Don’t be fooled by the name. They call Australian rules football “footy,” which sounds cute and precious. But footy is a sport that makes American football look like a quilting bee. It’s a game of almost cartoonishly violent collisions—without the benefit of pads. It features non-stop trash talk and is played on a field practically the size of a speedway. As the name does suggest, Australian rules football is the national sport down under, with games that draw 100,000 fans and T.V. audiences that, per capita, often outrate the NFL…So why in the name of Waltzing Matilda do crowds in Melbourne sometimes break into chants of USA-USA? The answer: they’re cheering Mason Cox, a Texan who stands nearly 7 feet tall; ranks among the best footy players out there; and might be the most unlikely success story in global sports today.
At first glance anyway, Mason Cox comes across as the quintessential Aussie rules, or AFL, player.
At age 32, he’s logged almost 100 games over eight seasons for the storied Collingwood Magpies, the AFL’s equivalent of the Dallas Cowboys… and he is an evangelist for his sport—one played on an oval surface almost double the size of an NFL field. Footy entails players running about 10 miles a game… juking…tackling…passing by punching the ball… and scoring by kicking the ball through goalposts…six points for splitting the center uprights, one point for the side ones.
Mason Cox: It’s unlike anything else you’ve ever seen. It’s probably the roughest sport in the world I’d say. It’s a mix of basketball, football. It’s a mix of soccer, cricket, even. There’s really no rules. A few sticks at each end. Just try to kick it through those, and then – whoever does more than the other team wins.
Jon Wertheim: Sounds like fun.
Mason Cox: Yep.
Cox plays like a human blowtorch, not only catching and kicking, but mastering the art of the speccy – a tactic that transforms an opponent’s back into a step ladder. Yes, it’s legal…
Mason Cox: It is one of the major things of AFL that people look at and they go, “Oh, my gosh, that is insanity.” To stick your knees on someone else’s shoulder, launch yourself up to 15 feet in the air, take a grab, come down and then be looking at this guy, going, “Yep, I just literally jumped on top of you.”
Jon Wertheim: It’s like getting dunked on.
Mason Cox: Yeah. It’s very similar.
But Mason Cox is the most unlikely player in the history of the sport. Never mind that, at 6-foot-11, he’s the tallest player ever to suit up. Or that he’s the only American in the league…He lived the first 23 years of his life without knowing the sport of footy even existed. He may be an Aussie celebrity… and may recently have starred in the AFL’s equivalent of the Super Bowl, but is still mastering the sport’s nuances. And he’s still fuzzy on basic footy facts, as we observed at practice.
Jon Wertheim: Kangaroo brand. What’s this made out of?
Mason Cox: Kangaroo skin.
Tom Mitchell: No, it’s pig skin.
Jack Crisp: Pig skin.
Mason Cox: Oh, is it pig skin? I should probably learn a few things.
Tom Mitchell:: Stay in your lane, mate. Stay in your lane.
Think they give him grief about that? You should hear them ribbing him about his accent… here’s Collingwood captain, Darcy Moore…
Darcy Moore: He’s kinda this weird fusion between southern drawl and Aussie accent.
Jon Wertheim: That’s an interesting mashup.
Darcy Moore: He definitely loves putting it on in the locker room, that’s for sure, the Texas drawl.
Jon Wertheim: He puts the Aussie on for us
You think the football— made of cowhide by the way—travels in strange trajectories? get a load of Cox’s story.
Jon Wertheim: What would you have said the odds of success were gonna be?
Darcy Moore: Oh. You could comfortably say one in a million.
Jon Wertheim: One in a million?
Darcy Moore: Because there’s so many talented players all around the country that just never make it. And the odds of succeeding are just so– it’s so difficult. Like any professional sport, there are so many things seen and unseen that make it really hard to succeed.
Jon Wertheim: No skills, no track record.
Darcy Moore: Yeah, no knowledge.
Jon Wertheim: No knowledge.
