Mason Cox has a history of getting lured into sports he did not actually play. Organized basketball found him first. At Marcus High School in Texas, he stuck to solely to soccer, a decision that looked slightly stranger after he grew six inches between his junior and senior years and found himself a 6-foot-10 goalie. At Oklahoma State and still nearly seven feet tall, Cox caved and gave hoops a try. One day someone affiliated with the women’s team spotted him at the rec center. Cox slid onto the scout team and gave the women a simulacrum of shot-blocking Brittney Griner, now a WNBA star who still swats weak shit out of the sky 2.5 times a game. That was Cox’s first step.
Then, Oklahoma State men’s basketball found him. When injuries and defections depleted the men’s roster, Cox got the call. He suited up for practice two hours after. As a walk-on for Oklahoma’s men’s team for two seasons, Cox logged 56 minutes, finishing with seven points, 25 rebounds, and 12 fouls in that time. He made two of the three field goals he attempted. He had five blocks. He appeared in their 2014 first-round NCAA Tournament loss to Gonzaga. That was the end of basketball for Cox, and the beginning of his life as a professional athlete.
Then, Australian rules football found him. Even more serendipity struck: NBA draftnik Jonathan Givony spotted Cox by accident while scouting other players, heard the commentators discuss his strange origin story, and figured he might have a use for him. Givony also funnels talent to the Australian Football League. Cox had already lined up a gig as engineer for Exxon Mobil in Houston. Instead, in April, the seven-footer went on to perform well at an AFL combine in Los Angeles, flew down under a month later with his brother acting as agent, and got himself paid by Collingwood, a cash-flush front-runner in the AFL. After playing for their reserve team for the 2015 season, he made his official debut in 2016 and is under contract until 2020. What does this enormous man do for the Magpies? He’s a ruckman, of course. What is a ruckman? “It’s kind of like I did in college — rebound the ball and give it to someone else,” he translated, for the untrained American ear.
Go up and get it. Once you watch it, you’ll get it. Cox runs, times leaps that leave him breathing thinner air than anyone else on the field, then escorts the ball down to earth while normally jacked and competent athletes paw helplessly at him from all sides. It’s like watching Chewbacca play a game of 500 with a clique of Ewoks who have not yet learned to cooperate. Even coming into the sport with fresh eyes, it’s an absurd spectacle.
Last Saturday, in a preliminary final against defending champion Richmond, the 27-year-old played the sharpest match of his short AFL career, leading his side to a 97-58 victory while he took eight contested marks and booted three goals. “Cox is the biggest man there,” hollered the announcer early on. When he does this, he’s reiterating a bare physical fact, but he’s also aptly describing each of the highlights:
Cox was too big. This performance, in his 43rd AFL appearance, marked his arrival. He was the tallest player ever measured at an AFL combine, and he will now be the first American to play in a grand final. Though Cox, nicknamed “American Pie,” plays a kind of cheeky befuddled outsider persona online—
—on the ground, he earned chants of “U-S-A, U-S-A” in a stadium packed with some 95,000 rabid Aussies. Whether he can relay this recent success to Australia’s Super Bowl next weekend is another question. Skeptics like AFL star Nathan Burke don’t expect much; Cox’s success had to do with the “arrogant” way Richmond chose to defend him, letting him run around unhindered, failing to faze him with body contact. “I think it’ll be a pretty dirty day for big Mason — he’s going to go from chocolates to boiled lollies pretty quickly,” Burke said of this Saturday’s grand final against the West Coast Eagles. Cox still seems confident; who can blame him?