Walk down Boylston Street with John Newton and you’ll quickly realize his name is synonymous with Australian rules football on campus these days. Returning from class on Tuesday night, he failed to walk a block without being asked about his latest performances.
Newton has played the sport for a little over a year—he recalls the exact date he joined the local Boston Demons club: Aug. 28, 2015. Now, he’s returned from his first meaningful trip: A flight to Florida for the Division II nationals of the United States Australian Football League, where he hoped Tom Ellis, the head coach of the United States men’s national team, would notice his passionate play.
“I don’t even know if he knows my alias,” Newton, a sophomore journalism major, said. “They call me ‘Stretch,’ my nickname. Every footy player has a nickname. I need him to know who I am. I need him to know me for the right reasons. Tom Ellis needs to know my name.”
Discovering the Sport
88.9 WERS, Emerson’s campus radio station, bills itself as a home for music discovery. In Newton’s case, Fox Soccer Plus was the home of sporting discovery. During his freshman year of high school, Newton said he was watching as Fox broadcast an advertisement for an upcoming Australian rules football contest. He tuned in.
“That was the first time I honestly said, ‘I could do that,’” Newton said.
Newton, a North Carolina native, said his love of the game blossomed after he dislocated his elbow while practicing for his high school soccer season. He used his time on the mend to travel to Raleigh with his mother to see an AFL game featuring the North Carolina Tigers and the Philadelphia Hawks.
And, in another twist of fate, Newton said his visit to Emerson’s accepted students day happened to coincide with a training session for the Demons on Boston Common. Newton observed. He liked what he saw.
As its name implies, the AFL is a product of the Australian continent. The game is played on a cricket ground, home to a sport which most Bostonians would probably only know if their game collection happens to include Big Beach Sports for the Wii.
Newton’s teammate and classmate Olin Hayes, a wing for the Demons, said the cricket ground is two to three times larger than the classic 100-yard NFL field. Hayes described the AFL as a scene of organized chaos.
“Positions are a suggestion, more or less,” Hayes, a sophomore journalism major, said. “There’s 18 people in sort of a free-for-all.”
To score, participants must kick the footy (the football used for play) between goal posts located on both sides of the field. There are four posts, and a shot splitting the middle two earns six points (a goal). Shots that are fired off-center but still maneuver between an outside and middle post earn one point (a behind).
The massive size of the field leaves plenty of room to run. As a former basketball, soccer, track and field, and cross-country athlete, Newton is given a chance to put his skill set to use in Australian rules football. There are jump balls (known as ball ups) handled by the ruckman, a position the 6-foot-8 Newton sometimes plays.
“The basketball court, for someone with a Forrest Gump mentality like me, is too small,” Newton said. “I need the room to run. That’s my biggest asset. That’s how I make things happen on the field.”
Newton said art is an apt metaphor to describe his mentality, with the cricket ground serving as his canvas.
“I feel like an artist sometimes, and every play where I have the opportunity to make something happen, you either make a masterpiece or you make a mess,” Newton said. “I love every blade of grass out there because I try to use as much of it as I can. I see that green grass and I see a green light.”
The Nationals in Florida
Newton was the only one of four Emerson AFL players to make the trip to Sarasota, Florida for the USAFL Nationals, held Oct. 14–15. His Demons faced off against the Chicago Swans, Minnesota Freeze, and Calgary Kangaroos.
With a 1-2 record, Boston did not qualify for the grand final or championship. Boston lost its tournament opener to Chicago by just one behind. Newton said the team’s failure to reach the final was tough to swallow, because he felt physically up to the task.
“I had games left in me. I was still making plays at the very end,” Newton said. “Had we made a grand final, I might have starred because I have that stamina.”
The primary goal of Newton’s trip, he said, was to help his club win a championship for the first time since 1999. But his secondary goal, to be noticed by Ellis and considered for the national stage, is one that gave him butterflies in the days leading up to his flight to The Sunshine State.
“My biggest goal is to represent my country,” Newton said. “There’s a chance [in] this tournament to do it, and that’s why I [felt] a lot of pressure going into this tournament.”
Newton said the top 30 Americans at the Florida tournament are generally selected to go to the International Cup in Australia wearing the red, white, and blue.
Because the Demons did not qualify for the grand final, Newton said he does not believe Ellis had the opportunity to scout him this year. He hopes to return to the nationals in San Diego next fall, and said a potential college exhibition game would provide another chance to get his name on Ellis’ radar.
After a grueling weekend of tournament play, Newton arrived back in Boston after 1 a.m. Monday. One condition of his weekend getaway, set by his father: Newton could go, but couldn’t miss class.
Growing the Game
With his 8 a.m. Beat Reporting session Monday, Newton was back on campus—transitioning from aspiring AFL star to broadcast journalist-in-training. In Boston, he hopes to spend the Demons’ offseason bringing Australian rules football to area students.
“It’s kind of frustrating being in one of, if not the best, college town[s] in the country, and not being able to develop guys who could make the national team one day,” Newton said. “I don’t know who’s out there. I don’t know who’s at Northeastern right now playing video games that could be one of the best undiscovered athletic talents at a school.”
Newton said his plan could lead down multiple paths. If there was enough interest, he said, an Emerson club team would be a possibility, but at the moment, only Newton, Hayes, and Demons teammates Peter Lovejoy and Albert Rano have played Australian rules football locally.
Another option that Newton indicated might be more feasible is organizing pickup games on Boston Common, which could bring together students from a variety of nearby colleges.
Such a quest will be part of Newton’s campaign to popularize the sport in the city, one Hayes said he is deeply devoted to.
“John just preaches this sport. He lives this sport,” Hayes said. “He talks with an Australian accent sometimes. I’m not even sure if he’s aware of it by now.”