In the 2018 AFL Grand Final, Mason Cox did the unthinkable. He satisfied both his fans and his detractors in the same game.
In the first half of the game, Mason Cox gave his doubters and naysayers plenty of ammunition. He had one touch of the football to his name as Collingwood walked to the change rooms. He was a non-factor, a passenger, and a deer in the headlights under the harshest glare possible. There is simply nowhere to hide under the brightest lights of the AFL Grand Final. Trudging off the field in front of over 100,000 in attendance and millions watching on television, Cox must have felt like shrinking that enormous frame so as not to stand out.
His opponent, Tom Barrass, had history on his side. In their previous encounter, in the Qualifying Final, Cox appeared as though football was still a foreign concept to him. He dropped marks, looked utterly out of place, and was generally a non-contributor to a team that was having a red hot crack at the home town Eagles. Cox finished with just five disposals and added two marks. There was also the issue of the big fat goose egg in the goals column.
In a season where his form has been highly scrutinized at times, the big American failed miserably in his debut finals appearance, and the knives came out. There was no room for forgiveness in the AFL finals series. You have to earn the respect of your opponents, and there was only one way to do it. He had to respond.
And Mason Cox did respond. He rebounded in a manner nobody could’ve imagined, completely decimating the highly decorated general of the Richmond defence, Alex Rance and his lieutenants in the Preliminary Final. In the process, he took the second highest amount of contested marks (8) in a final since records have been kept (Chad Cornes in 2002 has nine to his name). It was a career-defining performance, and shot Cox to the forefront of, not just the AFL landscape, but the sporting landscape in general.
Cox’s name was splashed across American websites as a “local boy come good” kind of story. He was used as an example of how college sports aren’t just a vehicle for superstars to jump to the pros in after spending a cursory year masquerading as a student, but as a story of redemption and how this back-up front court basketballer packed up and headed to Australia to become “best athlete in Australia.”
Whilst The Ringer may have gone a tad early on the title of best athlete, considering his AFL rank at season’s end saw him slot in at number 240, the fact that Cox was getting recognition overseas was impressive. They wrote about the time he had to guard NBA superstar, Joel Embiid for a few minutes and how he held his own. They spoke about how, as a walk-on player, he had no right to play, but came with the attitude that he was going to get game time. Sports Illustrated covered his rise in the AFL world as well
And it wasn’t just online sources that wanted his story. The New York Times was reportedly placing calls to Collingwood, wanting in on this feel good tale. The Washington Times followed suit. Mason Cox had become media gold.
But they based all that attention on one game, and when you do that, you set people up for a fall, especially when they’ve just played the game of their life.
In the first half of the 2018 Grand Final, Mason Cox fell.
He fell hard.
As he walked off the ground at half time, the doubts must’ve been gnawing at him. No matter how confident you are in your own abilities, having someone play all over the top of you the way Tom Barrass had for the last six quarters as his direct opponent must have been on his mind.
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AFL clubs are these days atmospheres that promote positive reinforcement, and lucky for Cox. Can you imagine the words Ron Barrassi may have had with Cox at half time? Or perhaps David Parkin or West Coast’s favourite pre-seaso predictor, Robert Walls? It would not have been pretty, but in the modern AFL, a verbal serve does not necessarily go over well, and Nathan Buckley’s words of wisdom and support were all the big Texan seemed to require
He emerged to start the third quarter a different player. It was as though Cox walked into the dressing rooms as Clark Kent, and emerged as Superman.
Mirroring the efforts of Jack Darling at the other end, Cox started imposing his will on the contest. He took three strong, contested grabs amongst his seven marks, and kicked a couple of goals. As a matter of fact, there was a stage in the game where I exchanged looks with other people in the room that said as much as “this guy might carry the Pies to the win.”
It was as big a turnaround in a game by a single player I have seen in a while. Where Barrass made spoils in the first half, Cox now took one-grab marks. Where Barrass timed his leaps perfectly, he was now a foot too short to make an impact as Cox used his height, leap and run at the ball to get distance between him and his opponent.
What’s the old saying about smaller blokes getting tired, but bigger blokes not getting any smaller? In the second half, the spectre of Mason Cox grew, and he started casting a large shadow over the game, and the chances of the West Coast Eagles. His first goal early in the third quarter gave the Pies a 12 point buffer, and his second goal in the last quarter, gave the Pies that same margin again.
He started taking towering marks, he started tackling and bustling, throwing his 6’11” frame around the way he should’ve right from the outset. He regained the swagger that was so evident against the Tigers. He became a genuine threat.
But it wasn’t enough.
When the time came for Cox to take his final shot at goal – a 45 metre shot from an angle just worse than 45 degrees, he hung it out to the right. It led to a mad scramble for the ball that saw flying shots by both Jordan de Goey and Taylor Adams miss completely as well. There was no score when a goal would’ve almost put the result beyond doubt. It was a crucial miss from Cox, but given his kicking from that distance all year, not at all unexpected. Even when he was doing things so right, his critics still managed to gather ammunition.
Collingwood’s 2018 will be remembered for many things, a Grand Final loss chief amongst them. It will be remembered for the adversity they fought through; the injuries and the tragic loss of Travis Varcoe’s sister. It will be remembered as the year the Pies made the leap from 13th position to come within a kick of the ultimate prize. It will be remembered for a contentious non-call to Brayden Maynard as he attempted to impact Dom Sheed’s marking contest. It will be remembered as the year Jordan de Goey took the next step to knock on the door of AFL stardom.
But it will also be remembered for the emergence of Mason Cox. He will always have the odd game where he doesn’t shine. At his height, there will be days where the ball doesn’t bounce his way, and he fails when trying to collect it below his knees. But there will be days where it does grab it, and when those days happen by, and Cox becomes more and more familiar with the nuances of this great game, those who look for faults in his game may start to get just a little quieter.
Mason Cox may have had the first half from hell in the 2018 AFL Grand Final, but his second half was one kick away from footballing heaven. If there is one thing we’ve learned from watching Cox in 2018 – he will be better for the experience.
2018 may have seen his emergence as a force in the AFL, but it will be what 2019 brings that defines Mason Cox as an AFL player, and perhaps a genuine star of the game worth writing (at) home about.
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