By Steven Petrella, The Baltimore Sun
6:59 PM EDT, June 2, 2012
When Denis Ryan arrived in Maryland in 1998, he was closing out a yearlong vacation that had beaten him down.
He was nearing the end of a working holiday and sabbatical, something common among young adults in Australia. Ryan wanted to return home but felt that if he did, he would have given up his last opportunity to travel the world and see more of the United States.
After getting a job in security at the local Australian Embassy, Ryan received a $2,000 grant to teach the sport he loved, Australian rules football, to schools in the area. He tweaked the game with the intention of introducing a safe, easy and fun version of the sport to American children.
From there, he developed Ausball, a modified version of the sport, which rolls soccer, volleyball and basketball into one game. It provided the perfect bridge for Americans to learn Australian football.
"Many Americans have bad misconceptions about the [Australian] version of football," Ryan, 43, said. "People think it's just football without pads, but it's not. I just want to get people to try it and take it from there. It's a great pathway sport."
Ausball is a noncontact game played with a rugby-shaped rubber ball. Players must punch or punt the ball to a teammate and score points during two 15-minute halves by kicking the ball through goal posts on each end of the field. Players are required to give up the ball after three steps in most circumstances, which encourages teamwork and the participation of everyone on the field.
"It's almost impossible for a person to be selfish in the game because you can't accomplish anything," said Ed Roesinger, director of the Mora Crossman Recreation Center in Greektown. "It's great to teach kids teamwork because everything now is so oriented around the individual. That was the main reason we got involved."
Ryan taught a six-week clinic at Roesinger's recreation center a few years ago. Roesinger said if the sport can be demonstrated and seen, children in the United States will take a quick liking to it. The difficult part is spreading the word and getting exposure when most kids are busy playing basketball, football, baseball and other more traditional American sports.
"The kids liked the idea of how competitive it was and everybody had a share of the ball," Roesinger said. "It's one of those things [where] seeing it is going to sell it."
Ryan runs a six-team adult Ausball league based in Baltimore, with games in Canton and Federal Hill. There is also a league in Sacramento that was started by a former member of the Baltimore league who moved to California.
When he arrived in the United States, Ryan said, he failed to understand the culture of American sports.
In America, everything is based on progressing to the next level of ability, Ryan noticed. Outside schools, there isn't much opportunity to compete, so once kids graduate, their athletic careers typically end. In Australia, it's much different.
People generally compete in sports until the age of 30, because there's always a league to play in, no matter what skill level one is at. Ryan established an Ausball league in Baltimore because he wanted to give men and women a chance to compete and continue to play sports at any level and any age.
"It doesn't matter if you make it to the next level, there's always somewhere to play back home," Ryan said. "The United States sports culture is very score-based. I guess on the downside it becomes elitist, so there's not a lot of options to play once you can't advance to the next skill level."
Ryan, who works as a project manager at a local construction company, said athletes from various backgrounds have taken a liking to Australian rules football.
Although he originally believed basketball players would adjust to Ausball the easiest, he said those with soccer backgrounds enjoy being able to touch the ball with their hands.
"They have the basics down with their feet, and like that they can use their hands in this sport," Ryan said. "It's very liberating for them after playing soccer for so long."
A major reason schools are starting to teach the sport in gym classes and parents have taken a liking to it is how safe it is. In nine years teaching Ausball, Ryan said, he hasn't seen an injury.
With improved training, young athletes have become bigger, stronger and faster than ever before. Concussions have become a prominent issue in sports at the youth and professional levels, and are a major concern for parents when allowing their children to play collision sports.
"You hear about concussions in the news all the time and it's scary," said Tracey Early, a former Baltimore resident and mother of two. "You want your kids to be safe, but you want them to play sports and be active, as well. So you have to find that balance of both."
Some of the young athletes Ryan has mentored have pursued the sport by playing Australian football at the national level in the USAFL, with some even joining the United States Revolution and Freedom, the male and female national teams. He even had a former player, Shae McNamara, reach the Australian Football League, which is a major part of Australian culture.
"There's not a lot of opportunities to play Australian football here, so you can progress to a high level pretty quickly," Ryan said.
The Australian Football League, or AFL, is expanding and growing in popularity every year. Over the past two seasons, the league has added a pair of teams.
Ryan said the AFL will reach new heights in the next 10 years and that matches will come to America.
"Just based on numbers, relatively, it's very popular back home," he said. "By 2020 it will be more popular in America, as well."
A plumber by trade, Ryan always wanted to continue playing and teaching Australian football no matter where he was or what job he held.
"My passion was always Australian football at home. That's been my ambition here," he said. "Once people try it and play it, they absolutely love it."
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