MELBOURNE, Australia — Jason Holmes will make a bit of American sporting history this weekend, when he becomes the first U.S. born-and-raised player to compete at the top level of Australian rules football.
The former Morehead State basketball player, and brother of Oakland Raiders wide receiver Andre Holmes, has made the squad for the St. Kilda team, which will play against Geelong on Sunday in the Australian Football League.
The 6-foot-8 Holmes has been with the Melbourne-based club since late 2013, and has had to rapidly learn the sport from scratch. He has been playing with the Saints' feeder team in the Victoria state league, and the club has now judged him ready to perform at the top level.
"It's one of the dreams they sell us when they try to get Americans over here," Holmes said. "I don't think it's sunk in yet and I understand it's a really big thing, but I'm just proud to be a cog in the machine that's going to help this sport grow internationally."
Holmes, of Chicago, was invited to try out at the annual AFL draft combine in the U.S. as one of several former college athletes — mostly basketball players — given the opportunity to try their luck in Aussie rules.
He took some convincing.
"I had no clue what it was," he said. "I think I'd seen it in Funny People and on ESPN2. But I hadn't realized what it was at the time.
"I literally got the call on April 1, so I thought it was a joke."
More emails arrived, he was convinced to give it a try, and the professional contract came soon after.
Other American former college basketball players have been selected from the annual combines: ex-Oklahoma State player Mason Cox is on the roster of the Collingwood club, and Eric Wallace at North Melbourne, but Holmes is the first to be selected for an appearance in the big league.
He is not the first American to do so. U.S. -born Sanford Wheeler played with Sydney in the 1990s, but had moved to Australia as a small child, whereas Holmes is the first U.S.-raised player who has undergone the tough transition of adapting to the sport as an adult.
Once a sport that sourced all its players domestically, Australian rules is trying to cultivate more players internationally, and is using the lure of ever-increasing salaries. Many Irish players, drawn from the relatively similar sport of Gaelic football, have thrived in Australia, while former Canada international rugby player Mike Pyke has become a premiership-winning player for Sydney.
Several Australians have been making an impact in U.S. sports recently: ex-rugby league star Jarryd Hayne has started his time at the San Francisco 49ers in impressive style, while the Cleveland Cavaliers' Matthew Dellavedova made plenty of headlines for his scrappy performances during the NBA Finals.
Holmes played against Dellavedova in college.
"He might remember. I led the team in scoring and rebounding in that game," Holmes said.