I wrote earlier today on the Australian Football League's efforts to recruit college basketball standouts for a sport many of them had never seen or played before. Below is a quick sidebar on the AFL's most recent signee, former North Dakota forward Patrick Mitchell.
Midway through his three-week tryout with the Sydney Swans of the Australian Football League earlier this summer, former North Dakota basketball player Patrick Mitchell stumbled across a humbling scene.
A group of six-year-olds in a Sydney park were kicking an Australian football with far more precision than he could muster at that point.
"We're kicking it way over our partner's heads or way too short and we see these little kids running around kicking it perfectly to each other," Mitchell said. "It was a little bit demoralizing but it was also amazing to see."
That encounter illustrates the challenge ahead for Mitchell as he attempts to prove he can succeed at the highest level of a sport he only tried for the first time less than five months ago. The Swans signed him to a two-year, $180,000 contract last month, gambling they can give him a sufficient crash course on the basic skills required to play the sport so that he can take advantage of his elite athleticism and imposing 6-foot-8 frame.
Mitchell is the second American basketball player in the past 12 months to sign with a team in the Australian Football League, joining 6-foot-7 former DePaul and Seattle forward Eric Wallace of North Melbourne. Their presence is part of the AFL's recent push to recruit former college basketball players to help alleviate the shortage of homegrown players capable of playing the ruckman position, which is typically manned by someone ultra-athletic, strong and 6-foot-7 or taller.
"The U.S. will be one of the AFL's major recruiting markets going forward," AFL Academies Development Manager Michael Ablett said. "There are a number of transferable skills from basketball to Australian Rules Football: hand eye coordination, the ability to make quick decisions under pressure, having a 360-degree awareness of what’s happening around you, blocking out and then going for a rebound. Those are all facets which can be applied to our game."
Mitchell hardly even knew the AFL existed before a scout invited him to attend the league's inaugural U.S. combine in Los Angeles in August 2012. An opportunity to play pro basketball in Portugal kept Mitchell from accepting that offer, but that fell through, enabling Mitchell to attend the AFL's second U.S. combine in April and impress league officials with his coordination and work ethic.
That Mitchell was able to earn a tryout and a contract offer from the Swans was a very pleasant surprise for a kid who grew up dreaming of playing professional sports. Were it not for the AFL, Mitchell was ready to give up on pursuing basketball and apply to become a firefighter in his hometown of Des Moines.
Mitchell's friends and family were no more familiar with Australian football than he was before the past few months, but they're not surprised to see him excel so quickly in a new sport. They know Mitchell as a natural-born athlete who thrived as a pitcher, a wide receiver and a power forward in high school.
"I just feel like he was meant to be in sports in some form," older sister Angie Mitchell said. "Even as a child, he couldn't sit still. My mom would make dinner, he'd take a bite and then he'd get up, run around, shoot air hoops. Then he'd come back, take another bite and do the same thing. I think he has too much talent and too much energy to be sitting behind a desk at a 9-to-5 job. I think he'd go bananas."
It's not easy for Mitchell to practice before he leaves for Sydney since so few of his peers play Australian football, but he has begun practicing with a United States Australian Football League club in Des Moines two days a week. In the meantime, he works out to stay in shape and he goes to a gym by himself and practices his kicks by kicking the ball against the same spot on the wall as many times as he can.
When Wallace signed with North Melbourne last year, he spent his rookie season in the AFL's development league and has a good chance to receive a promotion to the senior division next year. Mitchell hopes to follow a similar path with the Swans.
"Transitioning to a new sport is going to be hard, but I'm excited about the opportunity and I'm looking forward to the challenge," Mitchell said. "I'm a very competitive person in general, so I knew I wanted to do something where I could compete every day. I could never imagine myself sitting at an office.
For at least two more years, he won't have to. And if Mitchell develops as quickly as the Swans believe he can, it could be far longer than that.