Sheer size gives those levers force amplification, or what you would call “actual mechanical advantage”.
Before he even began, he had a record. He was officially the AFL’s tallest player ever, by half a centimetre over Aaron Sandilands. But he plays at a higher altitude. Marking high is an ability even great goalkickers don’t necessarily possess, let alone tall players. Cloke, McKenna or even Hudson were no great exponents. Royce Hart was notable for being tall, and a high mark. So was Simon Madden. Cox’s application of his strengths impresses. He takes full advantage of his high aspect ratio (long, narrow wing).
During the 2018 Queen’s Birthday match against Melbourne, something about that asset clicked. Certainly, Collingwood clicked when it came to tactically supplying him at altitude. He kicked five goals but, more importantly, he was the Neale Daniher Trophy winner for best-on-ground, in his 31st game. That possibility was deemed so remote, you could get enticing pre-game odds of 100/1 of it happening.
He imposed his frame intelligently, ran to the right places, drew the ball, dropped into the slot and, most importantly, finished with precise kicking. With his pragmatic engineer’s partiality to repetition of technique, he can dispense good advice about overcoming the legion of psychological demons that accompany goalkicking. Reliability comes from perfect replication. He’s not averse to dozens of weekly hours of it. “Kicking’s the hardest part, but getting the ball to drop right and stuff comes with repetition. It’s mechanics.”
He applies repetition to marking as well, but here, he’s able to build on natural resources. If efficiency is the ability to avoid waste and minimise effort to produce a desired result, a tall player with an overhead game will always have the efficiency advantage over those who make the game spectacular: the aerialists. Frequent flyers like Jeremy Howe have many moving parts and a range of concomitant skills. An even taller man with a high game has the big-man benefits like large hands, absolute strength and reach, and can repeat his effort with fewer variables. Cox’s best games (remember, he’s only in the 30s) have been marked by marking repetition. Mind you, he can fly.
Height doesn’t automatically build on its own advantages. His is enhanced by other attributes. The all-seeing, omnipresent talent-spotter Kevin Sheehan was singularly captivated by this non-athlete at the draft combine: “He ran three seconds flat for the 20m sprint, and 11.5 minutes for the 3k time trial.” Agile big men are gold. He also offered up the second-highest leftfooted jump recorded. The tallest man ever to pull on an AFL boot is relatively quick, has an elite leap, and possibly the longest wingspan ever recorded. We’re beginning to see why recruiting him was a no-brainer – if, just if, he happened to be a fast thinker and learner …
Bingo! This was a group with an average height of 201cm, notable for keenness and smarts. “His skill overhead impressed, and his hands. He’s mobile, agile and a good decision-maker… the absolute standout.”
Cox set other personal bests in that Melbourne match with 16 disposals and eight marks. On this Yank spindle, the ‘Pies’ season had just pivoted, and the chant “USA, USA” went up, probably for the first time ever at the MCG. It was like peak Hulkamania.
Four years earlier, he was a blank canvas. Soon, he was beginning to understand the game’s “mechanics” – his word. Now for quality assurance. Mason Cox has demonstrated an uncommon ability to detect malfunctions and adjust accordingly. Apart from the occasional
“I RAN ABOUT 50M TOWARD GOAL AND EVERYONE JUST STOPPED AND STARTED LAUGHING. I SAID, ‘WHAT’S GOING ON?’ THEY SAID, ‘YOU KNOW YOU HAVE TO BOUNCE THE BALL’.”
unaddressed howler, he tends to only make them once. He naturally shoots for a state of zero-defects. Super-critical of his own performance, he seeks feedback and either pulls himself up by his own bootstraps, or is carefully nurtured. To bring Cox to his current level, Collingwood has alternated VFL and seniors stints, subjecting him to conditions in excess of his normal service parameters to uncover faults and potential modes of failure in a short amount of time – that is, to “accelerated life testing”.
In 2015, he was immediately tried in ruck and forward roles in the VFL. With no experience he was rucking against seniors the calibre of Daw and Currie. His continuous improvement has been obvious. Certain faults were never repeated. Result: goals came more rapidly in 2016. So did hit-outs.
In the 2016 Anzac Day game, he marked and goaled with his first touch and kick in AFL football, in front of disbelieving family who’d flown out, and disbelieving team-mates. He ran in to goal holding the ball like it was an echidna he’d just figured out how to pick up, and needed to drop quickly with some kind of technique he’d just been shown. But the kick was straight. Brodie Grundy and Darcy Moore were delightedly disbelieving after the victory: “There’s no way that just happened.”
It wasn’t just that goal. He ran to contests, his 110kg frame skittling packs. He used big-man agility to get ten touches. He was working it out before our eyes. Intelligence informed his movement as he considered goaling on one occasion, then made a last-moment decision to pass to a team-mate, who goaled. Almost everything he did had maximum effect: a palm to Treloar set up a Fasolo goal. In general play, and in the ruck, his tapping was already nuanced. He was able to drop it like a stone at his feet, allowing crumbers to get in tight, float it like a feather or volley it, bullet-like, to an outside runner.
In his fourth senior game against Geelong, he sealed the match with a kick on the run. He’d drift in the odd game and nothing would work, but Collingwood can afford patience. Against Hawthorn, he dropped two uncontested marks in slippery conditions, looking gauche, then laid a high elbow on Daniel Howe that earned him a week off. Hard analysts surmised his honeymoon was over. Robert Walls was frank: “Cox is not going to make it in the AFL”. He’d been “in the system” long enough. “Once the ball hits the deck, he’s out of the contest.”
