A great mate of mine, Colin Scotts, whom I’ve known for 30 odd years, was a pioneer in Australian sport. He was the first Australian to play professional NFL in the United States, an incredible feat for someone who had never played the game. He started out in schoolboy Rugby Union and finished up in the big time in the USA. I remember him coming home for Christmas in about 1982; we caught up at a barbie with mates. He was 22 stone and not an ounce of fat, 6 foot 6 inches and a good bloke. Here’s a bit of his story.
Scotty: Your sporting life kicked off at Scots College with rugby union culminating with Australian Schoolboys in 1981?
Colin: I was bred to be a Wallaby like my uncle Stuart Scotts. I started playing rugby at age five at Castle Cove Public and then I was privileged enough to attend Scots College in Sydney for eight wonderful years. I won the honour cap for sport (unfortunately not for brains) and it’s proudly now in the Scots College Hall of Fame. I then went on to be selected in the Australian Schoolboys side in 1981. We toured the world undefeated, scored 50 tries and one against and that one really pissed me off. Twelve of my teammates went on to play with the Wallabies, more than any side in history. I would have loved to have played beside them, but no regrets! The pride the passion and the honour of wearing the Australian badge, the mateship, the focus, the intimidation, the girls! It was an amateur time when we were billeted by families – what great memories of the Irish, the Welsh, English, Scots and Americans that took us into their homes to absorb and share their amazing cultures. I was young, I was free, I was confident and I was dominating but always humble. The mateship lasts with me today with people like Tim Kava, David Knox, Brett Papworth and the legendary Burke brothers – it was truly one of the greatest experiences of my life.
Scotty: Col, you broke through an American sporting barrier in the early ’80s. As an Australian where did you start that journey?
Colin: For the first time on an Australian Schoolboys Rugby tour we started at the UCLA College in the USA – we played a showcase game against the Americans, smashing them to a pulp and loving it. By pure accident the coach of the University of Hawaii, who was there to test a high school prospect, walked by. He liked what he saw, so much so he sent a film crew to follow our tour around the world and capture the highlights. The attention to detail in sport in America is amazing. Next thing you know he is knocking on my parents’ door in Sydney offering for me to be the first Australian to receive a football scholarship in the USA. My life’s journey came from being at the right place at the right time, or maybe was I just very lucky! But at the end of the day you create your own luck. What should have been the most amazing time of a young 18-year-old’s life was in fact the hardest decision of my life.
Scotty: How did you find the transition from Australian Rugby Union to American college football?
Colin: So hard, so scared but I had the balls to give it go! Not only the hopes of my family but the whole country were on me to be a Wallaby. My Dad taught me to never waste an opportunity, to never give up, so then you can live with no regrets. My father also told me as I left Sydney for Hawaii on my own that “life starts at the end of your comfort zone, Son!”, and he was right. I was the pioneer, the trailblazer and proud of it, but with it comes the pressure and the odds against it all happening. I walked straight into the most complex, intensive, explosive game in the world. Just 18 years of age, already a world champ in rugby, with a solid family of eight siblings, the world at my feet and the love of my country – but I decided to take the challenge! There were massive, strong men with pads of armour, 140 players, 25 screaming coaches and a yellow phonebook’s worth of new information to be memorised immediately. There were 14 players fighting for one position – here in Australia we cannot comprehend the level of competition – a nation of 315 million people and one football code. I’m not proud of it but I had to fight to survive, literally, breaking knees and jaws of my own teammates to make the team! It was all so professional – the food, the training, the motivation. The training was six weeks straight, twice a day and there were injuries like I have never seen. Thank God for the weather, surfing, sailing, mai tais and the wonderful Hawaiian Aloha spirit and women.
Scotty: How and where did you get the big break as the first Australian to play NFL?
Colin: I spent five wonderful years at the University of Hawaii where my innocence in gridiron saw me on my first field appearance with my arse pads around my balls (my mum always taught me “if you an laugh at yourself, no one can laugh at you”). After making a fool of myself the reality is when I first arrived in Hawaii our defence was ranked 123rd out of 130 Division One Universities, but when I finished my last game our defence was ranked second in the nation. Never been there before and never been there after. Bloody proud! I had 60,000 fans screaming out “Roo Hop” – what power, what a thrill. My roo hop was a little dance I became famous for after a sack (bringing the quarterback to his knees). I was rewarded All American status and created sports history as the first Australian to be drafted into the NFL. When it came to the draft I was number 72 player picked out of 150,000 potential NFL players – the 0.1 per cent dream had just become reality – I was a very proud Aussie.
Scotty: NFL is incredibly tough, was it a shock to the system, the intensity?
