Almanac Footy: Old Dog’s overseas footy adventures with the LA Dragons.




LA Footy



The LA Dragons



There are joys in life. Chasing leather shaped into an Aussie Rules ball is close to the top of them.


I know I can’t jump, am slow, have average skills – but, also, that I’ve left it all out there. Trained to burst, tried to learn, be a clubman. From Tassie snow to FNQ tropical thunderstorms, 690+ games across four states. The only real regret is I didn’t use footy to travel more.


I know there are Aussie Rules leagues all over the world. The thought of it is inspiring. People playing for the love of the game, without crowds, or even club structures, from Japan to parts of Africa to South America. Footy’s frontiers.


How bloody exciting!


I once got invited to play in the United Arab Emirates for a season. Desert dust caking each passage of play, mosques chanting in the background. The timing was wrong. There was no way I could leave my tired old work dog that long, she’d been so good to me. Yet I still regret missing that experience.


Then, this month gone, we hit the sky to catch up with several of Elena’s family, spread far and wide from Venezuela.


Due to Easter, I had to train by myself in the Spanish town on Chinchon, running up, out of the cobbled, winding streets, into the olive groves of the plateaus, kicking the footy outside their Medieval castles. In the East German city of Leipzig, I was one week too early for their season, so trained in the drizzle with one of their players by a meandering river. After that, a Venezuelan soccer player in a small village outside of Frankfurt. I missed the Zurich, Switzerland footy game by three hours, so trained by myself, running up those bloody mountains. Footy here, there, everywhere around the world, yet no actual matches. It felt like I was dodging it.


LA started much the same.


Our flight back to Australia was booked for Friday night. The worst possible timing. I’d miss the LA Dragons game by a day, but due to the time difference, arrive back home several hours late for local footy.


So the wife and I had a chat. It would cost a bunch! But some things are important to who you are. We rescheduled.


So far, the American 80s love affair with Aussie Rules had become something buried under desert sands. Nobody I spoke to knew a thing about it.


An Uber got us from Hollywood to San Pedro, where a tired turn-off rose to a dead-end carpark in front of four or five lumpy soccer pitches, cupped by an industrial estate, overlooking a valley full of LA suburbs. The industry surrounding the park gave off steam, the sharp smell of blood and bone, the constant sound of freeways.


The park was called Field of Dreams. In the Kevin Costner movie, he built his in a corn field. “Just do!” as John Kennedy once commanded. They will come. Fine by me. What American stadium could hold something as vast and free running as Aussie Rules, anyway? Anything is a Field of Dreams. Anything! You just have to bring the passion.


Portable goal posts were erected, witch’s hats placed out, shaping an oval. No through traffic, no stickybeaks, no adjoining park, or even trees. Just Aussie Rules. Just true believers. Magic.


The coach, Jabba, greeted me well. He’s from NSW, where he played in the Sydney league, including several reserves games for the Swans. Jabba brought his ripper white husky to the game, which he named Papley after the Sydney forward pocket. A majestic animal, gentle despite its size. Jabba let my child, Cielo, parade around with it on a lead all day, and won me instantly.


Jabba had played a lot of footy for the Dragons, and still looked like he could roost a Sherrin, but injuries have hobbled him, so coaching keeps him involved. He was great, making it simple, passionate. Gave the game the intensity, the urgency, of all good footy.


I then met our Captain, Sam Murphy. A local, all LA; 6ft 4”, blond, natural athlete, with a ripper grin, and likable manner.


Soon, someone was calling out names on the team sheet. One caught my ear. “Aiden Jelinek.” I tracked down its owner. “Hey, mate, I think I played footy with your father in Melbourne 25 years ago.”




Aiden Jelenick (centre), LA v Portland.



He laughed and goggled his eyes and confirmed it. His dad, Mark Jelinek, was one of the finest individuals I ever had the pleasure of meeting through football. Which, apart from testing yourself, is what footy’s about. Memories of Mark flooded in. Amiable, laconic, but burning with a quiet strength.


He was about 6ft and skinny as a wisp and one final, he simply stood tall, putting himself under the ball, full extension, letting pack after pack try and knock him off his marks. They bloodied him, knocked him from pillar to post, but each time he picked himself up from under a pile of players, still holding the pill.


