A decade ago, Mesa resident Danielle Marshall was flipping through channels and stumbled across a sport she didn't know existed.
It didn't take long for Marshall to fall in love with the sport, master it, and ultimately make some American history.
Earlier this week, Marshall became the first American woman to sign a professional contract with the Australian Football League. She will begin her career with the AFL Women's Western Bulldogs, a club located just outside Melbourne, Australia, next season.
"That’s kind of weird, to think about being the first one to do anything. No one can take that away; I’ll always be the first one," the 27-year-old Marshall said. "But it’s humbling to know there are a lot of other American girls who have gone out there to pave the way to give me the hope to do it."
Marshall is originally from Colorado, and she and her husband Ryan relocated to the Valley for his job four years ago. She has always been an athlete; she played soccer at the collegiate level, and also competed in cross country, basketball, rugby and Ultimate Frisbee.
But Marshall's passion for Australian rules football, commonly known as footy Down Under, grew because it allowed her to combine all of her skills -- kicking, catching, running and tackling -- into a single sport.
"I like that it’s full contact because I didn’t really have the opportunity to do that growing up," she said. "And soccer was my main sport, so I’m very comfortable in a sport where I can kick with my feet. But I also always loved the catching of American football, and being able to be a receiver or whatever, and so combining the two is just super cool. Kicking and catching both being useful skills in the same game is awesome."
The opportunity for Marshall to play in Australia arose while she was competing for the Arizona Hawks of the United States Australian Football League -- a league she says is growing in popularity, especially among women. It was during a USAFL game that was discovered by a sports agent with ties to the Bulldogs.
Marshall was invited to play in an Australian semi-pro league, and her performance there impressed the Bulldogs so much that they offered her a contract to play for their top-tier club. But the decision to relocate halfway around the world wasn't an automatic one for her and Ryan, who works at Honeywell in the Valley.
"It was definitely a process where so many things happened. We just really felt like God was leading us to Australia," she said. "We were kind of like, OK, the doors are opening, and this looks like it’s what we’re supposed to be doing.
"I feel like it’s harder for me to ask him to leave his job because he loves his co-workers, he loves his job, the company has been really good to him and he’s kind of someone that’s comfortable with what he’s doing. He’s not the biggest fan of change, and so for me, to know that I’m asking him to leave all of that and come with me was definitely a big ask. Luckily, I have a really supportive husband, and he might even be more excited than me. He says it’ll be so cool to be able to tell our kids that their mom got to go play professional sports and do all that stuff."
Marshall runs her own laser engraving business and plans to continue it when they move to Australia. She and Ryan had planned on starting a family, but they've decided to put that on hold for now.
Marshall doesn't know what her AFLW career will look like -- and she's not even sure whether she'll play more on the offensive or defensive side of the ball. But regardless of what happens, she hopes her journey will pave the way for American women with similar skillsets to eventually follow her path all the way Down Under.
"(It's great) to know I can represent the USAFL in Australia and raise awareness that the sport exists and you can play it, and maybe give other girls an entry into the future," she said.
"I haven’t played in the AFL yet. Maybe I don’t turn out to be an All-Star or whatever, but maybe it paves the way for other Americans I could do this, I could give this a try, and impact the league in the future."