Darcy Moore: Living, you know, thousands of miles from home by himself. It’s an extraordinary thing.
“Home” for Cox was suburban Dallas, where in high school, he had to duck under doorways but played soccer… to the great annoyance of classmates who played hoops.
Marcus Smart: There’s no way that he’s not on the basketball team at 7-foot. What else could you possibly do at 7 feet tall other than play basketball, right? And Mason is a prime example of that there’s whole possibility of things you can do at 7-foot.
That’s Marcus Smart, now a Boston Celtics star, who went to high school with Cox.
Jon Wertheim: You ever hear height is wasted on the tall?
Marcus Smart: That’s the old sayin’. You know, all his height is wasted on this tall dude for nothin’. But as we’ve seen, it’s not wasted at all.
After high school, Cox went to Oklahoma State, majoring in engineering. As a sophomore, he was approached about an unusual on-campus job – practicing with the women’s basketball team and simulating tall opposing players, including Brittney Griner. When the men’s team was short on height, they, too, called on Cox, which reunited him with Smart, then the team star.
A walk-on, Cox spent part of three seasons as the last option off the bench for OSU.
Jon Wertheim: Says he did guard Embiid for a little bit.
Marcus Smart: He did guard Embiid for a little bit.
Jon Wertheim: You remember that.
Marcus Smart: When Embiid was at KU. He did guard Embiid for a little bit.
Yes, when OSU once played Kansas, Cox matched up against Joel Embiid, now one of the NBA’s best players. And Cox held his own.
Marcus Smart: He’s always had a little spunk, a little fire to him. He had moments where, you know, you’d be like, “Mason, like, wow. I didn’t know you had that in you. Like, is everything okay?”
Jon Wertheim: You know a little bit about bein’ a physical athlete.
Marcus Smart: Just a little bit. Just a little bit.
Shortly before graduating in 2014, Cox lined up a six-figure engineering job at ExxonMobil… then came an intriguing opportunity. A scout hunting for graduating college athletes contacted OSU to see if Cox might want to attend a combine in Los Angeles for this thing called “AFL.”
Jon Wertheim: You’d never heard of it?
Mason Cox: Oh, no. I’d never heard of it. Never once had I — a word had been spoken about it in my life. So we googled it, as everyone does, and then this thing comes up, and it’s like, “AFL’s biggest hits.” And it is literally people getting knocked unconscious.
Jon Wertheim: And yet you go to this combine?
Mason Cox: I have no idea what I’m getting myself into. I land in L.A. I get picked up in an unmarked white van, thrown in the back, and he goes, “We’re gonna go to the hotel, and we’re gonna do three days of training.”
If Americans know Aussie rules football at all, it’s likely because in the 1980s, before it could afford NBA or NFL rights, ESPN aired AFL games. But the sport was founded in the 1800s, as a way for cricketers to stay in shape in the off-season. It’s especially popular in Melbourne, where the MCG—at nearly 100,00 capacity, the largest stadium in the southern hemisphere—will routinely fill for games. After the combine, Cox was summoned to Melbourne, where he impressed Australian coaches with his height and his surprising agility. Soon after, he declined his job at Exxon and signed with Collingwood.
Craig McRae: We get the initial taste of what he’s capable of. Can’t kick, can’t handball, but 7-foot tall.
Craig McRae is now the team’s head coach. In 2014, he was the head of development and assigned to tutor Cox.
Craig McRae: He’d finished college, he wanted to travel Europe. But he took the football with him. I get this video late at night of Mason kicking the ball in some forest in Scandinavia somewhere.
Craig McRae: And there’s Mason running really awkwardly, carrying the ball like this, and then dropping the ball onto his foot. There was progression, but there was still a long way to go.
Cox approached his development like the engineer he was supposed to be…making steady and deliberate progress, solving the physics of using his height as an advantage, not a liability…
Jon Wertheim: And he’s doing all of this with guys that have been playing their whole lives?