Cox processed it, shrugging, “you can’t really teach experience.” Besides, his captain, Scott Pendlebury, expressed only confidence: “It was just exciting how much he actually got his hands on the ball.”
When caustic pens came out, Collingwood had the luxury of sending Cox back to the VFL nursery. Not that he’s averse to stress testing: “I’m not a project player. I’m here for a long time to do something quite amazing and unique.”
Judging from his performance under pressure so far, he’s set for a long operating life. He
demonstrates uncommon ability to absorb or avoid damage and adapt to disruptive events – that is, resilience, and handles potentially emotional situations with pure common sense. After that round-one game, he was asked, “Have you been reading how people have been bagging you?” Cox laughed: “Do you really think I’m dumb enough to go on social media right now?”
His game productivity increased sharply. Those extended limbs were getting him to, and figuring in, more contests, where he could use his size, test his limits. He’s noticeably confident in traffic now, reading the dynamic, knowing the team-mate delivering. And they know him.
Later, against the Crows, again in greasy conditions, he performed well, and was philosophical. “You get a bit of return for all the different trials.” By May, he was able to cheerily handle a $2000 fine for front-on contact with Jason Johannisen with a cheeky tweet: “Is that Aussie dollars or USD? #AskingForAFriend.” Stynes, too, had that newcomer’s audacity. May it never leave him. Nor his humble gratitude: he does a no-apologies greet-the-fans lap after games while his team wait to sing the theme song.
So far, Mason Cox has made design choice easier for Collingwood. The “design problem” relates to the Ben Reid (down back or up front?), Darcy Moore (ditto) and Brodie Grundy (ruck and forward) dilemmas. But the solution creates problems of its own. Will the team structure tolerate two tall forwards? The tribology of it is interesting. That is, the friction, lubrication or wear of the interacting parts.
Internal competition for places in any line-up is natural friction. At the moment, his good mate and tutor Grundy is the best ruckman in a competition featuring more large, dangerous mammals than the Cenozoic era – good and bad for Cox. Grundy, too, fills that dual role of ruckman/ forward. They’ll either be mutually complementary or negate one-another in future structures. Cox will need to improve every aspect of his game, all the time, to stay in calculations.
They combine well currently. Late last season, Buckley boldly began Cox as ruck against Melbourne’s formidable Max Gawn, allowing Grundy a drifting forward role. It worked. The previous week, Cox had come back for his eighth game that season after Grundy was suspended, and proved equal to an excellent tap ruck, Paddy Ryder. He kept his spot when Grundy returned, was considered good enough to start as first ruckman next game, and in round 22 played his best to date, with 43 hit-outs, eight tackles and two goals.
Right now, Cox is helping in the interoperation of team systems. Collingwood is a finals contender, yet they’re at the injury tipping-point again. When players like Elliott, de Goey and Fasolo returned impressively, the forward structure became a puzzle. Cox was in competition with Reid as well. Then more injuries hit and quandaries were averted. Well over 160 games have been missed through injury this year at Collingwood. Cox has capitalised and proved unexpectedly versatile.
Some say Cox and Grundy will cancel one-another out, but there’s a lot to be said for two rucks, and each has a spread of skills to give the Magpies functional redundancy – the duplication of critical skills for reliability, backup or fail-safe. Along with Reid, they can play ruckman or pinch-hitting forward, or forward and pinch-hitting ruck. That’s a luxury.
Now, Cox’s football abilities are as blended as his accent. He sounds more Aussie, and his game has a decided twang to it. In 2018, another wormhole took him from merely irrepressible to irreplaceable, passenger to messenger. The desperation to subdue him, and the difficulty of the task, have not gone unnoticed. He’s respected not just as a trier but as a danger, a leader in a club that believes in him. Still, he’s happy to “do a job”.
Is he more of a game-changer than people think? If he succeeds as he threatens to, will he change the sport itself? If this inexperienced Brobdingnagian thrives, clubs will be scouring the Sudan, Netherlands, certain Chinese provinces and, of course, the well-fed United States. But Cox’s other qualities are another matter. In 2016, the second draft combine targeted tall, elite athletes, mainly basketball centres and power forwards. No one came away with a Cox.
The current trend will be to follow the leader: Richmond won a premiership fielding two 200cm-tall players all year. But AFL’s pendulum swings quickly. We’re not talking height; we’re talking surpassing height.
Enshadowed by soaring beasts on opposing sides, teams will take the battle to the skies, to ever-higher altitudes. Mason Cox will, indeed, have done a job.
“THE ALL SEEING, OMNI PRESENT TALENT S POTTER KEVIN SHE EH AN WAS SINGULARLY CAPTIVATED BY THIS NON ATHLETE AT THE DRAFT COMBINE… THE TALLEST MAN EVER TO PULL ON ANA F LB O OT IS RELATIVELY QUICK, HAS AN ELITE LEAP, AND POSSIBLY THE LONGEST WINGSPAN EVER RECORDED .”
The work continues, but Cox shows great improvement with his kicking [ ] or when the ball is on the deck [ ] – all of which leads to the sharing of happy moments with coach Nathan Buckley [ ].