Easy going Jelinek didn’t flinch once. Would not be beaten. He was no champion, but none of us are AFL stars. It’s about character.


It felt like an honour to run out with his son.


Even if there were no rooms to run out from. Just a $20 gazebo, erected to protect our gear from the sun. Who are these people, these legends and saints, who put out cones, mark boundaries, do team sheets, make sure there’s ice in the eskies for post-match beers? The world over, they’re there. Vital, everything. Clubs would crumble without them, leagues. The world as we know it would cease. There would be no football.


I looked at the other mob. The San Diego Lions had brought their own gazebo, and had jumpers almost as cool as ours. Every player, the right socks, the right shorts, looking like football. These things are important.


I was named in the forward line. I had no idea who could kick, who couldn’t, who wouldn’t, how good the other mob were, how good our mob were? This was going to be epic!


The mix was basically a handful of jets, good suburban footballers, a lot of players who were involved in club footy until work brought them to the States, a handful of expats who hadn’t played for some time but just wanted to be around things Australian, and about a quarter of the team from America. Locals. The true heroes!


I wondered if the Aussies back home knew how lucky they are? In the US there’s no suburban or country gridiron. Once you’re done with the college circuit, or it’s done with you, that’s it. It’s over. Sport becomes a TV thing. Or, if you live close, and have the money, a spectator event. It loses its personal touch, its involvement. You don’t get to keep playing and loving the game, and staying young and heart and being physical.


Thousands upon thousands of local footy ovals underpin our continent. Give its communities their heart, a focus.


A lot of the US-raised Dragons ran to the wrong places, made the worst choices, stood in the wrong zones, but played with pure heart and soul. Enough training, and games under their belts, they will do fine. All of them were carrying the attitude of the openminded. Trying something fun and challenging and new. I admired every one of them. It takes guts to run out and play a contact sport you know little about, you did not grow up with.


And guts to play against them.


My opponent was solid and clearly had an American Football/Gridiron background, and would spear-tackle you in the back when you were still 5 metres off the ball. And pull your arms down every time you braced to leap for a mark. It drove me nuts!


Growing up with the game, you learn when to brace, and when not to. There’s a huge difference between being hit when you are and when you’re not ready. It was sketchy. At home I would have reacted differently, but this was social footy. Instead, I gave him tips.


“Don’t turn your back on the play to watch me. It makes it easier for me to get a few quick yards on you. Keep arm contact, while watching the ball.”


“If you want to tackle properly, wait until I have the ball, but do it in this torso area.”


Little things.


His name was Bob, he was a good bloke. Said he learned stuff. Sure, he was the enemy, but it’s all football. He was determined to not let me get a kick. Determined! Had the heart of a backman! All you ever want is someone who gives everything.


The opposition had someone who was clearly above this standard. Solid, red haired, smooth running, with great delivery. First half, he dragged his whole team forward. Every ball up, every throw in, there he was, getting it out back, powering through traffic. Jabba put a tagger on him, who did a great job in the second half.


Our full forward was incredibly tall, tried his hardest, but didn’t really understand the body politic of the game yet, and was playing on a full back who had obviously played a lot in Oz. With such random delivery, it must have been hard for our bloke, kicks coming in so high, putting him under it.


I kicked the first goal of the Dragons’ year, which was nice, but damaged my shin, staying on, but useless after half time.


With some reshuffling of the team, and solid work from our full back, the Dragons held their own in the second half and made a good game of it.


It was one of those matches – never quite going to win, yet always in the contest. The skill level varied hugely depending on the player, but everyone seemed solid, fit, the bloated leather zinged about, there were scrappy patches of hard hits and desperation, passages of silk, and everything in between. If I had to sum it up; beautiful chaos.


It was footy, it was magic.


Jabba gave a ripper post-game speech, and let me thank the boys and present this mob of LA legends with a few Otway FNC caps.


It was funny and great and true. Everything about our two clubs are polar opposites. Otway, a foggy, mud-laidened oval built on a history of bush workers, encircled, on a Saturday, by every man, woman, barfly, teenager and child of the district, parked under gum trees, many of us huddled around rusty old potbelly fires… and the LA Dragons, a small, tight mob of true believers playing in the warmth of a giant overseas metropolis.


