Gavin Willacy: The American Dream

No Helmets Required is a book written by Gavin Willacy. It is also the greatest sports story that you’ve never heard, until now.

 The book tells the story of sports promoter Mike Dimitro and his American All Stars. A rugby league side in the 1950s made up of American football players that, with next to no preparation, headed to Australia to take on the best club sides in the world.

Their tale is without doubt one of the great rugby league stories and, up until 2013, it was still waiting to be told in its entirety.

It all started way back in the early 2000s, journalist and author Willacy read an article about Dimitro and his team taking on Australia and New Zealand in a hope to kickstart rugby league in the US. The article written by historian, Tony Collins in Our Game magazine, peaked his interest immediately.

Willacy originally wanted to write a history of American rugby league but that all changed in January 2003. The sports journalist found himself in California with his fascination with the All Stars still intact. He’d seen a little bit more about the story but wanted to see if he could find it out directly from the men involved. So he began his decade-long journey, by searching for an All Star with an obscure name, Gary Kerkorian.

From here Willacy found himself on a journey that he will never forget, from driving a vintage BMW across San Francisco Bay to travelling the streets of Oakland on Super Bowl Sunday, every aspect of his journey was memorable. But nothing was more memorable than the people that he got to meet along the way.

“They certainly were extremely welcoming, one and all. It was a case of them being typically American, and in particular Californian, welcoming guests into their country and into their homes, especially wanting to share their story with someone who is interested in their history.

‘These were educated, mature men who had very happy memories of a time in their lives that they loved remembering.”

 Mike Dimitro, the man behind it all, had reinvented himself on many different occasions, changing his wife, job, name and even his age countless times. Dimitro was convinced that there was room in the sports market of America for rugby league.

‘Iron Mike’, as he became known, was definitely enigmatic, but he was also extremely driven and this led to him taking a side to Australia and New Zealand to play no less than 26 matches. The All Stars managed to compete throughout, winning seven and drawing two, an amazing accomplishment for a side whose first training session as a team was their first training session ever. They even played their first two games in gridiron gear, long pants and all – minus the helmets of course.

The games were high scoring and the crowds were great, at first. Almost 65,000 packed into the Sydney Cricket Ground, with a few thousand more locked outside, to see the All Stars lose to Sydney, 52-25. However, the Tour had gone ahead on the basis that Dimitro would be bringing the ‘cream of the NFL’ with him and that he had been coaching the side for months to play rugby league.

As it turns out, Dimitro didn’t even have a team at this stage and only managed to attract retirees and some ex and current college football players to his side. Not only had Dimitro lied to the Australian and New Zealand rugby league boards, but to his players as well.

All Star, Al D Kirkland said that the team didn’t even know what rugby league was and worse still, they didn’t know that they would be playing it in Australia. That being said, the team went on to win their first game on foreign soil 34-25 against a Southern division side. Despite scoring 557 overall points, the All Stars were no match for the seasoned professionals that they came up against, conceding 771 points and losing 17 of their fixtures.

The story of Dimitro and his All Stars seems to be, on the surface, a tale of failure. However, it is a story of drama, controversy, courage, determination and, in the face of overwhelming adversity, the desire to achieve the impossible.

Willacy states that unfortunately, Dimitro’s dream never became a reality, but the tale of how he went about trying to chase his goal is an intriguing one.

“Dimitro and the All Stars did nothing for rugby league in the States, unfortunately. The book tells the story of a series of missed opportunities, some the fault of the governing bodies in England and Australia, some because of who Dimitro was.

“The appetite for the game was never tested and the sports space was occupied by the 1960s. It had a chance of doing something in the 50s, but that came and went.”

Ironically, as No Helmets Required was being published, the USA were playing in the Rugby League World Cup for the first time ever and the USARL is doing all it can to further develop the sport in America. Gavin Willacy’s interest in this inspiring story took him on a ten-year journey and the book promises to give you a true insight into what really happened.

There were a lot of moments that touched Gavin Willacy when he was writing No Helmets Required – too many to name just one.

 “Meeting Jack Bonetti, who caught polio on the tour and never played again, meeting the Kerkorian family, whose dad Gary was a star on tour and won a national football championship with the Colts – the family came to the launch at USC, which was very special to me. Being by Al D. Kirkland’s bedside when he sent away his nurse so he could talk to me. I feel privileged to have been allowed to tell their story.”

 And what a story it is. The book, which has been critically acclaimed, has also been mooted for a possible documentary.

“The film is a project in the very early stages. We are talking to documentary makers and hoping that someone takes up the option. We feel if we can get the documentary made, a feature film could follow. We have a promo (which can be watched above) made by Mark McLinden, the former London Broncos player, and Simon Lenagan from Wigan Warriors. It should give people a flavour of what the film would look like.”

 No Helmets Required can be bought on Amazon both in print and for Kindle here.

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