Life is unpredictable. Just ask Mason Cox.
A former youth soccer player in Texas and basketball walk-on at Oklahoma State, the 25-year-old has reached the highest level of a third sport: Australian-rules football. Cox was called up to the senior team of the Australian Football League last week and will make his debut late Sunday in the U.S./early Monday in Australia for the Collingwood Magpies.
“I never really dreamed of being a professional athlete,” Cox said during a phone interview. “Looking back, I guess it’s more humbling than anything.
“I was just playing basketball for the heck of it. I played soccer because I thought it was cool. I was never really pursuing that (long term). It all kind of came to fruition when I got out here and everything played a role in the roller coaster.”
With a 6-foot-11 frame that makes him the tallest player in AFL history and a combination of skills obtained through soccer and basketball, Cox edged guys who have played the sport for years. He flourished in the developmental league, recording 87 hit-outs and two goals this season.
Describing his role as a ruckman (he also plays forward), Cox said: “It’s kind of like I did in college — rebound the ball and give it to someone else.”
While becoming the second born-and-bred American in the AFL, Cox is set to play on a significant holiday that is Australia’s version of Memorial Day, the annual Anzac Day match against Essendon. Last year, 88,000 fans attended.
For the match, which airs in Tulsa on FS2-1313 at midnight Sunday, Cox’s parents and oldest brother booked 17-hour flights to Melbourne on short notice.
“It’s going to be amazing to have my mom and dad there and my brother (Nolan), who’s been through the whole process with me from start to finish,” Cox said. “I wish my other brother (Austin) could be there, but he has to work.”
Phil and Jay Cox traveled to every home and road game during their youngest son’s three seasons on the OSU team, even though he rarely played. His path to college basketball was almost as unlikely as his path to Australian football.
After never playing organized basketball, Cox took the sport up as a hobby when he grew 6 inches before his senior year of high school. He was spotted on OSU’s campus and asked to become a scout for the women’s team to simulate Baylor center Brittney Griner, leading to him walking on to the men’s team.
In his last year, the emergence of Cox from bench-warmer to contributor was a highlight of a disappointing season that concluded with a first-round loss to Gonzaga in the 2014 NCAA Tournament. But that game wasn’t the end of his sports-playing days.
Jonathan Givony, who evaluates potential NBA players for DraftExpress.com, was watching on TV to scout OSU’s Marcus Smart, Markel Brown and Le’Bryan Nash in addition to a pair of prospects from Gonzaga. When Cox entered the game, Givony was intrigued.
“I had never seen him play,” Givony said. “He goes to the free-throw line and they started talking about his background, how he grew up playing soccer. I was like, that’s exactly what we’re looking for.”
Givony also helps funnel U.S. athletes to Australian football. The previous year, his combine produced Jason Holmes, a former college basketball player who last season became the first American in the AFL. After Givony reached him through OSU, Cox blew everyone away in a combine.
That led to Cox visiting teams in Australia with Nolan, who also walked on at OSU, acting as his agent and overseeing negotiations. The result was a three-year contract with Collingwood, considered the New York Yankees of the AFL because of its resources and talent.
Cox, who earned a mechanical engineering degree, had to back out of a job he already had accepted with ExxonMobil in Houston. The gamble paid off, but Cox also put the work in while dedicating himself to his new career.
“It doesn’t shock me at all, knowing him,” said his former OSU coach, Travis Ford. “He has great determination for whatever it is. ... I always thought whatever he decided to put his mind to, he was going to be good at it.”
Cox, who lost his Texas accent in favor of an Australian one, has been nicknamed “American Pie” and is again a fan favorite because of his big personality. Wherever this road takes him, he says he’s going to enjoy it.
“It’s been about as unbelievable as the rest of his athletic career, going from not playing in high school to playing at OSU,” Nolan Cox said of his brother. “Now all of a sudden, he’s in Australia playing what happens to be the biggest sport in the country and excelling at that. He probably has the coolest story of anybody I’ve ever met. It’s been quite a ride.”