Aussie Rules in the home of American Heroics

USAFL Philadelphia Tournament

Women’s match: Boston/Montreal vs New York/Baltimore/Ontario

Franklin Delano Roosevelt Park

Saturday May 19

If the city of Philadelphia were an AFL team, I guess it would have to be Fremantle. Philly’s an easy place to like, an unpretentious hybrid of blue-collar and bohemian that spurns efforts to get too slick, prefering to present its deep historical roots and underdog status with a wry take-it-or-leave-it shrug, a winning mix of grunt and grandeur.

And it’s sports mad. “BOO ANY TEAM. Courtesy of the Constitution,” reads the billboard hovering over the freeway as we steer our rental car to the Comfort Inn beside the off-ramp. Independence Hall, where that hallowed document was drafted and signed, is just a few blocks away.

This is the furthest point in a 6-day 3-generation family roadtrip from Boston for the husband and I, our footy-playing daughter, Lydia, and her visiting Collingwood-obsessive grandmother, who’s a bit worried about whether footy is a suitable game for young ladies.

It’s three weeks since their only preseason game, in Montreal. Now the Boston Lady Demons are joining the Montreal Angels (yes, Angel and Demons, all bases covered …) to take on a New York team supplemented by players from Baltimore and Ontario at the Philadelphia tournament’s only women’s match.

Lydia heads off to Franklin Delano Roosevelt Park around lunchtime Saturday; we follow mid afternoon and start looking for the action. Past “Brian’s 30th” and “James’s birthday party”, past the fishermen by the lake and the American Swedish Historican Museum, past the golf range and the baseball diamond … Just as we’re despairing, Mum calls out triumphantly from the backseat: “I see goalposts!”

And there they are, in the furthest corner, over by the freeway and the skate park, being manned by a chap in stubbies and thongs, shirtless, dangling a pair of flags in one hand and hoisting a stubby of Coopers in the other. (A freeway billboard beside the oval helpfully identifies “Boston”, but on later inspection turns out not to be an extravagant cheersquad effort but an ad for a gig by some aging rockers at the Trump Taj Mahal Casino in nearby Atlantic City.) Witches hats have been used to mark out a medium-sized oval on the roughly grassed field, with the teams playing 14-a-side over four 15-minutes quarters. We pull up just in time to see a Dees’ goal, their second, waved through.

The thing with these games is that many of the players are experiencing match conditions for the first time. They’re on a steep learning curve. The Lady Magpies’ captain Drea jogs up to her fullback – as the ump replaces the flags and rehoists his beer – to advise her: “You can just touch it, then it’s one point.”

The Angelic Dees have made a good start by quarter time, 2.4.16 to 1.1.7. Lady Dees captain Jen Vogel joins them in the quarter-time huddle. This is one of the hardest things she’s done, she admits – she’s sporting a brace on her left leg, courtesy of a Montreal mishap three weeks earlier, and is heading for surgery on a torn ACL.

It’s hot out there and most of the spectators are at a safe distance sprawling under some huge trees with all the usual conveniences. Eskies. A sausage sizzle. As the teams swap ends, we head over.

Teammates have been thrown together, and into some unfamiliar roles. The play is scrambly, with some bold, assured moves from the most experienced players but a lot of wrestle and grit that doesn’t so much flow as stutter frenetically along. Our Lydia gets caught in a wrestle over the ball, wrapped up at ground level, then face-planted. She stays a moment squatting in the heat, a distressed, frustrated bundle, head dangling limply, long blonde ponytail trailing down. I wait for the expressions of alarm from her grandmother, but she seems too engrossed in the play to have noticed. The siren goes and the blokes on scoreboard duty spend a moment debating whether a touched ball can count as a goal or not. It’s now a 4.6 to 1.2 lead.

For two of last year’s veterans, Nikki and Leslie, this is their first 2012 game, and they’re relishing the opportunity, back alongside Boston’s stalwarts in Andi, Aimee, Emily and Kristina. The girls push ahead to get to 6.8.44 to 2.2.14 by three quarter time.

Mum decides to come out from under that shady tree at the last break to watch her granddaughter at closer range. She finds a tall spindly shrub about 10 yards behind the boundary. “If there’s a good goal kicked, I might be hit here …” she says, a little anxiously. I feel obliged to tell her it’s a big if. Actually, this is the kind of game where the whole field applauds when a rookie holds a strong chest mark.

Boston’s rookie Eileen, in only her second game, is developing terrifically, and tops off a great game in the ruck with a commanding goal in the final minutes. By siren time, it’s a convincing 8.10.58 to 4.2.26 win to the Boston Lady Demons/Montreal Angels combine. New Lady Dee Sandi, at fullback in her first ever game, takes some convincing that the “not much” she says she’s done, with admirable commitment and resilience, has helped save her team from several opposition goals.

Lydia has managed a few goals, though can’t forgive herself for missing a couple more. But it’s been tough out there. Her head hurts, she’s sporting a nasty rash on the shoulder from a dragging tackle, and there’s a large bruise rising on one bicep. “Look,” she tells me, pointing to an intricate purple pattern inside the other arm where the ball slammed against her, “that’s from the laces…” Her grandmother offers some consoling words.

We take Mum back to the hotel to cool down and unwind over online reports of the Collingwood v Geelong game. Meanwhile, Lydia and the team head to their dream destination, the one they’ve been fantasising about ever since Montreal: The Philadelphia Museum of Art. Yep, the “Rocky Steps”. Up and down to the cheers, Lydia assures me later, of all the tourists, and a team photo punching the air beside the statue of Rocky Balboa, America’s iconic underdog.

Footage of the match:



  1. Andrew Starkie says

    Great stuff, Stephanie. Super piece. Footy takes over the world.

    I ran the Rocky steps in ’97. I was actually deflated to discover there were less of them than i had expected. I raced my mate up and won easily (can’t run out a sight in a London fog nowadays), and of course, did the Rocky spar/dance. One of life’s great moments. When I was there, i don’t think the statue was erected. I heard a story it had been taken down for a period but put back up when tourism revenue dropped.


  2. Nice one Stephanie, very enjoyable read. I have passed on details to Woody. You should see him turn up around mid June. At least that’s when he leaves here.

    Looks like the Lady Dees had the full forward press in operation for the second half. The magpies couldn’t get the ball beyond half back.

    If only it was Melbourne and Collingwood playing as respectively in the AFL…

  3. Lord Bogan says

    Love the Bostonian philosophy Stephanie. Great read :)

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