AUSTRALIAN RULES UP CLOSE - Thanks to my son, Ed, who works in sports for the SBS network in Australia, I was introduced to the Hawthorn Football Club and its Communications (PR) Manager Amanda Buivids, who was kind enough to give me access to practices ("training sessions") and to introduce me to David Parkin, the club's Director of Football. In turn, David, one of the all-time great Australian Rules coaches, with three Grand Finals (think Super Bowl) wins in his career, invited me into the team's locker room with him and then down to the field during warmups prior to the Hawks' game with the league-leading Brisbane Lions.

You will notice below a couple of shots of a unique Aussie Rules tradition: fans - certain privileged ones - are permitted to get an up-close-and-personal look at their heroes in the pre-game locker room. (I can just imagine Barry Bonds, adoring fans peering in on him as he sits brooding, off to himself, away from his teammates, shouting,"Who the f--k let those idiots in?")

The Hawks, despite getting off to a great start, were worn down by a seemingly more talented (at least that's the way it appeared to me) Brisbane club, but that didn't dampen my enthusiasm for my new club. (As a result of the unusual hospitality shown me, and despite the fact that my daughter-in-law, Michelle, is a lifelong fan of the Collingwood Magpies, I find myself tilting toward the Hawthorn Hawks.)

I also was able to watch Simon Conway, son of Ed's co-worker Moira Conway and her husband, Jim, play in a 17-and-under game for his school, De La Salle. There was nowhere near the fanfare that you'd expect at an American high school football game, but the players and coaches took it just as seriously. (I can attest to that, as I was invited into the De La Salle locker room at half time.)

(As fanatical as some of these people are, I think he means it)

Hawthorn assistant coach Rob Dickson shows me how to dribble a footy ball

Here, Rob shows my wife the proper way to drop the ball when punting

The moment before the drop - notice the ball is nose-down

Notice that the ball going to be kicked on the nose

The unique hand pass, in which the ball is batted with the fist

Hawthorn's Jade Rawlings signs autographs after a practice session

Hawthorn's 2002 membership drive exceeded the club's goal of 35,000

Hawthorn players hand-pass it back and forth in the pre-game locker room

The fans' view of the Hawthorn Hawks' locker room

The players' view of the fans, looking on in the locker room

Hawthorn's Amanda Buivids- Friendly,efficient, knowledgeable & nice-looking

The Hawks head out for pre-game; that's superstar Shane Crawford in the middle

The Hawks return to the locker room following pre-game work

The team runs out through a banner that's 40 feet high and 80 feet wide

Hawks' fans wave pom-pons, trying to disconcert a Brisbane kicker

Yes, footy is as big with their kids as any of our sports are with our kids

"Umpire Escort?" At a junior game?

Michael Smith, a former footy star, officiates at a junior game

The De La Salle 17-and-under team gets instruction between periods...

...and again, at halftime. (Personally, I thought the coach gave a great talk.)