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Tuesday, June 25 2019 @ 05:26 am ACST

A Man with a Vision

North America

2007 marks the 10th anniversary of USFooty. Originally construed as the United States Australian Football Association it was later renamed the United States Australian Football League and given the appellation USFooty. This article looks at some of the people who have made footy in the US what it is today.

It is of course not possible to write an article about all the people that have contributed to the amazing growth and success that USFooty has had in its first ten years. There are the first five presidents of the League – Paul O’Keeffe, Rich Mann, Jon Lenicheck, Mark Wheeler and Rob Oliver. There are the first three office managers of the league – Sheri Archer, Andrea Ceaser and Julie Upton. There are the Revolution coaches such as Paul Roos, Gary Hill, Denis Ryan, Scott Nicholas, Alan Nugent, Tom Ellis and Trevor Lovitt. There are the club founders such as Jim Cooper, Jason Eustice, Mike Powers, Shane Chlosey, Sam Ingram, Peter Beare, and the late John Harrell. There are people like Greg Everett, of the Canadian AFL, who provided his experience and advice. There are the people at the AFL such as Ross Smith, Wayne Jackson, and Ed Biggs. The AFL legends such as Kevin Sheedy, Brian Dixon and Ron Barassi that have lent their considerable weight to the development of international footy. There are the great players such as Cameron Trickey (O’Brien), John Ironmonger, Chris Steigler, Rich Mann, Tom and Charlie Ellis, Matt Daniuski, and Dustin Jones. However, if you have to pick one person as being responsible for the success of USFooty it is Paul “Plugger” O’Keeffe (pictured below). O’Keeffe is officially the “founder” of USFooty and still the most influential person in US footy. It is O’Keeffe’s vision of a grass-roots amateur organization focused on getting Americans to participate in this great game that has directed USFooty on its phenomenal growth in its first ten years.

Born and raised in Broken Hill, NSW, Paul came to the US after marrying an American he met in Iceland. His US footy odyssey began when he was posted by Arthur Anderson Consulting to travel to Harley Davidson in Kansas City for an 18 month period in 1996. He had been following some of the developments in the Midwest and decided to contact a guy by the name of Justin Eustice to get a kick. Paul then got involved in organizing a game between Canada and the US in Toronto in 1996. Paul founded the USAFA toward the end of 1997 and decided to go to the AFL to get some funding for the fledging organization. Paul visited Australia and arranged a meeting with the AFL’s Wayne Jackson. The AFL offered to give the new organization around $5,000 and a stack of footballs for 1998.

According to O’Keeffe the most important moment in the development of USFooty came in late 1998 at the second US Nationals in Cincinnati. O’Keeffe wanted to step down from President in order to bring new people into the organization and he was looking for people to step up. He wrote in 2003 that Paul Whiting made the difference. “During the meeting it came time for the League’s round of formal elections. The group wanted me to continue as President, but I initially declined stating I would only continue with the support of all the clubs and a full board in place as I could no longer continue as a one-man band. Whitey was the first person to step up and nominate himself. After this act, the tone of the meeting changed and others stepped forward to form the first board. During 1999 Whitey supported my efforts behind the scenes and took a huge portion of the work load off my plate.”

From the very beginning O’Keeffe’s vision was for a grass-roots amateur organization. Others pushed for developing a professional or semi-professional league with centralized control and decision making. O’Keeffe has always seen USFooty as a facilitator. The organization is there to help clubs by providing them with information, training, ideas, communication and a national tournament. With AFL funding there was substantial pressure to have the money distributed to the clubs. O’Keeffe held the line and used the money to offer coaching and umpiring clinics, to fund the web-site and other published information. One of the major items that was funded in the early years was a retreat for club presidents. This yearly meeting allowed club officials to get together to learn from each other, advise the league and to get advice and suggestions from the league.

O’Keeffe’s vision was for local American participation. Today this is not much of an issue as most clubs are dominated by Americans. However, there was a big fight early on regarding the idea that teams participating in the USFooty National Tournament would not be allowed to have more than half the team on the field to be Australian. The obvious criticism was that this would reduce the skill level of the games and would hurt good teams just because they lacked Americans. The President of the 2006 USFooty National Champion San Diego Lions, Brendan McDonald, recently said, “I still don’t believe you can win a National Title without good Americans either and I think if you asked anyone that played for Denver in the past 4 or 5 years they would tell you the same thing.”

O’Keeffe’s vision can be summed up by James Earl Jones’ “build it and they will come.” Former Canadian AFL President, Greg Everett puts it as follows, “It’s a very basic vision, play footy, it doesn’t matter where when, it doesn’t matter the size of ground or the number of players - just play and do it with passion. At the end of the day, “Games will be played, results will be had, and Champions will be crowned”.” O’Keeffe encouraged Cincinnati to host the first and second USFooty National Tournaments. These tournaments crowned a National Champion no matter who actually decided to show up. USFooty held down fees below the cost of running the tournament but did not provide additional financing to get the best clubs in the US to Cincinnati. Similarly, the US national team, the Revolution, has always been made up of the best Americans that could find the money and the time to get to the games. USFooty did not provide funding for these teams with the exception of uniforms and maybe a tracksuit. While early on there may have been some question about the qualifications of the National Champion or some Revolution representatives, today there is no doubt that USFooty crowns the best team in the US and sends the best Americans currently playing footy to play for the Revos. USFooty built it and they have come.

We can even thank O’Keeffe for taking the term footy and making it USFooty’s own. In Australia the term is used for both Australian Football and Rugby and in England the term is sometimes used for soccer (all though often spelled footie). O’Keefe believed that Australian Football needed to be re-branded in the US. In the 80s ESPN had begun by filling its air-time with VFL (later AFL) games. While those games were naturally more violent and tougher than today’s brand of AFL football, ESPN and the AFL promoted the violent side of the game with guys like Jacko. O’Keeffe believed that if Australian Football was to be successful in the US it had to appeal to American moms. It had to appeal to the soccer moms. The re-branding from Aussie Rules or “No Rules” Football to footy has helped. Today many clubs use the “footy” label and include it in their web address – nyfooty, texasfooty, Houstonfooty, calfooty. Along with the label change, USFooty has worked to remove certain violent play from the American version of the game and encourage no-contact versions in juniors, women’s games and recreational football.

I recently asked Greg Everett about who he thought was most important in the success of USFooty. “The first name that comes to mind is Paul O’Keefe of course, without his motivation the USA might have been further behind Canada and the other International leagues, it took someone with passion to make the calls and inspire others who were like minded to finally step up and get things moving along. Before that I’m sure many people had said “wouldn’t it be great if there was footy in the USA”. Other than Paul O’Keeffe you must think of anyone that has said I want a footy team in my city I’m going to email some people, make some calls, put up a poster etc. In my mind they are all important because without them there is no footy anywhere. The good old volunteer is an amazing thing, giving up countless hours so that others may play the game we love.” I also asked Greg about his funniest rememberence in USFooty’s short history: “Sharing a room with Plugger in Washington DC one winter at a board retreat and watching him hook up his breathing apparatus so that he doesn’t stop breathing while sleeping. Mind you, with the bloody noise he makes, I felt like helping him stop breathing. The guy looked like Mr. Snuffleupagus from Sesame Street when he was finished getting it all hooked with hoses wire. Gods knows how he was able to turn over in the bed!”

For more on the history of USFooty get The Story of USfooty by John “Doc” Cheffers and Greg Narleski, available through the USFooty website, at their online store.

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