T he St. Kilda football club players have been easy to spot in Boulder this past week, wearing matching black-and-red uniforms and holding oddly shaped footballs.
Team members say most Boulderites give them perplexed looks or ask who they are. But for some Australian expats living in Boulder and Denver, the Saints are living legends -- athletic celebrities on the same scale as Peyton Manning and his Denver Broncos -- bringing a little piece of home to Colorado.
Mathew Hayward, an associate business professor at the University of Colorado-Boulder and a Melbourne native, took a few minutes before class to head to the CU football practice fields for a look at his favorite Melbourne-based Australian Football League team.
He posed for a picture with Saints midfielder Lenny Hayes, shook his hand and congratulated him on a great career.
"It would be like an American from Boulder going to Melbourne and being able to have a chat to Peyton Manning and have their photograph taken," said Hayward, beaming. "You'd have to go to Melbourne to appreciate the significance of these guys in our city. These people are household names. To have the experience of looking in his eyes and wishing him well, I would never get the opportunity in Australia."
The Saints' 16-day trip to Boulder serves as their pre-season camp for the upcoming season. Team members hope training at altitude will give them a competitive edge when the season begins in March, since Australia's average elevation is 1,000 feet.
The AFL, comparable to the National Football League in the United States, was founded in 1897 and has 18 teams spread over five states in Australia.
Coach Scott Watters said he was astounded to find diehard fans in Colorado.
"When you come to Colorado, the last thing you expect to see is really passionate St. Kilda supporters," he said. "To be able to bring the game to them is outstanding but it also makes us realize how proud we should be of our football club."
Though it won't happen overnight, midfielder Farren Ray said growing the game in the U.S. is one of the league's goals.
"Anything we can do for the AFL in the United States is big for us," he said.
Barry McInnes, an information technology specialist for the National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration in Boulder, grew up near Melbourne and moved to America in 1984. He met his wife here, and the pair lived in Australia for several years until moving back to Boulder permanently in 1993.
At age 59, McInnes has been a St. Kilda fan for at least the last five decades. The team celebrates its 140th season this year, and that legacy is easy to see in their supporters' loyalty.
"In Australia, once you're with a team, you have to stick with them," he said. "You can't change very easily. The fans follow them through thick and thin."
McInnes makes a trip to Australia every three or four years, though with rising travel costs, he said it was nice for a piece of home to come to Colorado.
The biggest difference between American football and Australian football games, McInnes said, is that Australian games aren't over until they're over.
"It's not stop-start all the time, so there are a lot more chances to score," he said. "A team can get very far ahead, they can get 30, 40, 50 points ahead, and the other team has a chance to come back. People tend to watch the whole game in Australia."
Australian "footy" can be played recreationally, too, McInnes added. Some people play well into their 40s and 50s in local leagues.
Kalin Swain, 33, came to Colorado eight years ago for graduate school. She spent most of her childhood in Perth, Australia, supporting the West Coast Eagles, but she said she didn't mind rooting for another team this week.
Swain, who is one of nearly 500 Australians in the "OzDenver" group for expats, attended the Saints' open practice last weekend on the CU campus.
The Saints met with some Broncos players and attended Sunday's game against the Bucs for some international football mingling.
"It's a really good exchange between two countries," she said.
Denver has its own Australian-rules team, the Denver Bulldogs. The team's former president, James Waddell, became executive director for Boulder B-Cycle earlier this month.
Waddell, a native of Perth, Australia, moved here in 2004 after working as an international scout for the New York Mets. He became a U.S. citizen about a month ago, he said.
The Bulldogs formed in the late 1990s for a group of Australians "who were missing their home sport," Waddell said. The men's team has won eight national championships, and the women's team has won three.
Bulldogs' current president, American Adam Wufsus, said because he didn't grow up playing footy, like many of his Australian teammates, having the Saints in town has improved his game.
"Our exposure to really, really high level footy and the culture associated with it is fairly limited," he said. "To see how professionals train and how they act is a tremendous benefit."
--Follow Sarah Kuta on Twitter: @SarahKuta.