Life changing moment on the beach that took me to a Grand Final
American Mason Cox had never heard of AFL five years before stepping out on the MCG for the biggest game of the year. He reflects on becoming a prelim final sensation and the craziness of Grand Final week.
When we play a game at the MCG, we usually drive ourselves in, park across the street and walk over to the ground. But Grand Final day 2018 was different.
The parking lot was being used and we had to take an Uber instead. When mine turned up it was the smallest car you could possibly have as an Uber – like a little smart car.
I folded my 2.11 metre frame into the back like I was the ‘very tall guy in car’ meme from the Simpsons, hunched right over with my bag stuck on my lap.
Here I am, going to the damn Grand Final, the biggest game in my life, in some broke ass Uber, thinking ‘you’ve got to be f***ing kidding me. You may be going to one of the biggest days of your life but you’re still an ordinary person’.
It was a really good way to bring me down to size.
‘Big Life Changing Moments’
Four years before that Uber ride I had no idea at all what the AFL was.
I had been offered a job at ExxonMobil, who were number one on the Fortune 500, working as a mechanical engineer, one of the best jobs you can get coming out of college.
When I got scouted as a potential AFL player, I received a lot advice from my family and we all had plenty of doubts.
My brother and I travelled over to Australia to do a tour to the AFL and before we left we feared it might be like an Eastern European Basketball League, something that was owned by businessmen and could fold at any time on their whim.
We didn’t really think of it as anything too serious or as something that would be financially viable. It was a case of there’s a sport out there I haven’t heard of, chances are it’s not a huge money maker.
You don’t want to risk a great job, travel half a world away and then six months into it they tell you ‘oh, sorry, we can’t pay you anymore. Good luck!’
There are big, life changing moments for every person that shift the trajectory of where your life goes. Mine came on the beach at St Kilda, sitting with my brother Nolan.
He said ‘look man, you can go do this ExxonMobil job or come here and work out for a living. A degree doesn’t expire. You can always go back and work a desk job, but this is a once in a lifetime thing and it has an expiration date.
‘This is your opportunity, your chance to have a bit more control in your career, in your path, and if everything goes well, have an amazing story to tell people and hopefully provide a bit of hope and happiness to some people along the way.’
Hopefully I’ve done that for some people. There will be others who probably don’t like me so much because they think I’m an arrogant prick from America! But hopefully at the end of it, I’ll look back at it and be proud of the journey I’ve taken and how far I’ve come since the day I landed in Australia and found out what the heck this sport was.
View this post on Instagram
‘I Stared Into The MCG In Disbelief’
In 2018 I had the backing of Nathan Buckley throughout the year. Whether I had an average game or a good game he had the faith in me that I could provide what the team needed. That was massive for me.
We were 13th the year before and finished third, starting in the finals against GWS. Leading up to that game I got a ‘corkie’ doing some ruck work and could barely even jog in the game. We got through. I didn’t play amazingly well, but for a guy essentially on one leg it went alright.
In the week of the prelim, we got an indication of what the outside world thought of our chances against minor premiers Richmond when a merchandise guy rocked up to get us to sign some Grand Final memorabilia in case we got through.
He showed us a PowerPoint that used Richmond in the final as an example. You could tell he didn’t want to invest much time in us out of the four teams left, and that made an impact on us.
It’s well documented how the prelim game went – having the game of my life as the crowd chanted “USA”. It was a crazy life experience.
Whenever I picture an image of that day, one moment sticks out.
After most games at the MCG, when everything’s packed up and it’s time to leave, I like to walk up the race and stare down into the empty arena.
That day I remember staring into the MCG in disbelief. I hadn’t even known what the sport was four years ago and here I was going into a Grand Final in front of 100,000 people. I was thinking ‘holy shit you never thought you’d be here’.
The emptiness hits you and you get the spiritual feel of the place. I was just standing there by myself when my mother, who had flown over with dad the day before, walked up the race. I don’t know how she found me, but we stood there and shared that moment together.
‘I understand the strangeness of my story’
When we turned and walked back down to leave, that peace disappeared. It was time to embrace the craziness of a Grand Final.
My teammates, who were raised on the game and its history, were well ahead of me in what to expect. I barely knew what the hell was going on.
For a start, there was the parade. I find it crazy that the parade happens before you actually win, or even play, a game. In the US you would have parades for someone who wins the whole thing.
Then there was the media day. I had people from all over the world asking me questions. I spent two or three hours doing media. Everyone else? Maybe 30 minutes.
I’m always happy to give back and I understand the strangeness of my story. I’ve always valued myself as that person that didn’t really know what footy was. And if I can give back to the community in any sense, or get through to that little kid that’s watching, I feel like I’ve done my job for the club and the sport.
That was a crazy week. It’s probably different for the guys this year given the circumstances of being in Perth. Maybe it’s a far less stressful week than you might have whenever you do a Grand Final at the MCG in front of all your friends and family.
