Baltimore Washington Eagles Australian Rules Football Club Is Now More About Winning Than Drinking
Thursday, October 8, 2009
This was supposed to be a story about what happens to young men who move to Washington for big new jobs, knowing nobody, who leave those big new jobs every evening and come home to empty apartments and lonely lives and who find themselves drawn to a sport bewildering to most Americans. It was a story about the bonds that come from running around on a field hitting people and then hitting the bars. It was about a little Australian rules football and a whole lot of beer.
Because for the first eight years of its existence, that is what the Baltimore Washington Eagles Australian Rules Football Club was all about. Until the young men discovered how much more they liked to win in a physically demanding game that is similar to rugby, but faster paced and with a different scoring system.
As the team stood in a circle on a dry, cracked field near Rosecroft Raceway in Prince George's County, it was easy to see just how much the story had changed. In the middle of the circle stood the team's player-coach, Aaron Tyndall, shouting in a thick Australian accent. He was imploring his team, which would soon be ranked first in the 29-team amateur U.S. Australian Rules Football League (or U.S. Footy) to bury the opponent of the moment -- a seemingly hapless club called the North Carolina Tigers.
"You need to dictate play!" he cried. "Don't let them do it to us!"
The Eagles led 33-0 at that point. They would win 222-7.
It was only two years ago that the same North Carolina team was beating the Eagles by lopsided scores. Everyone did. This was back when the team seemed to exist less for footy and more for drinking, when it proudly became known as the only team at the annual national tournament that would race to the beer tent between games.
Then two years ago, Tyndall appeared. And last year, instead of running to the beer tent, the Eagles went all the way to the tournament's championship before losing to a team from Vancouver, B.C. And they watched as the Vancouver players held the giant silver champions' chalice and wore the victor's medals around their necks, and nothing felt worse than the emptiness of that moment.
Suddenly, beer didn't seem so important. "It's more fun to win," said Eagles player Rich Strayer, a banker with SunTrust.
The Eagles, who are 10-1 this season, are seeded first in this year's national tournament, Saturday and Sunday in Mason, Ohio. This time they expect to win it all. "We have earned it," Strayer said.
To those who have watched footy on late-night cable television, which is how most people in the United States know the sport, it is an impossible game to follow: a mass of bodies -- 18 on a side -- running about bouncing and punting an oblong ball. But, in fact, it is a beautifully simple game in which the main objective is to move the ball down an oval-shaped field through a series of punts and passes to teammates, eventually trying to kick the ball through a line of four poles at the end. A kick through the two middle poles is worth six points. A kick through the two wide ones is worth only one.
Those who stumble across the 12-year-old U.S. Footy league are usually instantly smitten. In part it is because of the violent collisions that often break hands, crack jaws and sprain ankles. Some if it is the friendliness of the Australian expatriates who make up about a third of most team's rosters. But there is also the beer.
Rare is a footy game where a cooler of Foster's doesn't sit under a shady tent. Most teams always gather at bars after games. And even the national tournament is sponsored by a beer company: Coopers Beer.