The NCAA loves to tell you how most scholar-athletes “go pro in something else”.
For former North Dakota forward Patrick Mitchell, that meant that he went to work for a casino in his native Iowa after a short stint playing basketball in Portugal. His professional sports aspirations seemed to be in the rear-view mirror, until he received an unexpected phone call from a representative of the Australian Football League.
“He invited me to a USA AFL combine in L.A.,” Mitchell told NBCSports by phone. “There were about 50 guys. From there, three people got invited to Sydney, and I was one of the three. I ended up being signed by the Sydney Swans.”
As it turned out, Mitchell is the beneficiary of a controversial personnel decision known down under as The Canadian Experiment. The Swans took a flyer on Canadian rugby player Mike Pyke in 2009, and the transplant went from presumptive bust to one of the best players in the Aussie game.
Vindicated by Pyke’s success, the Swans went prospecting again. They logged into the popular basketball stats service Synergy and began homing in on players who had the requisite skills, no matter where they called home.
“They punched in rebounds and blocks per minute. They were looking for taller guys who could jump and had good timing,” the 6’8″, 220-lb. Mitchell said. “They recruited me to play a special position in the AFL called Ruckman, where the job is to jump up and catch the ball when it’s in the air.”
Unlike in U.S. football – a game Mitchell played in high school – the AFL ball becomes airborne when kicked. Players running with the ball are required to bounce it, however, and the most spectacular catches can be made with the assistance of a grounded teammate.
“There’s a catch called a ‘necker’ where you jump up on a teammate’s shoulders to go after the ball,” Mitchell said. He learned all the AFL slang – including selling the candy, coathangers, magoos and daisycutters – during a special July boot camp in Sydney. Paul Roos, the Swans mentor who initiated the Canadian Experiment, put Mitchell through his paces before signing him to a two-year contract.
Mitchell acknowledged that learning the new game will be difficult. He’ll move to Sydney in October and get to work preparing for the constant, grueling motion of the game, and, of course, the brutal, bone-crunching tackles. Should the ‘basketballer experiment’ pay off, Mitchell could point the way to greater opportunities overseas for other U.S. big men.
All he has to learn is how not to shank the prune, and it should all play out just fine.