3 Aussie pro athletes making mark in the desert

Aug 23 2009 - 9:20pm

Images

(The Associated Press) Phoenix Mercury's Penny Taylor (13), of Australia, during a WNBA basketball playoff game in Aug. 2007.
(The Associated Press) Phoenix Mercury's Penny Taylor (13), of Australia, during a WNBA basketball playoff game in Aug. 2007.

 

PHOENIX -- Aussie! Aussie! Aussie!

Three Australian pro athletes are making a mark in Arizona.

In February, former Australian Rules Football star Ben Graham became the first Australian to play in the Super Bowl, punting for the Arizona Cardinals. The Cardinals like Graham so much they didn't even bring another punter to training camp to compete for the job.

Penny Taylor, one of her homeland's top female basketball players, has returned from ankle surgery to bolster the Phoenix Mercury on their march toward the WNBA playoffs. Two years ago, Taylor starred as the Mercury won their first WNBA title.

And then rookie outfielder Trent Oeltjen made a splash with baseball's Arizona Diamondbacks. Oeltjen, aka the Thunder from Down Under, hit a home run in his first major league game on Aug. 6 -- and three in his first four games.

"We've all done well and it's great that we're all here in Arizona," Oeltjen said before a recent game at Chase Field.

Taylor brightened when told about Oeltjen's smashing debut.

"Good on him," Taylor said. "You want to make your country proud."

The three Aussies have traveled different roads to the desert, but they have at least one thing in common, apart from their passports.

All three persevered through adversity. Oeltjen endured nine years in the minors, Graham was cut three times last season and Taylor bounced back from ankle surgery in May.

"I don't know if it's the Australian way or what it is, but if you get a chance, you want to give it your everything," Oeltjen said. "If you go home, you can just say I gave it everything, and no hard feelings. But we stuck it out and now we've got the opportunity."

As a boy in a country that loves cricket, rugby and rules football, Oeltjen learned the American pastime from his U.S.-born father, John.

Oeltjen signed with the Minnesota Twins in 2001 but never earned a shot at the majors despite a .292 career batting average.

The Sydney native's break came this month, when Arizona All-Star Justin Upton strained his right oblique muscle. The Diamondbacks promoted the 26-year-old Oeltjen, who had been playing at Triple-A Reno.

"Certainly he's had to have a couple of things go his way to get the opportunity here, but he was the right guy at the right time," Arizona manager A.J. Hinch said. "It's a good story."

Oeltjen had a memorable debut, hitting a tying homer in the eighth inning of an 11-6 victory at Pittsburgh on Aug. 6.

Graham doesn't follow baseball, but he happened to be watching that game in his room at the Cardinals' training camp at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. The next day, Graham asked a reporter if he knew how to reach Oeltjen, and Graham said he hopes to catch up with Oeltjen at Chase Field later this season.

Oeltjen homered in three of his first four games, and each long ball created a stir back home.

"Some of my friends are like, 'Hey, can you please take a night off being on the news?"' Oeltjen said with a chuckle.

Like Oeltjen, Graham didn't know when to call it quits, and his persistence paid off last season.

After retiring from Australian Rules Football, Graham joined the New York Jets in 2005. But his NFL career appeared in jeopardy last year, when he was cut three times -- twice by the Jets, once by New Orleans.

The Cardinals, desperate for punting help, signed Graham in December. Two months later, Graham became the first Aussie to play in the Super Bowl, making headlines in his homeland, where football players don't wear helmets and facemasks.

"That was massive back home," Oeltjen said. "Everyone was jumping on board with him, and it was fun to watch."

The 35-year-old Graham re-signed with the Cardinals for the upcoming season. Punting can be a transient job in the NFL, but Graham hopes for a long stay in Arizona.

"Phoenix has been great to me and my family," said Graham, a native of Geelong, Australia.

Asked what Aussie athletes have in common, Graham winked and replied, "We enjoy a beer."

That goes without saying. Anything else?

"I guess we're all intense athletes when we have to be, but we also enjoy life, and the beauty about moving overseas is experiencing the different cultures and fitting in," he said.

Taylor feels the same way. She's overseas for much of the year, playing in Russia in the winter and the WNBA in the summer,

But there's a downside to life abroad. Taylor has few chances to see her two nieces and a nephew back in Australia.

"It's a struggle to be away from them," Taylor said. "I'm sure it's the same for the guys, but probably with the paychecks from their leagues, it might be a bit easier to have the family come over."

After helping lead the Mercury to the 2007 WNBA title, Taylor took last season off to prepare for the Beijing Olympics, where the Australian women lost the championship game to the U.S.

Taylor hurt her ankle in the quarterfinals against the Czech Republic, and the 28-year-old's WNBA future seemed to be in doubt after she underwent surgery on May 4.

But Taylor, known for her hard-nosed playing style, has returned ahead of schedule, and that's good news for the Western Conference leaders. Taylor came off the bench to score 18 points in 19 minutes in her second game, a 101-90 overtime victory at Seattle on Aug. 4.

This is Taylor's fifth season with the Mercury, and like Graham and Oeltjen, she has no plans to leave Arizona. Taylor even professes to enjoy the brutal desert summers, which remind her of her native Melbourne.

"I wouldn't want to play anywhere else," Taylor said.

 

From Around the Web

  +