The first time Jason Holmes was approached about an AFL career, the former US college basketballer noted the date.
"I had no clue what it was," he said. "I think I'd seen it in Funny People and on ESPN2. But I hadn't realised what it was at the time. "I literally got the call on April 1, so I thought it was a joke." But the emails and messages kept coming, so Holmes figured he had better pay more serious attention. Less than three years after switching to Australian Rules, the 25-year-old St Kilda ruckman will make his AFL debut on Saturday night against Geelong. Holmes will be the first American born-and-raised player to appear in the AFL. Sanford Wheeler also played for Sydney from 1989-94, but he moved to Australia when he was five. Holmes had to start from scratch in his 20s. "It's one of the dreams they sell us when they try to get Americans over here," Holmes said of his trailblazing. "I don't think it's sunk in yet and I understand it's a really big thing. But I'm just proud to be a cog in the machine that's going to help this sport grow internationally."
Holmes hoping to emulate Stynes and Pyke
The Saints signed the 203cm Chicago native as an international rookie at the end of 2013. He hopes to emulate Irishman Jim Stynes and Canadian Mike Pyke as imports who have made the AFL their own. Mason Cox (Collingwood) and Eric Wallace (North Melbourne) are other American college graduates currently on AFL lists. While the AFL was foreign to Holmes until a few years ago, he already knew how competitive Australians could be. Holmes played for Mississippi State in a college basketball game against a St Mary's team featuring Matt Dellavedova. The American instantly noted Dellavedova's fierce competitive style. "He might remember - I led the team in scoring and rebounding in that game," Holmes said with a grin. Holmes will not have any family at the game - he said they would have spent more time in airports than visiting - but he hoped that would happen in the next few weeks. Sport is a massive theme in his family - his father is a former college basketballer, one brother Justin plays basketball in France and the other, Andre, is a wide receiver with NFL team Oakland. Jason finds it hard to make them understand what he is doing. "I've almost started giving up on friends and family back home - 'yeah, the rugby's going well'," he said. Holmes said he took up AFL because he had always enjoyed a fresh challenge and it meant he could be something more than just another overseas basketball player. He would never have reached his AFL debut if it was just a lark and Holmes is deadly serious about his goals. "I want to be part of something special," he said. "The club is looking to win a premiership, as any team would, and I want to be a part of that."