Outback ball

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

A lean, rugged bunch convenes every Tuesday and Thursday on a large grass field along Kenny Road.

They're former high-school athletes, intramural players and young professionals looking to stay fit. They dress in old jerseys, mesh shorts, long striped socks and rubber cleats. At a coach's whistle, they sprint, tackle and kick a large oblong ball through four goalposts.

These are the Columbus Jackaroos, and they're one of a growing number of American clubs crazy about Australian rules football.

Developed in the land down under and first standardized circa 1859, Aussie rules - or "footy" for short - has grown wildly in the United States during the past decade.

Ten years ago, only Cincinnati and Nashville fielded traveling teams. Last year, more than 332 games were played between squads ranging from California to New Hampshire, Washington to Florida, according to the United States Australian Rules Football League. A main goal of the organization is to have 10,000 converts in the next 10 years.

Since the Jackaroos were founded by Cincinnati alums from Columbus, who were tired of commuting but eager to continue playing, more and more guys show up to Ohio State's Beekman Park for practice and scrimmages twice a week.

"I'm trying to dream big," cofounder and Worthington native Chet Ridenour said. "I'd like to have a metro footy league with teams from Ohio State, Columbus, Worthington and another area of town."

Requiring both true grit and finesse, the sport resembles rugby, American football and, oddly, ultimate Frisbee.

On a field at least 135 meters long and 110 meters wide, up to 18 players per team attempt to score points by kicking a ball through a set of four posts - six points through the center pair, one point through those on either side. Gameplay involves kicking the ball, passing it with an underhand volleyball serve or sprinting with it. Players can run 15 meters before the ball must touch the pitch.

Opponents can tackle a player with a ball, but much of the game revolves around "marks," when a player cleanly catches a booted ball and receives a free kick. The best players can scale a pack to snatch marks, withstand a pounding and kick accurately on the run.

"It's totally competitive," Ridenour added. "There's also a really neat camaraderie off the field. I think a lot of teams that host take pride in putting on a good game and a good party."

An opponent who laid you out, he added, will often be the guy buying your first beer. In Central Ohio, that mix of nightlife and nifty feats has drawn competitors with backgrounds in rugby, basketball, soccer and a host of other sports.

"I think the basic skills and rules can be learned pretty quickly," said Matt Reiss, a veteran player who's now a coach here in town. "There are a lot of the advanced techniques that come with playing the game and playing against people who've been playing for years."

The Jackaroos have gotten plenty of that experience lately, traveling to Louisville and Chicago for games against larger, more veteran squads. Right now, the team is welcoming new players to learn the game and fill out their traveling roster.

They play their first home match, against the Ohio Valley River Rats, at 2 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 13, at Tuttle Park.

"We're the newest team on the block," Ridenour said. "But next year, nationals are on our back doorstep in Mason. There's no reason why we can't send one, if not two, teams to nationals and come back with a championship."

To read more about John Ross' first Aussie rules game - in which he was brutally laid out by a powerful opponent - click to The Riot Act at ColumbusAlive.com.