Starling’s startling move
Bethune-Cookman hoop star trying Australian Rules Football
Alex Starling won’t be the first person to transition from college basketball player to professional football player. Tight ends Tony Gonzalez, Antonio Gates and Jimmy Graham did it with tremendous success. Starlings move, though, will be vastly different.
Where Starling’s going, there are no tight ends, but there are half forwards and back pockets. Starling doesn’t care about playing in Cincinnati or Seattle of the NFL. His goal is to one day play for Sydney in the Australian Football League.
|WHAT IS AUSTRALIAN RULES FOOTBALL?|
Australian Rules Football (also "Aussie Rules" or "footy") is a physical contact sport. It is a form of football with roots traceable from early forms of Rugby and Gaelic football, but it is uniquely Australian. Its rules were codified in 1858, and probably predate all other modern forms of football, such as American, Canadian, Rugby Union and League, Association (Soccer) and Gaelic football. Today it is a multi-million dollar business, with a national competition and numerous smaller leagues. Interest in the game is generally at an all time high within Australia, yet despite this, some parts of Australia are still lukewarm in support of their team in the AFL, and the game has yet to take a firm hold overseas.
Starling, 22, signed with the Australian team as part of the AFL's International Scholarship Scheme, which will allow him to finish his degree at Bethune-Cookman and train with the Swans in preparation to play in Sydney as an International Rookie in 2013.
“It will give me a year basically for me to learn the game a lot letter,” Starling said, who has exhausted his basketball eligibility. “I’m getting it. When I went over there, it took me only about two or three days to get the grasp of it. And I've been watching a lot of it on YouTube, watching a lot of film and doing a lot of homework.”
That may sound all good in theory, but it begs the question: What makes you think you can go from American basketball to the far more rugged Australian Rules Football?
“Coach [Cliff] Reed’s practices,” said Starling, who was BC-U’s leading rebounder and third-leading scorer. They were hard and I am used to that. It’s not rugby. Rugby and Australian Rules football are different sports. ARF is more of a finesse sport where rugby is more strength. The rules are different. The playing field is different. More skills in ARF instead of outmuscling the other guy. Skills, endurance. Everything. But I have been through all that.”
Reed’s practices at B-CU were notoriously competitive and physical. They required that his players develop an unusual toughness. But usually Starling was the toughest guy in the gym. A 6-foot-5, 205-pound forward/center, Starling was all heart and desire. If there was a loose ball on the floor, Starling was going to go get it. If there was a defensive stop to be made, Starling was going to make it. If there was a charge to be taken, Starling was going to take it – even when it didn’t count.
“He had three concussions his senior year,” Reed said. “And he’d just come back from one of them and he stepped in and took a charge -- in practice. I told him we didn’t need that, but that’s just the kind of kid he is. He was the toughest guy out there. He’s going to be successful in whatever he decides to do.
“He was such a great athlete, he’d get knocked down under the basket on one end, and on the other end, when the ball is shot, he’d dunk it in. He averaged 10 points a game two consecutive years and I didn’t run maybe three or four plays for him in two years. He just hustled and worked hard.”
That’s what earned him a tryout for Sydney’s Swans. He was spotted on video and last June was flown to California the Swans' two-day mini draft assessment camp.
His work ethic and potential stood out during the tryouts, according to QBE Sydney Swans Academy Head Coach Paul Roos.
"We saw an amazing athlete with great speed, great hands and an incredible capacity to learn a new game," Roos said. "Of course, we understand Alex has a lot of work to do, but certainly he has the right attitude to attack this enormous challenge."
Starling has since made several trips to Sydney and is anticipating making another within the next two months. Traveling 9,374 miles -- a 14-hour flight -- could easily be a deterrent were Starling to think of it that way. He instead sees it as a unique chance.
“I was over there three weeks before and really got to work out developing my skills,” Starling said. “They said I developed my skills from day 1 to day 21 while I was there. I was able to pick up a lot, and they liked it, and were interested in me. Now I have a new job opportunity.
“Going there, you feel like you're up in the air for two days. But it's worth it. Sydney itself is a nice, quiet, relaxing beautiful city. A beautiful place. Beautiful people. Very quiet. Everyone keeps to themselves. Not loud and noisy like what I am used to back in Miami, or any other big city in the United States. It's very easy to adapt to -- for me at least. I look forward to going back.”