Magpies featured in The Wall Street Journal

Recently, the New York Magpies made headlines with their first appearance as a team in The Wall Street Journal. Read the full article below or pick up your own copy in the July 15th edition of The NY Wall Street Journal.

It’s a Different Kind of Football

A Hard-Core Group of 70 New Yorkers Has Embraced the Rough and Ready Australian Rules Game


For Doug Lewis, the hook of Australian Rules Football was simple: he married a Sydneysider and wanted to impress her.

For Dan Lehane, the teenaged son of Irish immigrants, it was watching an International Rules Football series on TV, one between Aussie football players and Gaelic football players, where the Aussie players seemed to keep having their way with the fellows from his parents’ country.

For Glenn Ormsby, there wasn’t any need for a lure. He’s Australian and Australian Rules football is in every good Aussie’s blood. The blood that courses through their bodies and the stuff that spills out on the field.

“Come on, that’s a bad rap. Broken bones and serious injury are not the norm,” Mr. Lewis said, just before admitting he’s broken his collarbone, several fingers and his nose on an Aussie Rules field, the last twice in the same week.

Aussie Football on American Soil

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David Turnley for The Wall Street Journal

The game demands a grass playing surface that’s slightly smaller than a polo field. The skills are largely transferrable from sports like soccer, football and basketball. The ball is a cross between a rugby ball and a football that just ate a really big meal.

Mr. Lewis laughed, he protested that that injury tally wasn’t bad for an 11-year career, and then the Brooklyn resident and hedge fund CFO said, “I promise, nobody wants to kill each other.”

The World Cup is over, NFL training camps are still three weeks away and even without Cliff Lee, the Yankees’ dominance makes baseball in this city ho-hum until October. Until then, there’s a group of New Yorkers pitching another game, a spectacle so wild, it threatens to turn spectators into participants. After all, that’s why they’re playing.

Say hello to the New York Magpies, one of about 40 Australian Rules football teams in the country, playing under the auspices of the U.S.A.F.L. and on a field in Yonkers. Or out on Staten Island. Or in Hoboken.

Fields are definitely one of the biggest challenges in this area, if only because the game demands a grass playing surface only slightly smaller than a polo field. But challenge is relative to this group of about 50 men and 20 women, the regulars who train twice a week from February to October, travel the country and, yes, avoid detailing the sport’s specifics to their parents and spouses.

“I sent my mom videos of some game footage, which was kind of a bad decision on my part,” said Monica Robbins, a 27-year old who lives in Chelsea, works in advertising and was a volleyball player at Emory. She’s played for two years with the Lady Magpies. She went on a tour of Australia with the U.S. national team, and her mom, she said, is slowly coming around. “She sees how much I love it.”

Colloquially known as “footy,” Australian Rules football is a little like every sport we know in America—and unlike any one sport we know. The ball is a cross between a rugby ball and a football that just ate a really big meal. There are 18 players to a side, four goalposts (two tall, two shorter) and mass madness to get the ball around that vast field and through the two tallest goalposts. Mostly because the ball can’t be thrown.

It can be kicked or bounced or handed off to another player, but that last part is like hot potato: five seconds—or 15 meters—and you have to get it to someone else. Handballs are legal, resembling sort of a volleyball dig except with much more heft and push.

There’s tackling, only between the shoulders and the knees, there’s lots of climbing over people and there’s a spot for just about any sized athlete, a point waxed on about in the Adam Sandler movie “Funny People,” albeit a bit more profanely.

“When I started playing, I still didn’t completely understand it,” Mr. Lewis said frankly. “I think what’s attractive is it’s very free-flowing, there’s not a lot of restriction. There’s no offsides and there’s a lot of physical playing. It fills a void that exists here in New York City too. Maybe you have an office softball team, but that’s not really competitive, like this.”

The skills are ultimately largely transferable from sports like soccer, football and basketball. The pace of the game, however, is totally foreign. One moment you’re pondering twirling blades of grass, the ball a far-off speck 20 first downs up field; 15 seconds later, the ball’s zooming toward your feet. Or hands, if you’re dexterous enough to “mark,” which means catching the ball on the fly and then free kicking.

“We don’t do that too much. At our level, the ball’s on the ground a lot. Surprise, surprise,” Ed McCormick said. The 42-year old has been playing with the Magpies for six years and is now the club’s president. He’s a managing director at a hedge fund in Connecticut, he lives in Hoboken and like most of the Magpies, he doesn’t think seriousness about the game precludes fun.

“The skill of kicking a ball that’s not round—probably seriously, I couldn’t really kick a ball three years in,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean you can’t play. It means you can’t kick it well.”

About half the Magpies are Australian (only two of the Lady Magpies are) and Mr. Ormsby, a 29-year old vice president at SAC Capitol, doesn’t mince words when he says this is a different footy than the one his compatriots play.

“It’s a bit slower, the skills are a bit less and the Americans make some plays you wouldn’t expect. For instance, when you’re within scoring distance, the normal standard play would be to have a shot for goal. Here, some might pass it to someone in a worse position. They’re more team oriented,” he said. There isn’t as much of that this year though: Mr. Ormsbey is doubling as a coach.

It’s an extremely good-natured group, one where the Australians, Mr. McCormick said, “don’t ever get on us for bastardizing their sport.” Most of the players are in their late 20s or early 30s, though there are some outliers, like Mr. Lehane, who’s just 16, and Norm Steiner, a 50-year old in IT sales.

Renting fields, getting uniforms, bringing in water, funding transportation to matches in Philadelphia, Boston and Baltimore, paying the certified umpires —it all adds up.

The Magpies contribute between $500 and $1,000 to play each year, depending on what trips they take. They’ve been to Milwaukee, Austin, Pittsburgh and Chicago in the past and there’s almost always a plane flight to the national championship. (New York doesn’t have a large enough field to host the tourney).

Playing has become more than just recreation, bonding and black eyes today. Kevin Sheedy, a coach in the Australian Football League who Mr. McCormick likened to Bill Parcells, has been by to scout. Both Mr. McCormick and Mr. Ormsby said they believe Mr. Lehane, a soccer and basketball player at Regis High in Manhattan, could have a shot in an upcoming AFL draft.

Mr. Lehane says that was never his aim when he first came out to a practice as a 14-year old. His mother Margaret, who admits to thinking, “These guys are crazy” the first time she watched her son play, says future professional contract or not, the Magpies have been a boon for her son.

“These guys are a positive influence, they’re really fantastic with Daniel,” she said. “They really try to make him feel good about himself, they’ve been really good mentors and coaches.”

And hey, if the AFL doesn’t work for Daniel, Mr. McCormick has another plan. His two-year old son already has a little footy.

“He can’t talk,” Mr. McCormick said, “but he can kick a footy.”

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