I envy their footy, their friendships, each season’s journey. The national carnival they play each year, with its round robins, two games a day. I envy the sense of adventure playing over there must give them.


The sense of worth.


After, despite our loss, just about every player, wife and girlfriend came back to the club’s sponsor bar in San Pedro. It was heaven! We filled the sidewalk tables with noise and earned beers and food and a total celebration of life and footy and mateship.


It couldn’t have been more terrific.


Even getting there was special. After the game, as everything was being packed up again by Jabba and the footy club angels, I asked him if he knew of anyone who could give us a lift to the pub.


Someone overheard and said; “Yeah, sure, I’ll do it.”


I told him I had my wife and child with me.


“Great!” he said. “No problem.”


His name was Glenn, he’s a pilot, now based out of the airport they sing songs about. After the pub, he and my family went back to his apartment, where we met his partner, who was lovely, and Glenn and I smashed the Glenfiddich, until I took some painkillers for my bung leg and we all went out to dinner in Santa Monica. My family and I and our new mates who could not have been more perfect people. Glenn was a ripper. I could have sunk beers with him until Tuesday.


A friendship made, just like that, through LA footy.


Americans love to cheer. It’s amazing. They do it when the plane they’re on lands. They do it at the movies. Only a few of them subscribe to pay-per-view sports. They flock to bars to watch the gridiron, or boxing, or the LA Raiders. So they can be in a tribal crowd, drinking, socialising, hollering, barracking.


Tonight, there was an MMA Championship fight. The bar swelled, overflow spreading into the streets, people watching through windows. Then, it was over again. A nice, warm bar.


Our kid was cooked. Roasted. Done. As we left, Glenn giving us a ride back towards the Valley, we bumped into Sammy, the captain, and Aiden Jelinek, both looking a million. Two prime roosters, about to hit Saturday night. Where, no doubt, they would team up with more Dragons.


A Saturday night in LA, given worth, if not cause, by Aussie Rules.


I gave Aiden Jelinek my heartfelt thanks, and a hug. For him, for his old man, and football.




Chinchon  Spain



Somewhere in Germany



LA Dragons



Training session and swim Hawaii




Matt running through a town in Switzerland. To watch the video click Here.




Read more from Old Dog Here.




To return to the  home page click HERE


Our writers are independent contributors. The opinions expressed in their articles are their own. They are not the views, nor do they reflect the views, of Malarkey Publications.


Do you enjoy the Almanac concept?
And want to ensure it continues in its current form, and better? To help keep things ticking over please consider making your own contribution.


Become an Almanac (annual) member – CLICK HERE




  1. Jarrod_L says

    Great work, Old Dog! In more evidence that it’s a small world after all, down at the mighty Fitzroy FC we’ve snaffled a Californian expat who is now working down here – he played with the Dragons last year! I’ll try to snap a photo at training with him next time (hopefully wearing the LA jumper).

  2. John Harms says

    Love it

  3. Matt Zurbo says

    Jarrod! Please do, mate, that would be huge!

    Onya John!

  4. Fate…perhaps. How amazing!! Aidan couldn’t wait to tell us all about this. It certainly brought back some terrific memories for Mark and me too. So happy you met Aidan and got to train and play with the Dragons.

  5. Danielle Jelinek says

    Nana (Marks mum and Aidan’s grandmother) Wow! What a heart wrenching article full of love and passion not just for the spot but your mates and the wonderful memories, bough me to tears! Keep up the good work. Enjoy your life with family and friends.

  6. Matt Zurbo says

    Danielle, what a lovely message! All the very best to you, ark, and all the Jelineks!

  7. This is wonderful stuff, old dog.

    Well played indeed.

  8. E.regnans says

    The living of a life.
    Thanks old dog.

  9. Murray Walding says

    Great story Matt. I would have loved to join you in the forward pocket, just to take it all in. I played my fair share of games at Carlisle River and I do miss that country footy atmosphere, standing around the 44 gallon drum and eating a hot dog after a reserves match.

  10. Matt Zurbo says

    Murray, you champion! I LOVED playing on Carlisle oval! Where are you now? Please, mate, introduce yourself if you are at an Otway game.

Leave a Comment