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July 31, 2013

Free story: The Aussie Project

For the mass majority of teenagers, the end of their high school careers usually signals the end of their football careers.

It was the exact opposite for Blake Muir.

"I was one of the guys who played a lot of sports growing up, but I didn't actually start playing football until I was 17," Muir says. "That was the year (2008) I graduated high school. I was lucky enough that the closest club was five minutes from our house. I was pretty fortunate."

Fortunate is putting it lightly. Up until 2011, Muir had spent his entire life in and around Sydney, Australia, a country consumed with sports just as much as the USA. Except for football. That sport was a foreign concept for the vast majority of Aussies, including Muir.

All he knew about the game he learned from pop culture.

"My only experience I had with football was watching movies and stuff" -- Muir says of films like "Remember the Titans" and "The Replacements", two of his favorites -- "or playing video games."

Looking for a way to remain in shape after leaving high school, Muir wandered into a neighborhood athletic gym in 2008, not knowing how that decision would set him on a path to playing college football in America -- with his younger brother, Sean, 19, coming along for the ride.

This Saturday, Blake and Sean Muir will arrive in Waco after flying nearly a day's worth of hours from Sydney. They're just in time to report on Sunday for the start of Baylor's fall camp. Baylor opens practices on Monday ahead of a 2013 season filled with high expectations.

Blake and Sean Muir are the final two thirds of a three-man Australian contingent joining the Baylor football team, joining ex-rugby pro Peni Tagive, who made it to Waco a couple weeks ago to get a head start on his new athletic venture.

How the Muirs got to Baylor is a story well worth telling.

A hidden gym
When a then 17-year old Blake Muir walked into Shire Speed & Strength gym in Sutherland, a Sydney suburb with less than 10,000 residents, he had no way of predicting what would come. The gym's owner and lead trainer, Peter Upham, spent most of his time -- and earned most of his money -- training Olympic-caliber Australians in sports like weight-lifting, swimming, gymnastics, and track and field.

But Upham also had more than a passing interest in American football, a sport so foreign that calling it a novelty is even a stretch. Since 2004, Upham had been the president and head coach of the Sutherland Seahawks, an American football team with both youth (for high school-aged athletes) and post-high school squads.

One of Upham's former athletes, Adrian Thomas, had advanced through Upham's club and eventually signed with the University of Hawaii in 2006.

Upham was really helping to grow the sport, partly by adapting the NFL's rules for 7-man football in Australia. In 2007, the NFL named Upham the International Youth Coach of the Year.

"American football -- look, it's a cult sport here," Upham says. "Not very many people are involved. It's different (from America) in pretty much every way."

For starters, high schools in Australia don't field athletic teams. If you want to play a sport in high school, you have to join a club. And there aren't many to choose from, at least in terms of American football.

"We're in Sydney," Upham says of the most populous city in Australia, "and there's just 10 clubs."

In a city of nearly 5 million residents, that's just one club for every 500,000 Australians.

Muir, by luck or by fate, picked the one club that had a connection with America.

From the time Blake first showed up to Upham's gym in Noevember of 2008 until early 2011, Upham completely transformed Blake's body. Blake had entered Upham's gym standing 6-5 but weighing just 228 pounds. He played mostly tight end and defensive end.

Two years later, under Upham's guidance, Blake had put on nearly 80 pounds, weighing in around 300.

"We don't have the coaching, we don't have the opposition, we don't have the football culture to be awesome football players," says Upham. "What you can be is just a really good, general-level athlete. Our whole plan philosophically is that if you prepare -- if you're stronger, faster, more powerful, more mobile, things like that -- it makes you more coachable, and it puts you higher up in the food chain."

That plan worked for Blake. Now too big to play tight end, he moved to the offensive line. His natural athleticism now paired with his huge surge in strength, Blake blossomed with his move to offensive tackle.

His transformation caught the eye of Paul Manera, a guy that Upham says "is the main driver of things around here." Manera played at Hawaii in the late 1980s and had since returned to his native land, running grassroots American football programs around Sydney.

Manera has a discerning eye for talent, and he also has the trust of his football contacts in the states. So when he and Upham touted Blake -- who by 2011 had shown more than just a knack for football -- a few college coaches listened.

"I had a bunch of videos that I was making and sending out to coaches," Blake says. "It took about a year before coach (Gordon) Shaw at Hawaii saw my video, and he just thought he could do something with me. He was the first one to offer me a scholarship. About four or five months later SMU did the same thing."

Muir went on official visits to both campuses, eventually settling on Hawaii because of his connection with Shaw. He took a redshirt in 2011, then started every game at left tackle for Hawaii in 2012 as a redshirt freshman.

He had made it.

The next step
Though he had begun to grasp the game, Blake Muir soon learned there's a lot more to college football going on than what happens on the field.

A 3-9 season in 2012 for first-year head coach Norm Chow forced him to make some changes. Among those was the release of coach Shaw, the offensive line coach who had been the key man in getting Blake to come to Hawaii. With Shaw gone (he would eventually land a job at Idaho), Blake wanted to explore his options.

"I started every game there, but I felt like I wasn't going to be my best there," he says. "I felt like if I wanted to go further and be the best I could be, I had to look somewhere else."

So he started the process all over again -- making homemade video tapes showing off his skills, sending them to various college coaches, waiting for responses.

