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American AFL player Mason Cox thrives on crowd criticism

BRISBANE, Australia (AP) — American player Mason Cox said a rude comment from an opposing fan about catching COVID-19 inspired him to kick three crucial goals in a row in his Collingwood Magpies’ playoff win over the West Coast Eagles in the Aussie rules Australian Football League.

The Texas-born Cox’s scoring burst in the first quarter set the tone for Collingwood. The lead changed hands seven times before the Magpies edged West Coast 12.4 (76) to 11.9 (75) to advance to the second round of the AFL playoffs on Saturday against Geelong in Brisbane.

On Tuesday, Cox said a West Coast supporter told him to follow in the footsteps of U.S. President Donald Trump and “catch coronavirus.”

“It was enjoyable going back and forth and I guess to get the first one (goal), then talk a bit of smack back and forth,” Cox told Australian Associated Press. “One of them told me to ‘go get coronavirus like your president’ and that didn’t sit too well. So I kicked the second one and looked back at them again.”

But there was more to come.

“And I kicked the third one, and I think they were all sitting down by that point,” he said. “So it was enjoyable for myself just to shut people up. West Coast supporters are very passionate and supportive of their team which is awesome. But at the same time, you kind of thrive off it.”

Cox was born in suburban Dallas and attended Edward S. Marcus High School, where he was a member of a state championship-winning soccer team. He later briefly played college basketball at Oklahoma State University.

He attended a trial for potential Australian rules players in Los Angeles in 2014 and was eventually drafted by Collingwood, playing his first game in Australia's top-flight competition in 2016 and representing one of the country's biggest clubs.

The AFL draws the biggest crowds and TV audience of any style of football Down Under, with viewership regularly surpassing rugby league, rugby union and soccer. The game is similar in style to Gaelic football in Ireland, but is played with an oval-shaped ball, on an oval-shaped field and with 18 players on each team.

The 29-year-old Cox, who is 2.11 meters (6-foot-11), said he’s become accustomed to being the target of vitriol from fans since arriving at Collingwood, an inner-city Melbourne suburb.

“If you were to tell me, Day 1, I would be playing in a grand final four years after picking up a footy I would probably look at you sideways,” he said of Collingwood’s loss to West Coast in the 2018 AFL championship match.

“People are going to criticize me. I am playing one of the positions that is most criticized in the AFL, being a key forward at a big club. I’m not too stressed about it but it does entertain me at times ... I guess it also fuels me.”

On Saturday in Perth, fans voted Cox player of the match. Both coaches agreed.

“He’s showing us his best football now,” Collingwood coach Nathan Buckley said. “He’s really hard to defend when he keeps going to the ball at the highest point. When he’s aggressive in his body work he’s really hard to stop. Defenders nearly need to sacrifice a play at the ball to be able to go at him.”

West Coast coach Adam Simpson admitted Cox’s early goals surprised his defensive players.

“Conceding three goals in a row puts you on the back foot," Simpson said. “It didn’t cost us the game, but it helped set up the game,” for Collingwood.

Cox has kicked eight goals in his past three playoff matches to earn a reputation as a big-game player.

“I enjoy a bit of pressure, I enjoy a bit of the atmosphere of a finals game,” he told AAP. “It’s a unique experience that not too many people get to be a part of.

“And for myself, coming from the States, I really didn’t imagine myself being a part of all this kind of stuff and being able to experience it. You just soak it all in and make the most of every moment.”

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This story has been corrected to show Cox is 6-foot-11, not 6-foot-9.

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More AP sports: https://apnews.com/apf-sports and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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