By Ian Ransom
MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Towering American ruckman Mason Cox has played a starring role in the Collingwood Magpies' unlikely charge to the Australian Football League Grand Final, and the Texan trailblazer will loom large in Saturday's title-decider against West Coast Eagles.
A college basketballer at Oklahoma State University who never threatened to break into the NBA, 27-year-old Cox will instead become the first American to play in the AFL's championship match in front of a packed crowd of 100,000 at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG).
While virtually unheard of outside the country, Australian Rules football is hugely popular in the nation's southern states, and top flight matches regularly draw massive crowds to watch the fast-paced and often bruising game.
The Grand Final is Australia's Super Bowl, bringing whole cities to a virtual standstill as millions crowd around TVs at pubs and backyard barbecues to watch the broadcast.
At 6ft-11in (2.11m), Cox will be hard to miss in the showpiece match but he has long had to deal with a higher level of scrutiny since being plucked out of an AFL draft combine in Los Angeles by scouts in 2014.
Raised fittingly in Highland Village on the northern fringe of Dallas's suburban sprawl, Cox became the tallest recorded AFL player when he made his 2016 debut for Melbourne-based Collingwood against crosstown rivals Essendon.
The Texan has generated plenty of skepticism from respected pundits during his three seasons of AFL but he delivered a stunning riposte to doubters during the Magpies' upset of the reigning champions Richmond in Melbourne on Friday.
Playing deep in attack, Cox out-pointed a string of defenders to kick three straight goals in the second quarter to tear the game open.
The blitz triggered chants of "USA! USA!" from black-and-white-clad Collingwood fans in the MCG terraces and it left a shell-shocked Richmond with an unbridgeable deficit.
The AFL is littered with tales of seasoned footballers who have frozen on Grand Final day but Cox said he would take it all in his stride.
"It is just another game. I had a good game on the weekend," he told reporters this week.
"I don't really stress about it too much... You go into every game trying to play your best and that's what I'll try and do this week."
Cox's upcoming Grand Final appearance has echoes of the career of Canadian ruckman Mike Pyke, the only other North American to feature in the championship match.
Pyke was a former rugby international for Canada before he made the switch to Australian Rules and went on to enjoy a 110-game career with the Sydney Swans, including a championship medal in 2012.
Cox's lack of background in the sport might prove helpful on Grand Final day, when the pressure could get to players who have held boyhood dreams of playing in one, said the Canadian.
"The one thing that falls in his favour is that this isn't a Super Bowl. It's not an NBA Finals," Pyke told local media.
"It's not a sport that he grew up thinking 'oh my god, I hope one day I'll get there'.
"It's helpful to be a foreigner in that case."
The Cox mania that has enveloped the AFL community has even made his parents minor celebrities, with fans taking selfies with them at Collingwood's training session this week.
For all of the buzz Down Under, Cox has found it hard to explain the game to compatriots back home, with its distinct lexicon featuring "speccies" (spectacular aerial catches), "snaps" (angled kicks at goal) and "don't argues" (stiff-arms).
"Most of my friends don't know what footy is, so to stay level-headed is probably a little easier than it is for others," Cox said.
(Editing by John O'Brien)