This time, the reaction came quicker. Pretty soon Blake had narrowed it down to three programs that were showing the most interest: Oregon State, Georgia Tech and Baylor.

After a whirlwind stretch of seven days ("I did all the trips in one week, from Georgia to Texas to Oregon," he says) Baylor emerged as the favorite for a number of reasons. It had a history of developing offensive linemen. It was competitive, having gone to three straight bowl games for the first time in school history. It played in one of the best conferences in the country.

But what set Baylor apart came as a bit of a shock to Blake. Not only had Baylor offered him a scholarship, they wanted to offer his younger brother, Sean, as well.

Sean had a very similar background as his brother -- minus the college football experience. He had come along with his brother to that Sutherland gym that fateful day in 2008. He had played for the youth football club, steadily gaining enough weight that he grew from a wide receiver to a pass-rushing defensive end and eventually into an offensive center.

"When I first started playing, I was 15," says Sean, who's now a 6-2.5, 292-pound 19-year old. "I was tall, but I was pretty skinny then. I started out as a receiver. The first two years I played receiver, then my third year I played d-end. Then I played one year at offensive tackle, and that's what got me into this position."

Manera, Upham and Sean had repeated the path of Blake, sending out highlight videos of Sean lifting weights and running through football drills. The videos impressed the coaching staff in Waco, including Baylor offensive line coach Randy Clements, enough so that they were willing to take a flyer on the younger Muir.

"I wasn't expecting Sean to be in the picture, but coach Clements asked about Sean while I was on my visit," Blake says. "He knew about him. We had sent him video of Sean on the field and in the gym doing some work, and they were impressed by that. They decided to give Sean a scholarship as well."

Though Blake wasn't actively pursuing a program where he could play with his brother, he also wasn't going to turn down that opportunity.

When Sean arrives in Texas this week, it will mark the first time he's stepped foot on Texan soil. His perception of Texas is limited to "cowboys," he says, and, of course, football.

"I'm only going through what Blake's seen," he says.

No stone unturned
To get an idea about what Art Briles probably thinks about these Australians' potential, just consider this: No state produces more talent than Texas. Every year, more than 300 high school graduates sign with FBS programs.

Briles has no need to leave the Texas borders. In fact, his current team only has 11 players not from Texas (not including the incoming Australians). All but one of the members of the incoming 2013 signing class hail from Texas.

That Briles is willing to sign three Australians with varying football backgrounds shows he believes he can turn these Aussies into players that will help Baylor reach its goal of winning the Big 12.

"There's never going to be a lot of guys that are going to be college football-worthy here," says Upham, the Muir's trainer. "But if there are one, two or three guys every year that are able, it's nice to know there's a coach that is willing to pick up the phone or read an email and watch a bit of football. Full credit to Briles and his coaches to take that risk."

Upham reiterated many times over that Australia can't approach mimicking the football culture of the US. But what he can duplicate is a workout regimen that footballers in the states would use. He's learned his students are always eager to learn more, to lift more, to improve daily.

"With these guys, they are just very conscientious athletes," Upham says. "I don't need to go and motivate them. They just want the input. They're actually very easy to train -- just teaching them some high-skill barbell lifting, teaching them how to run efficiently, teaching them some very basic gymnastic patterns. These are general components that go into allowing you to maximize your football talent."

Upham also has caught wind of the reputation of Kaz Kazadi, Baylor's strength and conditioning coach, who has been as important as any other Baylor coach in contributing to the program's turnaround. As great as Kaazadi is at getting results, Upham expects the Muirs and Tagive to step into Baylor's lifting programs and not skip a beat.

It's exactly what he's trained them for.

"Baylor obviously has a very good reputation in terms of their athletic preparation," he says. "I'd like to think that these guys can come in and not just be good enough -- they can be leaders in that department. It just makes it easy for the football coaches to just coach them. Just add the football software and run them on the field."

Ironically, the player most ready to compete at the Big 12 level is the only one of the three players that has no chance of playing this fall. Because of his transfer from Hawaii to Baylor, Blake must sit out this season and can only watch from the sidelines.

Sean, meanwhile, should redshirt, since his football experience is limited to the Australian club football leagues that just don't compare to the states. He'll need time to adapt.

Peni Tagive is the biggest mystery of the three. He was a promising rugby player who saw his career derailed by injuries on multiple occasions. At a crossroads at 24 years old, Tagive decided to give football a try, and he went to Upham and Paul Menera to get him on track.

He arrived in Waco in mid-July "to get a jumpstart," Upham says, on learning American football. At his age and with his NFL dream, he will want to play as much as possible, as soon as possible. He could get on the field this season depending on how quickly he takes up the game.

It's safe to say Tagive wouldn't have had the opportunity to come to Baylor had the Muirs, his fellow Australians, not accepted scholarship offers before him. And it took luck -- and a few connections -- to get the Muirs to Waco in the first place.

It's hard to believe that six years ago, Blake Muir was perhaps sitting on his couch, watching "Friday Night Lights", completely unaware that he would soon be there, playing football at the college level in Texas. All because he was looking for something to do after graduating high school.

"These guys were lucky that they only lived 15 minutes from the gym and were right around the corner from our practice field," Upham says. "That's just kind of how it worked out."


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