HomeNFLIrish GAA trio fly out to kick & chase their NFL dream

Irish GAA trio fly out to kick & chase their NFL dream

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Three prominent Gaelic football goalkeepers are preparing to fly to Florida for a month-long kicking camp as they close in on their pursuit of an NFL contract.

Former All-Star and Monaghan stalwart Rory Beggan, Down goalkeeper Charlie Smyth, and Wicklow’s Mark Jackson – who has scored over 100 points for the Garden County in his eight years on the senior panel – will compete at the NFL Combine in March.

They will be joined by ex-Connacht rugby player Darragh Leader in their attempt to land a contract.

These athletes have been preparing up to three times a week for the past six months under coach Tadhg Leader, who is a brother of Darragh. Tadhg is also an ex-Connacht rugby player, who founded Leader Kicking to help young Irish footballers earn US College scholarships as kickers.

After helping Laois’ Ross Bolger and Cavan’s Ronan Patterson to gain scholarships with US College teams, Leader’s group attracted interest from the NFL and their International Player Pathway (IPP).

Last week it was revealed that the three goalkeepers – and Darragh Leader – will be among those seeking a contract in front of NFL scouts at the Combine in Indianapolis on 3 March.

They will be joined at the camp by Welsh rugby star Louis Rees-Zammit, who is also chasing an NFL contract.

Tadhg Leader has subsequently been appointed the lead coach for the kicking and punting group by the NFL’s IPP. He will lead 16 athletes from eight countries to the Combine in their quest to earn a spot on an NFL roster and will showcase their talents at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis.

Timing is key and because of this programme, each NFL team can field an extra foreign player on their roster, which does not count against the roster or the salary cap.

“It would have to be something special to get me away from GAA.”

All 32 teams will send coaches and scouts to the Combine. The players will be eligible to fill a 17th practice squad roster spot on any of the 32 teams if selected in the NFL Draft.

So far, 37 international players have signed with NFL teams since the programme started in 2017 and 18 international athletes are currently on rosters.

The players see it as a chance that they simply have to attack with all guns blazing.

Beggan, 31, has won two Ulster SFC titles and an All-Star. Leaving the sport he loves will be tough.

“It would have to be something special to get me away from GAA,” he says. “There is a chance potentially that you will be back but the plan is to go out there full steam and earn a contract and a role that could change your life.

“Kicking wise I have had to make a few adjustments but a lot of what I do can transfer over. There is a lot more follow-through on the kick and a lot more attention on body position but I am getting better at it all the time and over the next few weeks more adjustments will be made as more coaches have a word with us.

“The aim is to get to Florida, prepare for the month and get the best foot forward at the Combine. It is all about trusting your natural instincts, I wouldn’t be the biggest over-thinker but I would do a lot of video work on this all the same.

“None of us here are going over lightly. We’re going over there to try and get a contract.”

Mark Jackson (above left) in action for his county

These players have typical styles accrued from years of playing Gaelic football, with different swings and angles of approach.

Leader feels a lot of it is repeatable and helps them to adapt mechanically.

Wicklow man Jackson says that Leader’s vision will change the landscape here.

“This wasn’t a dream for Irish kids up until this year,” he says. “This is the first time that Irish guys will get a chance to do something like this.

“The opportunity came for me six months ago when I contacted Tadhg. I spoke to family and people close to me and there was a tough chat to have, as I have been around the Wicklow panel for so long. Going into my ninth season and stepping away is not easy. But this is too big not to take the chance.

“I have found that actual striking of the ball is not too bad. The transition has been OK and the main focus for me is the operation time, from snap to hold to kick.

“We have done a good body of work and I’d love to be the first guy born and raised in Ireland to get over there and make it in and create a pathway of talent from here. You see Australians going to the NFL punting – why can’t the Irish?”

As for Leader himself the journey has accelerated so quickly.

“I only started this a year and a half ago,” he says. “It was to introduce Irish lads to college football. Fast forward to here and we are doing it with the NFL and that’s simply down to the level of talent in Ireland.

“I am just providing an avenue to help that flow.

“The NFL is the world’s biggest league and barriers to entry are high; the standard is high, but it is exciting and the lads have already done so well to get this far. They have consistently shown they can perform the skills and now they will do it for the 32 teams.

“They will be in front of the whole world come 1 March.”

Charlie Smyth: ‘Kicking wise it suits me.’

For Charlie Smyth, who won an Ulster Under-20 football title with his county, his talent was obvious coming through the ranks of Down.

A stylish kicker, he has recently finished college with a teaching degree and while he was in the Down senior set-up, he was not tied to a permanent post.

“It’s tough to leave Gaelic football but it is something I am willing to do,” he says.

“Kicking wise it suits me. I tend to follow through more now with my kicks but my kick-off has not changed too much and it’s just a process now.

“Interest is growing in what we are doing but if you think about the Combine event too much you will only get caught up in stuff you can’t control.

“I know that if we go there and perform well, we will all be in with a serious shout.”

Watch Kerry v Derry in the Allianz Football League on Saturday from 5pm on RTÉ2 and RTÉ Player, follow a live blog on rte.ie/sport and the RTÉ News app and listen to updates on Saturday Sport on RTÉ Radio 1


Watch highlights on Allianz League Sunday on RTÉ2 and RTÉ Player from 9.30pm, follow a live blog every Sunday afternoon on rte.ie/sport and the RTÉ News app and listen to live updates on Sunday Sport on RTÉ Radio 1

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