They can pull themselves out of that Victorian bubble and be able to really focus on the game.
On game day, after extricating myself from the back seat of the world’s smallest Uber, we went through our pregame routines.
Scott Pendlebury, who had played in a Grand Final before, had given everyone this advice:
‘You could try to treat this week as any other week but it’s not. Try to stick to routine but realise this week will be like no other.’
That was great to hear from a guy who had been through the ranks, had a successful career and is one of the most mature guys in the league now.
The game, against West Coast, was tough going.
In the first quarter there was a moment where Tom Barrass poked me in the eye. I found out about a year and half later when I got an injury in my other eye that I’d suffered a detached retina in the Grand Final.
The first half didn’t go well for me. I hadn’t really touched the ball too much, hadn’t made an impact on the scoreboard and when I came back into the rooms and sat down to reset, I felt that weight.
One of the coaches came up to me and said ‘the past half you can’t do anything about, but the next half of the game, you can control.’
Before the Grand Final, Craig McRae, who has been named head coach now, gave me the advice to ‘control the controllables’. It has always stuck with me, and I thought of that.
I remember going into second half thinking ‘stuff it, it can’t get much worse than the first one, let’s have a crack here’.
I played pretty well in the second half, kicked a few goals and for at least a chunk of that half I thought ‘we’re gonna win this’.
‘Ordinary people, extraordinary stress’
Dom Sheed kicked the winning goal for the Eagles and we fell short by five points in what’s considered one of the greatest AFL Grand Finals.
It took a while to get over. But whenever I go back to the States, get back to family and friends, I get a reality check.
Living in Melbourne, playing for Collingwood, you think ‘this is crazy, everyone is paying attention, everyone has opinions on it’. In the United States people go ‘who the f***’s Collingwood?”
AFL people are very passionate about it. They can get upset and sometimes it’s just a knee jerk reaction.
I get that they just want what’s best for the club. And if you’re not performing at the level they expect you to, then there’s going to be criticism along the way.
The amazing thing about Australia – and I don’t think it’s really happening elsewhere in the world – is the public perception of what an athlete is, is kind of changing.
People are starting to realise that footballers are ordinary people who have this extraordinary stress of AFL.
There is a lot of talk, and action, around mental health right now with players, and in general society given the pressures that COVID has put on a lot of people.
It has changed the perception of what an athlete is. I don’t see myself as someone who’s better than anyone else. I just see myself as an ordinary human in extraordinary circumstances.
In Australia you’re surrounded by it 24/7 and every decision you make is for the betterment of the club and yourself and then you come back here, and you really get to relax and detox from that stress.
It’s a beautiful thing. Last year I didn’t have the opportunity to do that and it played on my mind a bit after a tough year. It meant going into last year wasn’t ideal. And now, I’m here and I’m sitting and staring at a beautiful lake.
‘What are you upset about?’
I see this as having been a big adventure.
I couldn’t have fathomed I would have ended up where I’m at now, had the career I had in the past and hopefully in the future as well.
Some amazing things have happened to me. I came through that week of being upset after the Grand Final and I thought ‘man you got to experience what a lot of people will never experience.
‘There are those who play AFL their whole careers who would dream of playing the Grand Final.
‘You might not have won it, but you got to experience AFL to the fullest experience.’
I got to experience a parade, a prelim and a Grand Final and I did it within four years of knowing what the game was.
‘What are you upset about?’ I thought. ‘This is awesome man. You should be so grateful to have that experience rather than being upset about something that you’re not going to be able to change now.
‘You’ve done your best, and unfortunately it didn’t go your way and that’s life.
‘You can’t sit there and be upset about it.’
Now I want to get to that next level of winning it. There is extra motivation to be able to get back to that point and to come out the other end on top.
View this post on Instagram
‘I will totally back you’
I’m 100% planning to play next year. I’ve got no idea where it’s going to be, what the contract’s going to look like or anything like that.
At Collingwood it’s a new coach, a new everything really – it has been completely turned around.
Craig McRae is the first coach I had in Australia, and he is one of the main reasons I was successful.
His genuine care and way he went about it, without that I would have never been in the position I am today and had the experiences I’ve had.
We’ve been really good friends throughout it all but I told him, ‘man, this is a once in a lifetime opportunity for you and no matter what the decision is, whether it’s keep me or let me go, I want you to make sure it’s best for you, best for the club and going to give you the best opportunity as a coach. Don’t put anything that’s personal in the way of that.
‘Whatever way you want to go, I will totally back you and I will totally understand, and I just want what’s best for you.’
That’s essentially the conversation I had with him. And he was kind of gauging where I’m at.
I’m open to ideas and open to what the future holds.
It’s been an amazing experience so far and I’m excited for what this next chapter might be. For now, I’m enjoying family time. It’s been two years since I’ve seen them and I haven’t really been able to interact with them too much.
I want to enjoy my detox out here in America and make some quality memories with the family.