Terrence Jackson and John Hunter return from Down Under Games in Australia with many tales to tell.
By JOHN SCHWARB, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published July 14, 2002
Koala bears are as cute and cuddly as they look on television, Vegemite is truly disgusting and, if you're an American high school football player, to Australian youth you might as well be a NFL star.
That's the report from Terrence Jackson and John Hunter after spending 10 days Down Under.
The former Clearwater players traveled to Australia last month for the "Down Under Bowl," part of the Down Under Games sponsored by an Australian sports company. Their team, made up of players from Florida and New Mexico, along with one Australian, played well against other American clubs but did not win the championship.
So what? Jackson and Hunter returned with a load of memories.
"It was just a lot of fun," Hunter said. "The people were nice, the coast was beautiful, (Sydney) is the cleanest big city I've ever seen."
The entire Clearwater football team's senior class received invitations to the event, a summer vacation of sorts though Australia is in winter. Jackson and Hunter showed the most interest and were able to pay the trip's $5,000 cost with the help of sponsorships from their youth football organization, the Greenwood Panthers, among others. "It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience and would have been a lot of donuts and cookies to sell, a lot of fish fries," said Michelle Holmes, Jackson's mother. "They were fortunate to have sponsorship."
Once selected, the players met up with the rest of their Florida contingent at a meeting before leaving the country. A coach brought a local flavor for them to sample.
Vegemite, the Australian spread used in sandwiches and other dishes, was passed around. Hunter, an offensive lineman, took one whiff and decided he would stick to meat on his trip.
"It looks like jelly, but tastes like salt pork. Just really nasty," he said.
Nasty, unfortunately, also described the first game for Team Florida/New Mexico. Against a team from Ohio/Pennsylvania, it lost 40-0, but rebounded the next time out.
Teams played with only 20 players, making two-way play a necessity. It was tiring, but Jackson, a tailback/receiver/cornerback, showed his skill in the team's next game.
"A couple plays into the second game, they called a play for me on fourth down to run a wheel route," Jackson said. "The (coverage) left me wide open and we got our first touchdown. That's what clicked us off."
Jackson and the team won that game 21-14 in overtime against a group from Louisiana/Indiana. Without going undefeated, Florida/New Mexico did not advance to the championship. But the youngsters who filled the huge stands (at a stadium Jackson said made Clearwater's Jack White Stadium look like "a backyard") clearly didn't care.
After practices and games, the players were mobbed for autographs, wristbands and anything else from the American "gridiron" players (as they are called in Australia).
"They wanted to take everything we had," Jackson said. "It's fun, it makes you feel like you're already a pro."
During time away from the field, the players hung out on the beach and spent one day on a farm, learning to throw boomerangs and getting up close with kangaroos and koala bears. Hunter said the animals were tame and friendly, but his boomerang skills could use work.
After a little detour to Waikiki Beach in Hawaii, the players returned to the states. Now, Hunter and Jackson are working summer jobs and looking forward to attending Florida A&M and St. Petersburg College, but they're still getting plenty of mileage from their Aussie tales.
"It was fun, we played football and watched rugby," Jackson said. "I didn't want to play that, though, I'd probably end up getting hurt.
"I like to have pads on me."