August 19, 2013 10:25AM
By LARRY KELLEY
Sun Staff Writer
Though Stonington’s Ben Chapman spent his collegiate football career as a scout-team practice player, his UConn gridiron experience as a walk-on took him to places much farther than Rentschler Field on Saturdays.
Like halfway around the world as a pro football player in Australia.
Chapman, a Stonington High All-State center in 2007, is starting right tackle and part-time defensive lineman for the Monach Warriors, a Division I club team in the Victoria Gridiron League — Australia’s version of American pro football.
Since March, the 6-foot-2, 275-pound Chapman has lived with a host family. He works daily for a construction company as a general laborer from 9 to 5, lifts weights for an hour before serving as a player-coach for the Warriors during evening practices from 7-9 p.m.
In addition to sending its top players to the NFL, UConn football features a program to place alumni into foreign pro football leagues. The “pro” element of Australian pro football entails free room and board for Chapman and his UConn football “mate” Matt Edwards, use of a car, and general VIP treatment around town and on the team.
With the Huskies, Chapman ascended to the level of No. 3 center. But while he turned down offers to play for lesser-profile college programs to accept a preferred walk-on chance at UConn, Chapman benefited from a year as a recruiting intern in his senior year after deciding not to play a fourth season. For Chapman, who graduated with a degree in sports coaching and administration in December, the experience has proven to be educational, invaluable and invigorating.
“Australia is a very tough country to get to,” Chapman said. “This is absolutely a unique experience that I wouldn’t be able to get without football. I didn’t know if I ever would get to Australia if I didn’t come now. My UConn connections helped me out.”
Chapman said the NFL is not marketed heavily in Australia, though most people he talks to have a favorite team or player. Australian Rules Football is the national sport and is played in large stadiums in front of 50,000-plus people at the highest level.
“Aussie football is massive here,” Chapman said. “There are big guys who run around with no pads and tackle. The object of the game is to punt an oval ball through thin goalposts to score points.
“American football here is called ‘Gridiron.’ Our crowds are relatively sporadic and always pretty small — about 200 people. I hear the final, which we will be in if we win Saturday, draws a few thousand.”
Chapman ranks the Australian pro league talent level with low level Division III college teams. He is one of the biggest players, though not the biggest. He sometimes lines up against a 220-pound defensive end and often dominates his man with his edge in size and experience. He has also played some defensive line, blocking three PATs, and has even scored his first touchdown at any football level.
“We were blowing a team out like 68-0 and the coach, who knew I had never scored a touchdown, put me at fullback for a 2-yard touchdown run,” Chapman said. “The talent level is varied.
“There are some guys who could play Division II college or higher if they had known or had the opportunity to play when younger. One lineman last year is now starting at Georgia Tech. At the same time there are other guys who wouldn’t start on a high school team.
“A 19 year old could be playing next to a guy in his late 20s with a wife and two kids. Everyone plays for the love of the game and the games are spirited if not always competitive.”
Chapman’s Warrior team finished 10-2 in the regular season, winning a number of games by mega-blowout scores like 90-0, 68-0, 44-8. He and Edwards, a linebacker/running back, also helps coach the Australian teammates.
“They realize we played in a high-level college program, so we won their respect,” Chapman said. “We design a lot of gameplans, too.”
After the season, Chapman will return home and lean on his UConn connections to land a full-time job.
“I’m not sure I want to get into coaching because that entails a lot of moving from school to school,” Chapman said. “I’m really interested in getting into football administration, a front-office job.”
He’s done a first-rate job, chronicling his Australian experience. His wordpress account shows pictures and texts of his adventures such as walking through a Eucalyptus Tree forest to stand next to koala bears, watching a penguin parade at Phillip Island, hiking through Tazmania-Tahune Rainforest, petting a young kangaroo on the beach, and touring major cities Sydney and Melbourne.
His Stonington Bear vs. koala bear meeting and other adventures will last a lifetime even if he didn’t keep a journal. Though he’s dropped 10 pounds from his UConn football days, he reports he loves the food. Meat pies, a pot pie-like concoction of mincemeat, onions, crust and ketchup, is a staple. Chapman has gravitated to the country’s Asian and Indian cuisine, particularly curry, which he discovered there.
“What an experience this has been all-around,” he said. “It was special to see these native Australian animals in their natural habitat, and see these spectacular sights. Australia is such a cool continent, and this might have been my best chance to get there.”