Written by Spinner Howland (Axemen Co-Owner and Founder)
In early 2008 I received and email from a young man, and one of his mates, from Australia who wanted to come to the USA and play a season of Rugby League for the Jacksonville Axemen. This week, October 24, 2013, Brent Shorten said farewell to the Axemen and Jacksonville. The following is the story of how in six years he became an ambassador for the sport of Rugby League and for Australia.
Brent Shorten arrived in Jacksonville along with fellow Australian Shaun Murray in early 2008 to play for the Jacksonville Axemen. It was evident after picking them both up at the airport that they had no idea what to expect, nor how life would be in the USA, but just as evident that they were both very professional about their approach to the game. Both Brent and Shaun lived with me for that season and with the addition of Simon Moate as the third import player (also from Australia) there were often times when the four of us sat around on my deck drinking beers and talking about “Footy” (Rugby League) back home and a lot about strategy for the Axemen.
In 2007 the Axemen had not made the playoffs (the only year we have not done so) and from the very first pre-season game that was played against the visiting New Zealand Police team, it was evident that 2008 would be different. With three guys from Australia now in key positions on the field, and an incredible group of local players the Axemen became a force to be reckoned within our competition. The skills that were passed onto the local players, along with the professional approach to the game, was immediate. The level of every part of preparation and play was improved. Coaching the team became easier as the basics were now second nature and more complex systems could be implemented as the local players embraced the approach of the three imports.
Off the field all three Australians also embraced the promotion of the game and attended all the marketing events, helped with media interviews, handed out flyers and tickets and pushed the Axemen and Rugby League with a passion for the sport that was grown since birth. All three of them played a key role in taking the Axemen to new heights both on and off the field and that was rewarded with the team going deep into playoffs and bowing our in the semi-finals.
2009 saw the return of Brent Shorten and Simon Moate, who where joined by former NRL and Superleague star Sean Rutgerson who would take over the head coaching role. Sean bought a system to the Axemen that was not only familiar to both Brent, Simon and myself, but it was his coaching style that allowed all the local players to understand and embrace the big steps needed to be successful in a more intense and complex game plan. With Rutcho leading the way as our coach, and Brent becoming the general on the field, the Axemen went undefeated all the way thru to the National Championship where we were beaten by the New York Knights. By far the most successful season of a team that was now only 4 years old.
Off the field Rutcho, along with the help of Brent and Simon, implemented a youth program that run thru the summer at two local schools. Every week all three players would dedicate time to spend hours with the kids not only to teach Rugby League, but also to share stories and cultural exchanges about Australia as a nation. With Rutcho and Shorto at the helm, the Axemen began a regular season home game winning streak that is yet to be broken five years later. It is hard to believe that the last regular season home game that the Axemen lost was in 2008.
At the end of 2009 the Axemen lost Simon Moate and Sean Rutgerson who both returned to Australia. But Brent Shorten committed to a multi year deal with the Axemen that would see him in Jacksonville for three more years. Due to his commitment to both the Axemen and the development of the sport he became an integral part of our future plans. So 2010 started with me taking over the head-coaching role again and two new import players, Luke Gray and Adrian Grayson from Australia, arriving into Jacksonville. With Brent Shorten now a veteran of the team and familiar with the city, the merging of players from Australia was easier and the culture shock factor minimal for the new arrivals. Following the ground work laid down by Rutcho the Axemen continued to build to more and more complex playing systems. It was also easy to see the development of the local players each season with more and more domestic interest in the Axemen and Rugby League, and the culture of the Axemen had become professional with players committing to multiple training sessions, video sessions, weight sessions and rehabilitation workout sessions on Sundays after games. Brent Shorten continued both as the leader on the field, and instrumental in the promotional development of the team with his continued community involvement that was now seeing him visit schools for cultural events where we was sharing exchanges about Australia to students. He also continued to push the local players to increase their performance at every level. To be honest with Brent, Adrian and Luke now taking key roles in a team of guys who were working as one unit, coaching the Axemen was more just fitness and running through execution of the game plan. The team was pretty much coaching itself. The season ended with the Jacksonville Axemen becoming Undefeated National Champions after a win over the New Haven Warriors in Philadelphia. And thus the regular season home game record remained in tact.
Later that year Brent Shorten had fulfilled the residency requirement time, and had played Rugby League exclusively in the USA, that he became eligible to represent the USA in the Atlantic Cup against Canada and Jamaica where the USA won both games and the Cup.
2011 started with a second visit from the New Zealand Police team and it was Brent Shorten who headed up the pre-season preparations for the Axemen to get ready for this battle. After going down to the same team by a score of 52 to 16 in 2008, the Axemen showed how much they had improved by almost upsetting the visitors with a loss of only 34 to 32.
The full 2011 season saw only one new import player, Luke Srama from Australia, arrive with the Axemen. The view was that we had developed enough local talent that we no longer needed to be reliant on imports and with Brent Shorten now playing such a role in all aspects of the team, the culture of the Axemen had become a very serious and professional approach for all players, that our preparation each season was comparable to teams in Australia. We had developed preseason training camps, preseason games, preseason team bonding events and players were committed to the team results above almost anything else over their summer schedules. In fact we had so many players showing up for training camp from all over Florida that we decided to create a “Minor League” competition that would see potential Axemen players form teams in Jacksonville, Orlando and Daytona. And again Brent Shorten would step up and assist in coaching and operation of the minor league system.
