Texas Stranger

Amer­i­can Ma­son Cox is the lat­est im­port to pick up Aussie rules, but he’s dif­fer­ent to con­verts of the past.

Inside Sport - - Editor's Letter - BY ROBERT DRANE

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 [ ].

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