Graphic: Igor Lazarevic
For more than half a decade, Darrin Mitchell has presided over the growth and development of American football in Australia as Chairman of Gridiron Australia.
He has seen Australia’s profile as a gridiron nation rise with the drafting and signing by the Seattle Seahawks of Jesse Williams (2013) and by the Denver Broncos of Adam Gotsis (2016) as well as the San Francisco 49ers signing of Jarryd Hayne, all three of which put Australia on the football map. Matt Leo has cracked the Philidelphia Eagles roster as a free agent. Australian punters and kickers are becoming more and more commonplace in the NFL as well with the latest being Mitch Wishnowsky who plays for the San Francisco 49ers.
The 54-year-old native of Sydney, Australia who took over as chairman six years ago, is proud of the progress of the game down under and is excited for the future of the sport in Australia. He was kind enough to take the time to answer a number of wide-ranging questions.
AFI: Tell us about your background in football
Darrin Mitchell: I started playing in 1985 for local clubs and played for our State team. I coached from 1999 at club, State and National levels before turning to officiating in 2007 at State and National levels. I have been in administration since 1999 and was President of my club, an Exec member then President of my State Association and now a director of GA. I started coaching again in 2019 at club level as Head Coach of our Women’s team.
AFI: How much has the game grown in Australia since you started playing and then came into this role?
Mitchell: There has been a modest growth in numbers since I started playing being only the second year of competition in Australia. The largest growth in recent times being in junior numbers and women entering the sport. We have sent teams to World Championships at Men’s, Women’s and Junior levels of which I am very proud.
We have low numbers of flag football players but are looking to expand competition and promote flag football at the national level over the coming years.
AFI: How do you think the development of the game in Australia can be improved?
Mitchell: The age-old goal is more money but we as an Exec recognize our limitations and work on programs to develop the sport with what we have available. We are looking to develop the capabilities of our athletes by improving the skills of our coaches. We are about to launch a great new program in conjunction with Coach Anthony Stone for our coaches to develop their skills which in turn will undoubtedly improve our players and it itself will promote the game to the community.
We also support an Officials development program available to our members that is continually updated by a select few of our Officiating brethren that helps improve the safety and spectacle of our sport.
AFI: What are the differences in the different states in terms of the development of the game?
Mitchell: Each State would have its different challenges be it the availability of facilities, development of coaches, player numbers or number of officials. At all levels, the game is run by a strong band of volunteers who give up their time to promote and develop the sport.
At the national level, we attempt to regulate and promote all aspects of the sport for our members hence the coaching and officiating development programs available or soon to be available to our members at no or minimal cost.
GA also provides a national insurance scheme for all members which assists in making available sporting facilities for use.
AFI: The number of Australians making it to the NFL seems to be growing. Has that helped the growth of the game?
Mitchell: Some of the players making the cut in the NFL have come through the playing ranks here in Australia including Adam Gotsis and Jesse Williams and we are certainly proud of their achievements. The ability of rugby league stars Jarryd Hayne to make the 49ers roster a few years ago then Val Holmes to score a spot with the Jets through the International Players Pathway Program was certainly a boost for exposure of the sport here in Australia and both Jarryd and Val trained with local club teams to pick up some skills prior to their departure to the US. Another was Sydney rugby league player Jordan Mailata who was drafted (round 7) by the Eagles a couple of years ago. A number of punters have made the roster of a number of NFL teams graduating through the college system and the team at Pro-Kick Australia have certainly done a great job in preparing talented athletes to take on a different sport. Most recently Matt Leo, who joined the Eagles, started playing rugby in Australia.
AFI: The current pandemic has halted the game all over the world. How close is Australia to getting back to practice and playing?
Mitchell: Each State Government here controls the social distancing restrictions placed upon the community. It was announced this week by some Governments that community sport could resume from 1 July so that has been a tremendous boost to all sport in those States. Playing mainly a August / December season in most States gives those States a reasonable chance at having a season of some sort to keep their members involved in the sport. Two States start October/November and carry over the Christmas break giving them additional time to organise a season. Other States I hope will lift restrictions shortly enabling a season for 2020 to get underway.
AFI: Is there anything else you would like to add?
Mitchell: Gridiron Australia is a strong supporter of the International Federation of American Football and international football in general and will always attempt to field a team at the World Championships. With four major “football” sports in Australia at professional or at least semi-professional level, we have competition for players but recognize that competition will always be a part of the Australian sporting landscape and work within that space.
We have a number of talented players, coaches and officials who are truly dedicated to developing the sport which will carry us through the coming years.