They play their footy over 15,000 kilometres from the MCG, making the Minnesota Freeze one of the most distant outposts of Aussie rules football in the world. Yet surprisingly, they are part of a growing, robust footy subculture emerging in the United States.
The Freeze plays in the United States Australian Football League (USAFL). The competition was founded in 1997 and now boasts 33 teams from coast to coast.
Unsurprisingly, it is fuelled by the passion of Aussie expats, but is attracting quite a few American converts, including Freeze president Brian Driscoll.
The Minnesota Freeze soaks up some mid-season warmth at a recent training session. Photo: Tim Young.
“There's a camaraderie that this sport has that I really haven't felt playing softball or football, basketball, tennis, any other sports I grew up with,” he said. “There's a real mateship that's embedded in the sport that was obvious to me right away.”
Driscoll only picked up the game after his Australian brother-in-law took him to the 2006 USAFL grand final in Las Vegas. Today, the 47-year-old says he is hooked.
“Fortunately because the sport is what it is here in the States, and not a lot of people play it, I'm able to play for a club at the age that I am,” he said with a laugh.
The Minnesota Freeze Aussie rules team practices in freezing conditions. Photo supplied.
“The strongest clubs in the country are those that have a strong expat population,” he added.
“Denver is a very good club because of the ski bums. Australians go there to ski and they kinda hang out.”
When The Age visited the Freeze, they were training on a baseball field in suburban Minneapolis. Being so far away from the tourist trail, there are just a few Aussies on the team's list. One of them, Adelaide-born Scott Johnson, says finding footy so far from home was a godsend.
“I married a Minnesotan, so one of us had to move and here I am,” he said.
The winters are long and cold in Minnesota, and with such a short window of warm playing weather, early season training can be a bit tricky. This year, the Freeze lived up to their name and ran their first training session in the snow.
“Wow. You know in 30-plus years playing this game, that is the first time I've ever kicked the ball with snow on the ground,” said Johnson. His wife was incredulous. He was resolute.
“Football doesn't stop for the weather, so it didn't stop for the snow.”
Despite the hard, often cold ground, Aussie rules is putting down firm roots across the US. The fifteenth edition of the national championship is coming up in Austin, Texas this October, and the league now has over 10,000 registered players.
Driscoll doesn't expect the Freeze will be contenders this year, but he beams with pride that his team sent five players to Australia as part of the US Revolution, the men's national team, which just competed at the International Cup in Melbourne.
The Revolution's fourth place finish was the side's best ever showing at the tournament, lending further weight to Driscoll's belief that footy has a bright future in the United States.
“I'd like nothing more than 20 years from now to go to some ground here where there's a match being played professionally,” he said.
“I'd really like that a lot, and have kids start learning how to kick the ball when they're 6 and 5 instead of waiting till they're 45.”