The season started with a very unique award for Brent Shorten that will go down in team history when he was named one of the Top 10 Hottest Men in Jacksonville by Jacksonville Magazine. Not only was this a great chance for the players to give him a little grief but truly a massive shot in the arm for the promotion of the Axemen brand and the sport. People in Jacksonville who were not part of our targeted demographic were now aware of the brand and the sport due to Brent Shorten. Shorto was now the “pretty face” of the team, and to be honest he took the digs from the guys in stride and was the total professional when recognized by the community.
The season again was a huge success and although the Axemen would bow out with a defeat from the New Haven Warriors in the Semi-Finals, the progress of the sport both in Jacksonville and the USA was improving and the Axemen brand continued to grow in Jacksonville as our fan base and game day attendance increased. But with the loss coming in the semi final the regular season home game record remained strong and would continue into 2012.
It was Brent Shortens link to Australia and his former club that brought another team to the USA. The Helensburg Tigers, where both Brent and Shaun Murray had played at prior to their 2008 arrival in the USA, arrived along with the British Police team that allowed for the 2011 Atlantic Cup to be hosted in Jacksonville where the Axemen would face off against two international teams. Not only did this see the return of Shaun Murray to Jacksonville, it would see the two former teammates square off against each other. The event was a huge success with each team winning and losing a game, and the British Police being named winners by point difference. Proof that the Axemen had come a long way in only 6 years.
Then arrived 2012, what was to be Brent Shortens final year with the Axemen. After I finally retired from the field it was decided to again bring in two import players to help Brent improve the Axemen, so Matt Keeley and Nathan Tait arrived from Australia. With so many local Axemen players now becoming true stars in their own right and the level of play across the Axemen and our minor league teams was becoming extremely competitive. With Matt Keeley stepping in as a coach and Brent Shorten being named captain, the Axemen set about regaining the National Champion Trophy. From the very first pre-season event this season would be special. The Axemen brand was growing, attendance was growing and the sport of Rugby League was becoming known in the general Jacksonville community. Every player in the Axemen system seemed more committed than ever to win it all and Brent faced the challenge head on. Off the field he pushed harder than ever to get the Axemen brand into the community. Along with many other players he had helped develop a culture that meant playing for the Axemen also meant giving time to promote and market the team and the game. He attended every promotional event and volunteered with every community function and he encouraged everyone else on the team to join him. On the field he joined with Nathan and Matt to get players to extra sessions, improve fitness, attend more gym sessions and to commit to truly playing the game at the top level. The season ended with the Axemen, for the second time in three years, becoming Undefeated National Champions by beating the Boston 13s in Boston, and of course extending the regular season home game win streak to 4 complete years. The Axemen were honored by the Jacksonville Jaguars by being introduced to Jacksonville on the field during the pre-game of the opening game to the NFL Season. And so the Axemen thought they would say good-bye to Brent Shorten, but that was not to be.
At the start of 2013 I decided to step down from any coaching role with the Axemen and with Matt Keeley being offered an incredible opportunity in Australia, the Axemen went searching for a coach. Guess who stepped up? Brent Shorten decided to put his return to Australia on hold for one more season and would also agree to coach the team. We reached out to Josh Cock from Australia who would be our only true import for 2013. He was joined by Jay Mombu who is from Papua New Guinea and attending pilot school near Daytona, and Gareth Walker from the UK who had recently moved to the Orlando area with his employer. This gave the Axemen their most globally diverse team ever. Adding in the fold players from Iraq, Tonga and Samoa, the Axemen brand now spanned seven countries. Brent took the challenge in stride and the team progressed thru the pre-season as good as ever. He added some system changes and improved others to get the best mix of guys on the field ever week. Due to injury the Axemen had an opportunity to promote 5 players into the top team from our Minor League system over the season, and Brent prepared them for top-level competition with ease. For the forth time in five years the Jacksonville Axemen made their way into the National Championship game, and although they lost to the Philadelphia Fight in Philadelphia, the regular season home game streak remains in tack for the fifth consecutive year and the Axemen brand continues to grow stronger and the sport of Rugby League continues to become more recognizable in Jacksonville and the USA.
Late in the season Brent was again given the honor of representing the USA on the International level during the Colonial Cup against Canada. He scored in all the games he played and during the final game that gave the USA the Cup, he scored tree tries and was named the game MVP. Truly a high note to end his time in the USA.
Import players like Brent Shorten have shown a selfless dedication to growing a new sport in a country where it is mostly unknown, and for that we are grateful. However, to return for 6 years, do so much off the field in development, to promote not only the sport, but also for Australia, Brent truly is both am Ambassador for Rugby League and his Country.
In his six years at the Axemen, Brent Shorten has helped us reach four National Championships, win two of them, create a five season long unbeaten regular season home game streak, help create a minor league system in Florida, win multiple MVP awards including the 2010 National Championship MVP, become one of the leading point scorers in Axemen history and the USA, become a Head Coach, be named to the USA National Team multiple times, win an MVP Award for an international game and become a dedicated Ambassador to the Sport of Rugby League at a Global Level, and to the Country of Australia.
So this week the Axemen and Jacksonville said farewell to Brent Shorten when he returned to Australia to begin a career in the Queensland Police Service. The Axemen will forever be indebted to Brent and are thankful for his years of service. I am certain I speak on behalf of the Axemen, the Axe Maidens, our fans and our sponsors in saying “Thanks Mate” and you will always be welcome to return to Jacksonville anytime you like.