HomeNFLSteelers Tap into Rising Wave of NFL Popularity in Ireland

Steelers Tap into Rising Wave of NFL Popularity in Ireland

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PITTSBURGH — Six months ago, Mark Jackson had never kicked an American football. Now, he’s kicking for the Pittsburgh Steelers, as part of a significant trend around the NFL and Ireland this offseason.

It’s been a whirlwind few months from Jackson, a native of Wicklow, Ireland, who had obviously heard of the NFL before this year, but had never considered it a realistic career path. 
Wicklow was a goalkeeper for the GAA side Baltinglass. The GAA is Gaelic football, an Irish sport that combines rules of soccer and rugby, similarity to Australian football in a different part of the world.

That sport has been sending kickers and punters — and now, even position players, like Philadelphia Eagles tackle Jordan Mailata, to the NFL for years. In 2023, there were six Australian players in the NFL, more than any foreign country other than Canada and Nigeria.

Gaelic football has a different-sized stadium, and uses a round ball instead of the more-familiar football/rugby ball shape of the Aussie rules ball. But the sports are similar enough that teams have played international competitions based on a combination of the two rules sets.

“I suppose it’s probably a mixture between rugby and soccer, so somewhere kind of in between the two,” Jackson said on Friday at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex. “It’s a heavy hitting game. It’s all action. It’s completely different to this. But I lucky I’m a goalkeeper, so the actual kicking side of it, it is very transferrable across. We kick freeze in Gaelic football. There’s only two sports in the world that kick a ball directly off ground, up and over uprights, which is Gaelic football and American football, so there’s definitely transferrable skills there.”

So if Australian football players can take the NFL by storm, why shouldn’t Gaelic footballers be the next in line?

There were two such players in the league last season, Green Bay Packers punter Daniel Whelan and Las Vegas Raiders kicker James McCourt. This offseason, Charlie Smyth signed with the New Orleans Saints. There’s a good reason NFL teams are interested. Most of the players that were signed are goalkeepers in the GAA, which means they kick the ball long distances, but also do so in a targeted fashion, trying to attempt to pass it to a teammate running down the field.

That sounds an awful lot like the new NFL kickoff rule, where kickers are going to be asked to put the ball in a specific spot to maximize the coverage, but with stiff penalties for the ball landing short of the box, going out of the bounds or into the end zone.

“The main thing of Gaelic football with goalkeepers these days is kickouts,” Jackson said. “So a kickout is basically, it’s like being the quarterback in American football, so you’re trying to pick out guys in pockets of space and running onto the ball. Especially with this new kickoff rule, I think it suits us Irish guys. We’re not small guys either, we’re big and strong, so we can make tackles. We’ve taken hits in different sports. With the new kickoff rule, having to place the ball in certain areas of the field, that’s what we’ve grown up doing, that’s our bread and butter, really.”

That, combined with the big leg required to do the job — Jackson said he’s made a 70-yard field goal in practice — makes the athletes involved pretty tempting. That’s not to say the transition will be easy. Kickoffs are just one part of the job. Irish kickers will have to get used to a snapper and a holder, the three-step kick, the getting the ball up over an oncoming rush, and the slightly narrower uprights. NFL uprights are 18 feet, five inches apart, GAA goals are about 21 feet, 4 inches wide.

“You’re, obviously, you’re working on op times and you’re working with a snapper and a holder, working on that kind of operation, that’s probably the thing you have to get the most used to,” Jackson said. “The ball is round, so that’s obviously a big difference. The sweet spot on an American football is smaller, because it’s a smaller ball and it’s a different shape, but the actual contact points and your foot position on the ball is quite similar.”

If an Irish revolution is coming to the NFL, you’d expect the Pittsburgh Steelers to be a the forefront of it. One of two teams to play in Ireland — the Steelers played the Chicago Bears in a preseason game in Dublin in 1997 — the Steelers are one of three NFL teams to have an international marketing agreement in Ireland, and the only team to have one across the entire island. Late Steelers owner Dan Rooney was the United States Ambassador to Ireland from 2009-12.

“The NFL Ireland has growing so much probably in the last couple of years and this year, today seeing high profile, getting footballers go over and try to handle the kickers.” Jackson said. “The reach of the NFL has grown so much and obviously the Steelers having a big Irish presences has definitely helped with that as well. Having watch shows at the Super Bowl in Ireland, watching games in Ireland, so the NFL has grown so much in Ireland and yeah, I think when you can see pathways from Irish guys to get over into the NFL, that’s only going to grow.”

The Steelers have committed to playing in Ireland in the near future, though perhaps not before they play a game in Mexico. They also have an international marketing agreement in Germany. But make no mistake, Art Rooney II wants to see his team back on the Emerald Isle.

“Sometime over the next few years, we’re really looking forward to playing a game over in Dublin,” he said in March.

And when they’re there, it’s pretty reasonable to think they may be bringing an Irish player with them.

“I want to be living proof that a guy from Ireland can come across to America and make it in the NFL,” Jackson said. “That’s why I’m here. I’m here for no other reason. You can see the last couple of months the growth — it’s guys from our heritage sport of Gaelic football coming across here — that you can transfer across and, yeah, you can see how much the NFL is growing in Ireland, and I want to be part of that.”

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