Mason Cox, Australian Rules Football star, has followed an unlikely path

MELBOURNE, Australia — The story of Mason Cox thrums with a giddy torrent of are-you-kidding-me. It exceeds far-fetched, romps on past farcical and turns up at preposterous.

A 6-foot-11 engineering major who played soccer in high school, who played just 57 minutes across three seasons of basketball as a walk-on at Oklahoma State, who accepted a job at ExxonMobil in Houston around December 2013 and who had never heard of Australian rules football until age 23 in 2014, has played 116 games in the roughhouse sport (which short-circuits many a career at single digits), has had 10 surgeries (six on eyes), has earned Australian citizenship and has felt the Australian accent take up happy residence, especially in his vowels.

He has spent offseasons climbing Machu Picchu, marveling at Patagonia, roaming the Swiss Alps, exploring remote Australia and fly-fishing for brown rainbow trout in New Zealand. And as he starts this exalted month on the Australian sports calendar in the eight-team football “finals” as a mainstay in the position of ruck with the famed and top-seeded Collingwood club, he is famous here while remaining decidedly unfamous where he grew up, 15 time zones away.

“Makes no sense,” he begins one day while dining in a swell cafe in Richmond, a funky inner suburb of Melbourne.

It makes no sense, but some gawk unmistakably during that dinner at the Melbourne icon Chin Chin, while others gawk intermittently as guileful gawkers, while others don’t gawk at all because it’s a metropolis of 5 million with varied cultural vigor even as it’s bonkers for sports. A waitress quickly states, “I appreciate what you do.”

A fan outside the Melbourne Cricket Ground five nights earlier didn’t gawk per se; he just about jumped out of his skin at the sight of Cox coming around the bend after a comfortable win to close what Americans would call the regular season. (He got a photo.) The man at the dry cleaners doesn’t gawk, but he does revel and chatter upon Cox’s arrival.

It makes no sense, but a friend recently told Cox he has “the perfect setup”: celebrity perks in Australia, anonymity elsewhere. “I don’t think many people play in front of 80,000 people,” Cox says, “and have the ability to fly a few hours and nobody knows who you are.” Trips to America grant a fame “detox,” when he can walk a bonanza of humanity such as Sixth Street in Austin or go to a Dallas Mavericks game with only rare moments of someone walking by and saying, “Oh, my God, what are you doing here?” — that someone invariably being Australian.

Somehow, the same Mason Cox whose devoted parents would drive the seven-hour round trip to Oklahoma State “just to see me hanging out on the bench and watch the ‘Kiss Cam,’ ” wound up in places such as the Paddock Club at Melbourne’s annual Formula One shindig.

“I go there every year,” he says, “and I’m like: ‘I have no right or reason to be here. I’m a broke-ass college basketball player, and I’m just hanging out on the pit lane. Why am I here? How am I here? How does this happen?’ ”

Jeanette and Phillip Cox met at college when both arrived late for chemistry class and the professor assigned them as lab partners, raised three sons who sprouted to 6-6 (Nolan), 6-8 (Austin) and the 6-11 baby Mason, whose six-inch growth the summer before his senior year in high school prompted schoolmates to say, “What the f— did you eat?”

Mason followed Nolan to Oklahoma State and walked around as your everyday 6-11 engineering student. He wound up helping the women’s basketball team practice, which included simulating Baylor’s Brittney Griner. The men’s coaches found him, brought him to practice and handed him some ankle braces, causing a delay because he did not know how to put them on.

He also did not know how to check into a game, so the first time he tried, someone behind the scorer’s table had to tell him to quit obstructing the view and kneel the hell down. He played in three games in 2011-12, eight in 2012-13 and 13 in 2013-14. He took three shots and made two. He took 10 free throws and made three. He “could barely make a layup,” he says, and dreaded pregame left-hand-layup drills. He did go in against Kansas in 2014 and get two stops against Joel Embiid, loosing a ruckus in the crowd and foretelling his fondness for a good, hard scrap.

As Marcus Smart’s Oklahoma State lost, 85-77, to Gonzaga in the NCAA tournament’s round of 64 in San Diego in 2014, Cox played a whopping 10 of his 57 total college minutes. Broadcasters marveled at how he had never played organized basketball until 2½ years prior, which caught the attention of Jonathan Givony, the basketball prospects guru with Australian connections. That led to a puzzling call to Cox from Oklahoma State media relations, which led to a free trip to Los Angeles for a combine of a faraway sport.

“We just showed up, did the 3K time trial on a random track with, like, an adult league soccer game going on in the middle of it, and there were, like, grandmas in their rockers, walking on the track,” Cox says. “And we were, like, running a time for a 3K time trial. We’re having to, like, run around other people just going for a casual stroll on a Sunday.”

They tried the vital Australian art of kicking, but then: “Basketball players don’t really have hand-to-foot coordination, so you can imagine how many footballs went left, right, center, hit people in the face, all this other stuff. Like, absolute chaos.”

Two things favored Cox: height and soccer, the latter having decorated his minor years with an abundance of travel, including abroad. Endurance matters deeply in the harshness of Australian rules football; players can run a half-marathon per match. Soon came brother Nolan acting as agent and fielding phone calls from Australian clubs at wee hours. Soon came a why-not free trip to Australia.

“We took those two weeks,” Mason says, “and just walked around like absolute idiots, not knowing what to expect. And we found out the game was real, found out people were into it, with massive crowds and massive following and stuff here, and got plastered all over the media and everything else.”

They did a news conference.

