There are deeply entrenched ties between the United States and Ireland – just ask US President Joe Biden.
Rarely if ever though has that unwavering relationship between the two countries branched out into the sporting ether – both nations pursuing their own national field sports in a manner which arguably borders on religious observance.
For Ireland, that sport is Gaelic football, with the 15-man ball game a central tenet of not just the nation’s sporting identity, but it’s cultural one too.
With a storied 140-year history, the game was once a motivating force in the resistance against the British empire, and has since gone on to blossom into one of the world’s leading amateur sporting institutions, drawing hundreds of thousands of spectators each summer.
With players moonlighting as postmen and teachers, along with its entirely different rule set, Gaelic football ostensibly bares no correlation to its American cousin across the Atlantic Ocean, where contracts can scale into the hundreds of millions of dollars.
Upon closer scrutiny though, there may be more crossover than people might think, according to one NFL kicking coach. So much so that Tadhg Leader believes that Ireland’s national ball game could prove to be the perfect breeding ground for the NFL’s next generation of kicking talent.
“Only two sports in the world put the ball directly onto the grass and then ask you to kick the ball straight up between two upright posts – American football and Gaelic football. No one else does that,” NFL kicking coach Leader told CNN Sport.
“In rugby, it’s on a tee and soccer is low between a goal. The uniqueness of Gaelic footballers is that they’ve been performing this skill since they were children.
“They’ve more than put their 10,000 hours in, albeit with a different ball but the crossover with it being off the deck is there. That’s why I believe the Irish can become such talented place kickers. Then, with punting, dropping the ball from the hands, that’s another crucial aspect of Gaelic football too.”
Tadhg Leader signs a contract with the Panthers Wrocław in 2021.
Last week, the expansion of the 2024 NFL International Player Pathway (IPP) was confirmed, seeing kickers and punters now included on the 16-man roster for the first time.
The IPP, which was originally established in 2017, aims to provide elite international athletes with the opportunity to compete at the NFL Combine in the hopes of earning a spot on an active NFL roster.
This year’s cohort sees nine nations represented, further emphasizing the growing global reach of the NFL. Five of the 16 players selected have been categorized as kickers or punters, with four of the five athletes coming from Ireland.
For an island of just over five million people, that’s no small achievement to boast a quarter of the entire IPP roster, and 80% of its kicking talent.
Rory Beggan, Mark Jackson and Charlie Smyth all come from intercounty Gaelic football backgrounds, with Darragh Leader, younger brother of coach Tadhg, transitioning from professional rugby.
“It’s the most perfect fit, I’m just shocked it’s taken until 2024 for this to happen,” Tadhg Leader told CNN Sport.
“I was speaking to the offensive coordinators of multiple NFL teams recently and they just had never heard of Gaelic football. I showed them game footage and they were blown away. They just haven’t seen it as the GAA [Gaelic Athletic Association] doesn’t have the global exposure,” Leader added.
Despite the apparent similarities in ball striking, these four Irish athletes still face quite a challenge to then ultimately progress to a NFL roster.
“This is extremely niche,” said Leader. “This is extremely challenging. You’re trying to break into the biggest league in the world in a sport you’ve not played before. The vast, vast majority of guys simply wouldn’t have the ability to do it.
“If any country in the world does have the raw materials to do it, it’s Ireland though,” he added.
Andrew Surma/NurPhoto/Getty Images
Darragh Leader runs with the ball during the Guinness PRO14 match between Connacht Rugby and Benetton Rugby.
With no athlete having ever previously made the leap from Gaelic games to the NFL, Leader feels that his own experiences chasing the football dream in North America can be of huge benefit to this year’s IPP prospects.
Having transitioned from professional rugby into his adopted sport during the Covid pandemic, Leader quickly rose through the ranks despite his unconventional background, and following a season playing in Europe, he found himself lining out in the Canadian Football League for the Hamilton Tiger Cats.
It was this unconventional background though which ultimately saw Leader be contacted by the NFL last year to help expand its IPP program into including kickers and punters.
His role was to aid in overseeing trialists from across the globe who attended the NFL’s international combine at Loughborough University in the UK, before the selection of the five IPP kicking prospects was made.
One of those prospects is Rory Beggan, an intercounty Gaelic footballer for Monaghan. With over a decade’s experience at the highest level of the sport, the 31-year-old made the decision to step away from the game he has played since childhood due to the “unbelievable” opportunity of being part of the IPP.
“It was a tough decision to take a step away from Gaelic football for the time being because it’s been such a huge part of my life. But it’s hugely exciting. When you see the news breaking on the NFL social pages it just starts to hit home about what a big deal it is,” Beggan told CNN.
Ahead of being part of the first ever group of Irish athletes to compete at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis between February 29 and March 4, Beggan and the other IPP kickers travelled to Boston to spend time training at the New England Patriots’ practice facilities.
“It was surreal training at the Patriots facility. It was so different to what we are used to coming from Gaelic football, apart from the weather which was pretty similar to Ireland. Getting to be in that environment and getting an idea as to what the set-up was like was an amazing experience,” added Beggan.
“And in terms of being the first Irish athletes at the Combine, it’s an unbelievable opportunity to represent your country and try to create a pathway for guys back home,” Beggan said.
Damien Meyer/AFP/Getty Images
Members of the US Liffre Gaelic football team take part in a training session.
The next destination for Beggan and the other athletes on the IPP prior to the NFL Combine will be Florida where they will spend the next six weeks training, reviewing footage and making technical adjustments ahead of what will be a landmark occasion in Irish sport.
From the analysis already done by the Gaelic star, he’s earmarked two current NFL kickers as sources of inspiration ahead of the Combine.
“I’ve of course been watching the kickers extremely closely,” said Beggan. “Justin Tucker (Baltimore Ravens) is definitely the big name at the moment, but others like Brandon Aubrey (Dallas Cowboys) too and seeing his transition from the MLS has been one for me to study.”
As to his chances in making the breakthrough in the sport, Beggan feels that it is not only the aforementioned crossover in ball striking between football and Gaelic football which will set him apart, but also his ability to handle pressure which has been honed over the last decade.
“I’ve been at this from a very young age so striking a ball has been built into me,’ reflected Beggan.
“There is the pressure part too. Gaelic football is probably the main sport in Ireland. I have played in front of 80,000 people at Croke Park and taken big pressure kicks. There are not many athletes out there who can say they’ve had that experience.”
With Dan Whelan, a punter for the Green Bay Packers, this season becoming the first Irish-born athlete to play in the NFL in over four decades, Beggan is hoping that he and his compatriots can follow in his footsteps and begin to pave the way for Irish athletes, and establish a firm pathway into the sport for Irish kicking talent.
“We don’t know what we are getting ourselves into. It’s one of the biggest opportunities in all of sport,” Beggan added.
“To think that someone from a place like Scotstown in Monaghan could be potentially playing in the NFL … it would really be amazing to be a part of something like that and to help pave the way for others with a similar dream.”