Thousands of fans from all across Australia came far and wide to see their beloved Bunnies do battle against the Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles in the first qualifying round of the NRL 2014 playoffs at Allianz Stadium. But among the red and green faithful, there was one fan that came a really long way to this showdown. How far?  10,000 miles (16,000km) away from America, that’s how far!

I am Jared Schnabl, a 28 year-old native of Rockville Centre, a large town on Long Island, New York. I describe myself as ‘an American on the outside, an Australian bunny rabbit on the inside!’ I have only been following the Rabbitohs for a few years, but I have quickly burrowed my way into the hearts of many loyal Members and supprters in red and green.

How did this American discover the Rabbitohs?  How did an American become so enamored with this sport loved by Australians – a sport that almost no American watches or knows about? For me, the story begins back on December 31st, 2008, when I was on vacation in Alice Springs, and I walked into an apparel store and saw a jersey on a wall with a rabbit on it. For me, it was a source of laughter for two reasons:

Firstly, I couldn’t believe that a team playing a brutal physical-contact sport would have such a cute animal as its logo and mascot. And secondly, I found it ironic that this was on an Australian team jersey; a country that has had a tumultuous history with the rabbit. For it to be emblazoned on what I would later find out to be Australia’s oldest and most winning club, made me laugh harder!

Despite the hilarity, that tough-looking rabbit fascinated me. Over time, I got into the sport of rugby league, and by 2012, I had a particular fondness for the Rabbitohs on the back of moments such as the unforgettable round 19 victory at Allianz Stadium in which the Rabbitohs came from behind to defeat the Sydney Roosters.

The high-speed adrenaline combined with Warren Smith’s unforgettable call, made me scream with such delight!  I hadn’t heard such enthusiasm coming from a sportscaster since Al Michael’s “Do You Believe in Miracles?!” from the 1980 Winter Olympics. And to see the team jump into the stands to celebrate with the fans after scoring that try?  When has that ever happened in professional sports?

 

To say that Rabbitohs Members are generous is an understatement. They have given me a sense of camaraderie that I have never seen in any other aspect of professional sports.

 

In 2013, I tuned in to my first full-season of footy. It was great to finally see the game on TV, but I still yearned to travel to Australia to see a match in person.

Later that year, a miracle happened in New York City. I won a free trip to Australia at an Australian-themed food and wine tasting party. I finally had a chance to see the Rabbitohs!

Prior to my trip, I had tuned into various forms of social media to get better acquainted with the red and green faithful (Twitter, Facebook etc). I had finally found a proper use for Twitter: tweeting with Rabbitohs fans and learning about what makes this club so popular.  I had found such common ground with these fans, and not just because I had an incredible fondness for Australian culture.

It was through this medium that I discovered why this is such a close-knit Club – the Members. I have often referred to the red and green faithful as my “Australian Bunny Family”. The Members and supporters have been so gracious and kind – they are truly great people and such a joy to be around. It is said that Australia, namely Sydney, is regarded as one of the happiest and most livable places in the world and the Rabbitohs Family remind me why! The first time I entered The Burrow, almost everyone wanted to buy me a beer! A fan even gave me the shirt off his back! Everyone is in high spirits and singing loudly.

Since my year-long absence from Australia, I have received care packages in the mail from several fans containing everything from magazines, to stickers, to scarves, and even Souths seat-covers! To say that Rabbitohs Members are generous is an understatement. They have given me a sense of camaraderie that I have never seen in any other aspect of professional sports.

During my recent trip back to The Burrow, I met many new fans that have taken me in as one of their own. They have taken me out to lunch, invited me into their homes, and have even offered to drive me to the game! I may have traveled alone, but I was surrounded by the coolest friends that I believe, are the envy of the sports world. Like actual rabbits, the Rabbitohs and their fans are quite hard to hate, and you just feel so happy when you are around them!

During my recent trip, I had the great fortune of meeting the team in person at Redfern Oval. It was one year ago when I first visited the Rabbitohs – purely by chance – as they trained in the rain. Back then, I was still sort of a newcomer to the world of footy, and I was nervous as hell – I barely worked up enough courage to say hello. When I had blurted out that I came all the way from New York, it definitely stopped some in their tracks. I had scored a selfie and a handshake with Jason Clark, which was a pretty awesome moment.  This time around, it would prove to be even better! Once I saw the players headed to the sidelines for water, I knew it was now or never. 

Before I could say anything, I took notice of how all the fans seemed so cool with asking the players for autographs and pictures and how the players seemed so alright with that. I mean, I had seen on Facebook how they even stop for random shots with the fans at airports and restaurants. There were no angry bouncers or agents to ruin the fun and no one was being yelled at. This was almost too good to be true!  Before I could say hi, I saw Jason Clark leaning on the sideline fence. I wondered whether he would remember me. I mean, I know he follows me on Twitter, but do you suppose?’

“Jason!” I shouted, surprised that I didn’t blush heavily after that.

“Hey, Jared! Hey, mate!  How are ya?!” he said in his thick Aussie tone.  And just like that, I was in. Even though a year had passed since our last encounter, he still remembered me.

Without hesitation, I asked him to sign my homemade Rabbitohs poster that I brought with me to Sydney – a work of art that oozed red and green complete with images of Reggie, Bunnymund, and various images of the Australian bunny rabbit. He happily obliged. I had made one last year and had it signed by almost every fan in The Burrow, and this year, my new poster would have twice as many signatures. With that necessary boost of confidence, I began flagging down players left and right.

From Greg Inglis, to Adam Reynolds, to the Burgess Brothers – I felt like the luckiest Rabbitoh in the world (with all due respect to those who have been following the team longer than I have)! They seemed to stop in their tracks when I told them that I came all the way from Long Island for this. When I had asked Sam Burgess to autograph my poster, he asked “what football team do you go for?”  I answered “Giants!” with the same level of enthusiasm that I give when people ask me about the Rabbitohs.  At that moment, all the players began shouting out their allegiance; ‘Jets! Broncos! 49ers! Patriots! Seahawks!’

Finally, I came face to face with the the coach himself, Michael “Madge” Maguire.  I admire Madge, in that he gets really fired up at his team, whether they are winning or losing.  And when the team does terribly, he doesn’t mince his words or hold back.  That to me is a coach who really cares about his team and does everything in his power to ensure they do not let their fans down.

I just couldn’t help but love the fact that these amazing athletes, the very same people that I had seen on both TV and on trading cards, were so cool and humble; two traits that I feel have been somewhat absent from American professional sports.  To be fair, not everyone is an arrogant celebrity who makes zero time for the fans, but to me, the Rabbitohs represent something more than just amazing athleticism.  The players, the Members and supporters, the game, as well as their mascot, all represent what I wish professional sports exuded more of.  Oh, and their mascot, Reggie Rabbit, is undoubtedly, the coolest mascot in professional sports. 

To me, there is nothing more eye-catching than seeing a giant bunny rabbit run out onto a field leading behind him some of the biggest and most muscular athletes around! For me, meeting this lovable Aussie, this red and green relative of the Easter Bunny, was a rite of passage as a Souths fan.  Between him and singing with The Burrow, all I can say is this:  this world could use a few more Australian bunny rabbits! 

 

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