“I was a walk-on in college,” Mason says. “I never did a press conference in my life. I guess people didn’t understand I wasn’t like a big person in sport back in America. This was like some guy who scrubbed the bottom of the barrel.”

The World Cup’s signature moment played out above a graveyard

It made no sense and led to a momentous brotherly conversation near a boathouse on Port Phillip Bay just beneath Melbourne. Nolan, five years older, advised Mason that his youth allowed ample time for mounting this wild stallion of an adventure. Mason signed with the Magpies of Collingwood, a club whose stature often results in being translated into American as “Dallas Cowboys” or “New York Yankees.”

He lived as a novelty with a give-it-three-years mind-set. He rode the rapids of resentment from those who wondered why an interloper might supplant some Australian who had slept dreaming with a football as a kid (even though Irish interlopers from Gaelic football had done likewise). He learned in the minors this game played on a gigantic oval with many, many players (18 on each side). He aimed for the largest stadium in the Southern Hemisphere, the Melbourne Cricket Ground, surrounded by statues of legends he knew not, such as cricketers Shane Warne and Sir Donald Bradman, or footballers Ron Barassi and Leigh Matthews. He debuted there for Collingwood in 2016 and scored a goal (six points) on his first kick 80 seconds in as the tallest player ever in the AFL and the second American — following Jason Holmes, who played in five games between 2014 and 2017.

He didn’t star, but he didn’t fade, either.

He played the position called ruck, which “doesn’t need as much of a skill set as other players,” he says, which rewards height and which, he says, requires three foremost talents: jumping, wrestling (as for catches called marking) and tapping the ball to teammates. He says, “Essentially your goal is to give it to other people,” and, “I don’t have to be the best kicker, the best handball.”

He loved the banging, “to have this one-on-one battle: Who can push their body further?” He loved that push: “Playing basketball, we did some crazy runs and crazy conditioning, stuff like that, and I thought, like, ‘Oh, man, my body could never go any further than that.’ But then I came to the AFL and I was like, ‘Holy s—, there’s a whole ’nother level to this!’ ” He reckoned the sport a mash of every other sport: “I genuinely do believe it’s the hardest sport in the world.”

At a recent Collingwood match, a 101-31 wipeout of Essendon before 74,344 on a Friday night when at least one Essendon fan upturned a table on his way out, four-decade Collingwood fan Dave Skinner of Sydney wore a Cox No. 46 jersey with “USA! USA!” along the back. An air-freight manager for airline Qantas who flies around the vast country watching Collingwood, Skinner started wearing the shirt to support Cox and his story — and to needle a friend who had needled Skinner about supporting Cox.

“He’s taken a chance that really very few are given,” Skinner says, “and it perhaps helps that he was put into the Collingwood system. … And to remain in that AFL [roster], he’s got to work hard and got to prove himself as well. He’s not just there for the novelty to sell merchandise or to get media attention.” He praises Cox’s determination, speaks of his knack for ruck and says, “We can’t really ask more of him than that, and on the days he has the breakout games it’s even better.”

The utmost breakout came at the 2018 “preliminary final” against Richmond, similar to an NFL conference championship game, in which a Collingwood upset thwarted a fourth straight Richmond title. “Cox tore the game away from the Tigers,” Sarah Black wrote for Collingwood, “in a withering three-goal burst to open the second quarter, putting the Pies up by 42 and inviting a chant of ‘USA! USA!’ to envelop the MCG.”

He has had downturns, as when playing time waned in 2021, and he has had comebacks, as with 32 games the past two seasons and a fresh two-year contract extension just cemented.

In Australia, a welcome World Cup nestles into the sports-mad landscape

He also has had surgeries, including one on the eyes that left him bedridden for two weeks in a dark room without seeing and one last March on the spleen. The former helped usher in his distinction as the first AFL player in goggles. The latter involved a half-gallon of blood lost before the surgery, one-third of his spleen lost during and one ear chewed out after from a caller in Texas, who stated her objection to learning of her son’s surgeries through media reports.

“It’s just such a brutal game,” Cox says. “Your body’s not meant to be able to take that kind of impact. And knowing that, you go in there knowing you’re going to be under the knife quite a few times.” So: “Everyone’s always got something that’s somewhat injured. No one’s sitting there going, ‘I feel the freshest I’ve ever felt.’ No one ever says that.”

It makes no sense but bears such fruits. He treasures the “skin name” he got from the Juru tribe — “Banbari” — an honor from Indigenous Australians who recognized his passion for their cause. He values Australians’ capacity for realness, including calling friends without embarrassment to report blues or depression. He relishes the multinational Thanksgiving he and a dozen or so friends hold each early December, going around the table, telling of their past 365 days and often crying. He adores Australia as a new citizen starting to say “we” instead of “they.”

“Australia’s kind of like a golden nugget that no one really thinks about, you know?” he says. “It’s a beautiful culture. It’s first-world, amazing lifestyle. I think two or three of the cities are, like, in the top 10 most livable cities in the world. … So it’s interesting because people come down here and they’re like: ‘Oh! I get it! I understand why you haven’t left! I wouldn’t, either!’ But then I’m fortunate enough with football to be able to get back for two months a year and go see family and spend my time in the U.S. and have that feeling of home. But the longer I’m here, probably the more I see myself being here a long time.”

After all, nine years after finishing with sports, he walks Melbourne sidewalks on a winter night in late August 2023, pointing out the hotel with the legendary bellhops, chatting briefly with a police officer and using the word “utopia” — a walking, towering demonstration of how life can be at its best when it makes no sense.

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