LAS VEGAS — Aussie Rules pulled Ron Flatter into its funky footy-web when he was 23, living in northern California and watching the 1982 Grand Final from the Melbourne Cricket Ground on ESPN.
The constant action between Richmond and the Carlton Blues, whose midfield was anchored by legendary defender Bruce “The Flying Doormat” Doull, and 107,536 fans floored Flatter.
He’d adopt the victor, Carlton.
When the Blues took the lead in the third quarter, American stripper Helen d’Amico streaked at Doull (rhymes with cool) wearing only a Carlton scarf.
For once, the painfully shy man, nicknamed for how the long remaining hair on his noggin flopped as he ran, was defenseless.
“I was 17, and stupid,” d’Amico said when a scribe found her doing social work in the Western Australia outback in 2008. But, she added, “They’ll never top me.”
A notorious Grand Final episode, which Flatter recalled 20 years later when he took his seat inside the MCG, the largest stadium in the Southern hemisphere, to experience his first match in person.
In that 2002 Grand Final, Brisbane beat Collingwood 75-66.
“This enormous ground,” he says of the 190-by-162-yard oval. “You can’t see the other side. Incredible. And to this day, Richmond will tell you it would have won that ’82 match had Helen d’Amico not run out on the ground.”
Improv at the oval
A former colleague, longtime pal and ultra-versatile journo, Flatter’s radio skills led him to work in Melbourne from 2004 to ’07.
I visited Oz in 1999 to cover a San Diego-Seattle exhibition, the first NFL game staged Down Under. Watching the Sydney City Roosters play a National Rugby League match the previous night would forever bore me with the NFL.
Flatter likens the NRL to a finely tuned string quartet, the Australian Football League — or footy — to jazz, à la John Coltrane and Miles Davis.
“They’re making that thing up. It’s improvisation, read and react, constant read and react.”
He has attended 162 AFL games.
“Collingwood people hate Carlton people,” Flatter says from Louisville, Kentucky, where he edits Horse Racing Nation, “both hate Richmond, and they all hate Essendon. Never changes.”
Of 18 teams, 10 reside in or near Melbourne. Eighteen players per side, four 20-minute quarters. Twenty-two matches over 23 rounds, or weekends, starting in March, capped by the Grand Final in September.
“Such a unique part of that culture,” says Flatter, 63. “The rhythm, that vibe, of the week of a game is fantastic. Everyone has a punt on horses and footy. Can you get all nine in the office pool or on the Tattersall’s ticket?”
Called Tatts today, markets and shops supply such tickets. Pick all nine winners, straight up, and claim prize money.
Aussie Rules has hooked many Americans since its umps wore white hats and long white lab coats. Today, says Flatter, they wear the color-matched caps and jackets of that week’s sponsor.
South Point sportsbook director Chris Andrews and daughter Jacque became fans. She studied in Perth in 2006 and wowed a Murdoch University advisor by inquiring how Carlton ace Anthony Koutoufides was faring.
A U.S. league began in 1997. Fifty men’s and 21 women’s squads are registered on its website, and the Chicago Swans have men’s and women’s teams.
During the pandemic, Fox Sports televised matches. It hooked me during strategy chats with Flatter, then working in Vegas.
I polished tactics, punting on select AFL matches last season with a profit goal of 10 units. Over Rounds 17, 18 and 21, I went 16-3, and quit. Certain pro bettors have drilled me well about diminishing returns. I’m 12-3 this season, in which the defending-champion Melbourne Demons (7-0) have dominated.
Flatter’s long history of fandom
He knew of the infamous Bloodbath Grand Final, at Princes Park, in 1945. He once attended six matches in a weekend. He adored Geelong’s quaint Wrigley Field-like Kardinia Park.
He flew to Perth, 2,100 miles west, to see the Adelaide Crows and Wayne Carey, another legend, play the West Coast Eagles.
Days later, a neck injury forced Carey to retire. Like watching Ted Williams or Gale Sayers play for the last time, he says.
Flatter went to Darwin, to the Marrara Oval in the Northern Territory, to survey the outpost and see his Blues play the Western Bulldogs.
Carlton president Jack Elliott, a onetime prime-minister candidate, lived big but ran afoul of salary-cap rules. After emceeing an Elliott event inside a gentleman’s club, Flatter sat next to Elliott, who slipped $50s to the dancers.
“Aussies love people who live a big life, except he lived it too big. We’re getting bombed . . . and I kind of see how this guy maybe wouldn’t have made a great prime minister.”
At a Sydney-St. Kilda playoff match at MCG, Flatter found himself beside former Carlton player-coach Ron Barassi. An overhang sheltered them from a downpour.
After three quarters, Flatter pressed Barassi with possible reasons why the losing side was playing so poorly.
“Eh,” said an exasperated Barassi, “it’s raining too much!”
“You [bleepin’] Yanks,” said Flatter’s Aussie seatmate and pal Andy Klauss, “trying to overanalyze everything.”