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Right Field: Jesse Williams' success can boost American football in Australia
Australians have a new sporting hero in Jesse Williams, who led the Crimson Tide to US college football's most coveted prize
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You can't go much further north than Thursday Island, mate. Sail off its pristine shores and pretty soon it's goodbye Australia and hello Papua New Guinea. Not surprisingly, it's an area that is rife with so-called "indigenous" Australians and in particular Melanesians, who claim they can trace their roots in the region back some 40,000 years. They have had an often chequered history of integration with the powers that be in Australia. But they remain a very proud people and never more so than this past week thanks to Jesse Williams.
A towering behemoth who tips the scales at 145 kilograms, Williams wears his hair in an aggressively cropped Mohawk while his massive frame is completely adorned with tattoos including his favourite: "I stopped checking for the monster under the bed when I realised the monster is me." Despite the trappings though, his courteous demeanour and laid-back personality are more Buddhist monk than monster under the bed. While the Williams family tree in Thursday Island dates back hundreds of years, young Jesse moved south to Brisbane when he was a toddler and eventually became active in most local sports.
By the time he was 16, he had become unstoppable in his two favourite sports - rugby and basketball. But his curiosity was piqued by American football and within two years of playing the sport he was on his way to junior college in the US and two years after that he became the first indigenous Australian to receive a scholarship to play American college football when he enrolled at the University of Alabama.
Think about that for a minute. After only four years of playing organised football, Williams was starting on the defensive line for arguably the most storied programme in college football and the eventual national champions. It's much more than a remarkable journey; it's completely unprecedented and this past week the pride of Australia's Far North was at it again as he helped lead the Crimson Tide into their title match-up against the undefeated and equally storied Fighting Irish of Notre Dame. This time, though, he was all over the news in Australia, a decidedly provincial country where sports like netball routinely get more play than American football.
It's usually impossible to miss the mammoth Williams but this night in particular he was in the middle of everything as Alabama destroyed Notre Dame 42-14. It's well chronicled how college football in the Deep South is more than a game. It is their defining heirloom, their unabashed source of pride that they lord over the rest of the country and on this night Alabama made it clear they would maintain the status quo as the Southeastern Conference won it's seventh straight national title, including three out of the last four by the Crimson Tide.
Williams even got into the act on the offensive end as the lead blocker for two of Alabama's touchdowns and the next day the boy from the Far North toiling in the Deep South took a congratulatory call from Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, telling him how proud the country was of his exploits.
Williams admits he is eager to help grow the game Down Under and on NFL draft day in April he should do just that. Projected as a mid first-rounder, he is looking at a four-year guaranteed contract for roughly US$10 million. The top 42 players in Australia's National Rugby League averaged US$140,00 last season. Williams should make that much in a little over two weeks.
Defensive end Colin Scotts was drafted by the St Louis Cardinals in 1987 and is the only Australian non-kicker to ever play in the NFL. He admitted last week that he thought he was paving the way for future generations of gridiron greats in his home country but now says the transition can be ominous.
"Playing defence in the NFL is not something a lot of Australian kids are capable of doing, to be honest," he said. "It's not like you have a reserve grade competition or are given time to learn how to play a specialised position. That's why I believe what Jesse has achieved at Alabama the last two years has been truly remarkable and clearly broken the mould."
As a gentle giant who has the uncanny ability to leave his aggression on the playing field, Williams is already unique. As an indigenous football role model in his home country, he's a pioneer.