Craig McRae: Yeah, well we grew up, you know, sleeping with little footballs. We slept and breathed it and idolized the game. Mason had none of that.
Jon Wertheim: What made you think he could pull it off?
Craig McRae: He’s got that chip, that, “Hey. I’m gonna prove a lot of people wrong.”
Cox made his big-league debut in April 2016 on the hallowed ground of the MCG…an annual rivalry game held on Anzac day, a national holiday.
Mason Cox: I remember sitting in this locker room, just thinkin’ to myself, “Holy smokes. Like, this has happened pretty quickly. You’re sitting here about to play in front of the most passionate fans probably in the world, on one of the biggest days, and you barely know what this sport is.” I still had questions on rules at that point. Like, I didn’t 100% know what was going on.
He was standing arm-in-arm with his teammates when Australia’s national anthem started.
Mason Cox: I think to myself– I go, “I don’t know a word.” And everyone else is belting ’em out next to me. So I kinda just laugh to myself and just kinda hum along. It was, like– I had no idea. And that kinda took the nerves away.
Jon Wertheim: That settled you.
Mason Cox: That settled me.
The game started as if scripted…cue the sports movie music. A ball spilled out. Darcy Moore got the ball and saw Cox in the distance and punted it to the rookie…who caught it and scored with his very first kick.
Mason Cox: That day I think was one of those days that solidified that, you know, this might be something I do for quite a long time.
Cox was, literally, off and running. His breakout performance two seasons later in the preliminary final—like the NFL’s conference championship game—suggested he could be a star. Having crossed 15 time zones, Cox’s parents were in the stands that day as he scored three times…
As Mason cox became a fan favorite, he also developed into what locals would call a “fair dinkum” aussie.
Mason Cox: This country has really got my heart I think.
Jon Wertheim: I’m still marveling at your accent… Are you the most American Australian or the most Australian American?
Mason Cox: Probably the most Australian American. I still love America and I’m still American. But I’m– I’m half and half now.
Flanked by his captain, his coach and his parents, he got his Australian citizenship to prove it. And he’s seen more of the country’s exquisite landscape than most natives… but, as in any sports movie, there were setbacks. In this play, he resembled a basketball player, who headed downcourt, forgetting to dribble….
When Cox was a rookie new to the sport, these bloopers were part of the novelty act…
When Cox was a veteran the passionate Collingwood fans were less forgiving…
Jon Wertheim: You’ve seen that?
Craig McRae: Yeah. The judgment, the criticism.
Adding injury to insult, in 2019, Cox was raked across the eye in a game, and diagnosed with two torn retinas, leaving him temporarily blinded. That, he says, was when he felt the distance from home.
Mason Cox: I’d lost one of my senses, all within 48 hours. And had to figure out if I ever was gonna play AFL again, if was ever gonna see again.
Jon Wertheim: What’s that internal conversation goin’ like?
Mason Cox: You know, did I do the right thing, comin’ here? Now I have something that’s probably gonna affect me for the rest of my life. Was it worth it? Um and you feel quite isolated and alone.
Six surgeries later, he regained most of his vision but was a diminished player and the great American experiment looked to be fizzling. Then, Cox made an equipment change—adding another distinguishing feature—becoming the first AFLer to wear prescription goggles. He had one of his best years. This year, Cox’s coaches say he’s never looked better.
Jon Wertheim: I’m watching your practice, thinking, “Americans would love this.”
Mason Cox: Oh, would go crazy for it.
Jon Wertheim: So in 20 years, if there are a dozen Americans playing in the AFL, how does that go over with you?
Mason Cox: I would love an American to break every single record I’ve done because it means that I’ve left a mark, you know?
Jon Wertheim: You know how extraordinary and unlikely this story is.
Mason Cox: I’m gonna look back and think, you had the most ridiculous life you could possibly think of that makes no sense. And I took it by the horns, and I made the most of it.
Produced by Jacqueline Williams. Associate producer, Elizabeth Germino. Edited by Matthew Lev.