-- REDONDO BEACH, Calif. -- Shane Henry is 50 meters from the finish, and his hips ache. He's sweating. His legs are done. But the 6-foot-6 (198 cm) Henry knows he needs to back up the previous day's standout performance if he wants to continue to impress the Australian Football League talent managers, so he pushes hard through the finish line and clocks a top-10 time in the 3K run.
That he'd want to impress these guys at all is something even Henry, a forward for the Virginia Tech basketball team, wouldn't have believed two months ago.
"I'd never heard of Australian rules football before Coach [Buzz] Williams forwarded me an email and told me he thought I should give it a shot," Henry says, referring to his head coach at Virginia Tech. "At first, I didn't want to do it. I was focused on basketball. But then I watched some videos, and it looked like a cool sport. It's diverse, intense. Why not take the opportunity to try?"
That same open-minded attitude drew 18 college senior athletes out of their comfort zones and to the Los Angeles area this week for the AFL's fifth annual U.S. combine., which is being held for a specific purpose -- to find versatile big men to play ruckman, a position comparable to a basketball center. The ruckman is generally the tallest player on an AFL team. He has to compete for the ball in jump ball-like situations called ball-ups, grapple at boundary throw-ins and run as much as 10 miles over the course of a game. The position requires not only freakish height and athleticism, but also touch, speed, flexibility and endurance.
"It's a specialized position, and these guys fit the build," says Blair Hartley, a scout for the AFL's Richmond Tigers. "Their skills transfer to our game, but they're 23 years old and touching the ball for the first time. There are challenges. Learning to kick, having that feel between your hand and foot, understanding game sense, tackling, running, running while being smashed and tackled. But they're picking it all up quickly."
Six years ago, after the AFL expanded to add teams in Western Sydney and the Gold Coast, former Sydney and now Melbourne FC head coach Paul Roos saw the league's already shallow talent pool becoming even more diluted, especially when it came to finding players who stood 6-foot-6 or taller. He knew some of the best players at the position grew up also playing basketball, and he saw an opportunity to recruit U.S. basketball players to Australia's indigenous national sport. He reached out to Jonathan Givony, a basketball scout and consultant who runs the website draftexpress.com, and asked if he could find enough interested Division I basketball players to hold a combine in the United States.
This week marks the fifth year Givony has organized such a camp. The athletes, most of them basketball players, are competing for the opportunity to be one of three players selected for a three-week training camp in Melbourne in July -- while simultaneously learning how to play the sport. At the July camp, the players will receive further training and have the opportunity to work out for coaches from the AFL's 18 teams. Two players will then receive free-agent invitations to the league's official draft combine in Melbourne in October.
Before Givony began organizing a U.S. combine, the AFL had tested only 70 players taller than 6-foot-7 in the league's history; nine players here this week topped that mark, including French-born center Stanislas Heili of Lindenwood University, who at 7-feet (213 cm) is the tallest player the AFL has ever tested.
Like the majority of the recruits, Heili had never heard of the AFL and knew nothing of Australian rules football before receiving a Facebook message from Givony inviting him to the combine. Heili says he hesitated to respond, thinking it might be a scam. "Until I had the plane ticket in my hands," he says, "I wasn't convinced."
Heili wasn't alone in his skepticism. Imoh Silas of Siena College near Albany, New York, spent a week researching the league -- and Givony -- before agreeing to fly to California. Hampton University's Jervon Pressley spent the first day of the combine sending Snapchat photos to his teammates back in Virginia to convince them his tryout was real. "They told me they wouldn't believe this until they saw it," he says.
Givony says about 75 percent of the athletes he approaches either don't respond or decline the invitation. "But it's changing," he says. "Guys come to me now."
If any one player can be credited with making Givony's job easier in the future, it is Mason Cox, who attended this same combine in 2014 and signed a three-year deal with the Collingwood Magpies after graduating from Oklahoma State University. Just two years after his combine performance and after playing only 20 games with Collingwood's Victoria League team in the AFL's minor league system, Cox made his big-league debut in Sunday night's (Monday in Australia) annual Anzac Day matchup between Collingwood and Essendon. When Cox ran onto the field in front of 85,000 fans at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, 18 very interested young men in Redondo Beach tracked his every move.
"We watched the game together in the banquet room at the hotel after dinner," says Woody Quinn, who played football at the University of Tennessee. "It was 10 p.m. in L.A. when it started and we were tired, but we were excited to watch someone who'd been where we are now play in a game."
Eighty seconds into that game, Cox, the tallest player in AFL history at 6-foot-10 (211 cm) and the league's second U.S. born-and-bred player (following Jason Holmes), scored the opening goal in his first professional touch. By all accounts, it is one of the most spectacular debuts in AFL history. "By the end of the game, Mason was a cult hero in Australia," says AFL talent manager Kevin Sheehan. "He's our poster boy for this camp. It's a road not walked by many, but he shows it can be done."
He also showed the hopefuls at the combine what they have to gain by giving up the sport they've played since childhood and attempting to make it in one they've only begun to learn.
"Basketball is my love and passion, but this is an opportunity," Pressley says. "I talked to a friend who plays basketball in Australia, and he told me the AFL is poppin' over there. It's exciting to watch, the crowds are bigger than even the NBA, and the base starting salary for rookies is more than rookies get to play basketball overseas. He said if he had the opportunity, he would take it."
Out on the track, Pressley crosses the finish line shortly behind Henry, who's gathered with the rest of the guys to cheer on the other recruits. One by one, players cross the finish line, aware this could be the start of something big.