Colin: I am still in shock that there is no second grade in America. People say the NFL stands for “Not For Long”. We drop dead at the average of 52, but it’s OK – we get our pension at 53 – don’t you love America! Our average career length is 2.8 years and most of us now live with crippling injuries, addicted to drugs and painkillers, with dementia, suicide, depression and mental illness. It was an incredible lifestyle, so short-lived but so worth it. Yes, the lifestyle, the money and power, it was a religion in America. And being an Aussie I was in my element and I was unique. Above all it was truly an honour to play at the highest level of football in the world, not only surviving but thriving!
Scotty: What was your playing weight and fitness like at your peak?
Colin: I certainly got a good head start, being born at 14 pounds and holding a record for the biggest baby born in Australia. My mum is only five foot tall, blonde, fair and slight and it must have been a sight to see her firstborn son – two feet long, olive and 14 pounds. The doctor whispered to my mum “I hope your husband is tall and olive” and luckily he was. So yes, it was a great head start, but as I found out it is not about the size of the dog but rather the fight in the dog. I reached 140kg at my peak – six feet six inches – and able to achieve 40 yards in 4.8 seconds – pretty fast for a big, white guy. Your weight was serious business, every calorie was counted and every ounce of fat accountable. You had to be big and powerful but at peak performance, it was all about cardio strength and speed. My lungs were huge since I was a rugby player from five years of age, so much so I blew up the lung testing machine. In saying that, I was always the last to leave the party and always stood by the belief of “work hard and play hard”!
Scotty: Tell us about the playing surfaces in those days.
Colin: It was all synthetic and I hated it! It was carpet on concrete and then worse when I left Hawaii for the NFL – it was frozen ice on concrete. The third-degree burns, the heat, the turf toe and ankle injuries. The only things I liked about it was it was true, it drained and it played fast, but at the end of the day it finished my career when I made a diving tackle on a frozen pitch in Philly and snapped my achilles tendon. If only the technology in synthetic turf of today was around back then I could have lasted another 10 years.
Scotty: How long did you play NFL and how long did you stay in the States?
Colin: I played for nearly four years – two years with the Cardinals in St Louis and then Arizona, and then two years with the Houston Oilers. Yes, then straight into the WWF wrestling with Vince McMahon, Hulk Hogan, the Undertaker, Stone Cold Steve Austin – what a bunch of characters and what a circus! I was the “Thunder from Down Under” and I became the Blunder from Down Under – the friggin boomerang didn’t come back! Do not screw the crew – I did! Ironically I made more money in WWF than I did in NFL, but ended up with a broken back and broken arm – you cannot fake gravity! It was an amazing 20 years hanging out with people like the Kennedys, Muhammad Ali and Hulk Hogan. It is funny, though; living in America I became more Australian and it is only then that you realise how proud you are and how much you love your country. I arrived home in 2000 to enjoy the buzz of the Sydney Olympics – thank you for the welcome home party! I am now happily married with two great kids and with my family and mates living nearby. It has been a great journey.
Scotty: If you were to kick off today as an 18-year-old, do you think you would make it?
Colin: What I have learnt from my life experiences is that it doesn’t matter how big, fast or rich you are, it’s all about your hunger, your heart and your passion. We need more risk-takers in our country. It was my ability to laugh at myself, listen, stay humble, be positive and have a never give up attitude that saw me reach the highest level. It truly wasn’t my athletic ability, but my Aussie attitude that saw me survive and thrive. Our Aussie character is unique to the world and we should be encouraging it and not suppressing it. You are only as old as you think you are!
Scotty: What are you up to these days?
Colin: I am a health Ambassador for the Government, teaching kids to fall in love with a movement of activity and sport for a lifetime. For the first time in history we have to choose to move – obesity is an epidemic. We have to treat the mosquito and not the malaria. With this passion for kids to move, we need more grassroots fields, and safe fields – thus my unlikely passion for the world of synthetic grass. Call it climate change, call it what you want, the reality is we are facing longer periods of drought and floods, reducing playing time for the public with sporting clubs losing 30 per cent of participation each year. Council fields across Australia are either too dry and hard or under water and either way they’re not available for play. Synthetic grass solves this problem and I am now heavily involved with a wholly Australian company, Grassman. Our grass not only offers the world’s latest technology, creating fields and landscaping products that are safe and playable but also able to effectively drain after heavy downpours and direct water to recycling tanks. The synthetic grass is also cost-effective and durable, with a life-expectancy of 20 years. It requires no chemicals and pesticides, no mowing, saves injuries and money and looks better than natural turf. With my input in development, from my years of experience as the first Australian to play on synthetic grasses, I proudly feel we have the alternative!