IN LOS Angeles yesterday, 26 elite athletes with American college basketball and football backgrounds took their first significant steps towards becoming the next Shae McNamara. In a South Yarra cafe, the real thing pondered whether that was achievement enough.
''Whether you make an AFL list or not, someone from a different country, a different culture, a different world, has shown an interest in you because they believe in your potential,'' said McNamara, who was told by Collingwood on Monday that his three-year stint as an international rookie would not be extended. ''Put in perspective, they are already a success.''
McNamara is disappointed but not surprised at his delisting. He remains excited - for those he is convinced will emerge from that inaugural AFL USA draft combine, the ripples that will become waves in years to come, and at the knowledge that he'll always be the trailblazer.
From Redondo Beach, the AFL's international development manager Tony Woods reported that day one of testing had already provided ''everything we came for'' in terms of promise; six of the 26 bettered Nic Naitanui's standing vertical-leap record, a similar number were elite across the board.
This should not surprise; like McNamara, all have had elite college careers and training, but fallen short of ascension to professional ranks. They are the AFL's latest target audience, and McNamara says his setback should not be a deterrent.
The Milwaukee native recalls arriving in Melbourne with ''raw intentions'', and what he calls a ''humble confidence'' that soon saw him dubbed ''Diamond in the rough''. He likens his progress to parents watching a child develop - first the baby steps, then learning and growing, through teens to maturity. Only in his case, it was condensed into three years. ''This year was the time to make an impact. It didn't work out that way, but I'm extremely grateful,'' he said.
At times he has sensed some have viewed him as a waste of time; he wonders if the reverse isn't actually true. McNamara was playing professional basketball in Germany before he was recruited, and could still be living a far easier, better-paid life shooting hoops in Europe. He will persist with this alternative adventure. If he finds his place in the game not with another AFL club, but in a lower league, so be it. He is emboldened by all he has learned. ''God willing, I'll be taking my chance with both hands and getting ready to rock,'' he said.
The invitees in Los Angeles have been lured by a video that sells a version of Paul Hogan's Australia, where football replaces the barbie as the centrepiece on a landscape of sun, surf and dreams. McNamara features in the pitch, and Woods said there had been no attempt to gloss over his axing to shield the Americans from their potential fate. ''Full credit to Shae and to Collingwood for taking a punt on him,'' Woods said. ''It's not an example of success or failure, just of the international pathway being an extraordinary undertaking, of the huge dedication required to make it.''
McNamara says a pinch of delusion will help their cause (''before somebody else can believe in you, you've got to believe in yourself''). A conversation with Israel Folau laid bare the code converter's mountain. ''I was always the first picked in sport, and I guess that holds true in the sense that I got recruited. But once I got here, I went from first picked to literally the last picked.''
He has already reached out to Alex Starling, the Florida college basketballer signed by Sydney. ''I couldn't be more proud of him,'' McNamara says, adding that he'll be the ''big brother'' to Starling that he never had.
''What have you got to lose?'' the ad campaign asks McNamara's countrymen. He thinks nothing. ''The glory might not be there at the end of the day, but it's incredibly rewarding.''
For Woods, this is a success story. ''We've got one more international convert to the beauty of our game. Everyone wins out of that.''