Leading Athletes to Football

11/01/2023
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    Irish kicker Andy Quinn, second left, lines up for a field goal attempt in warmups before a kicking competition in Dublin, Ireland. (AP/Kenneth Maguire)
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    Tadhg Leader started as a rugby player. He then branched out to football. (Photo courtesy of the New England Free Jacks)
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    Children play Gaelic football. The game uses a ball that’s slightly smaller than a soccer ball. The ball can be kicked or punched. (Derrick Mealiffe/CC BY-SA 2.0)
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    American football is not very popular in Ireland. But some hope to grow a fan base there. Here, Notre Dame celebrates a touchdown against Navy during an NCAA college football game in Dublin, Ireland, in August 2023. (AP/Peter Morrison)
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Could a new wave of football kickers come from Ireland’s athletic programs? Tadhg (pronounced TIE-guh) Leader thinks so.

The former rugby player from Galway, Ireland, saw potential. He quit his job to focus full-time on finding and developing Irish “leg talent” for American football.

Leader started Leader Kicking about a year ago. He brought two Irishmen on a summer tour of U.S. kicking camps. Both men came away with scholarships to Championship Subdivision schools. (Those are in the second-highest level of competitive college sports in the United States.)

Leader says, “It’s part of our heritage where we kick a Gaelic football, we kick a rugby ball, we kick a soccer ball. . . . It translates perfectly to American football.” So he sought a way to connect the dots.

Inspired to build a talent pipeline, Leader set a goal to send 100 Irishmen on scholarships to U.S. schools over the next decade.

None have experience with American football, but the talent is there.

“For every 10 new guys who turn up, two of them are banging from 55, 57 yards high, clean field goals,” Leader boasts.

Challenges for players coming from Ireland include learning American college athletics and putting other sports aside.

Leader has some high-profile sponsors and partners for his program. They include Delta Air Lines and the Pittsburgh Steelers. That NFL team wants to grow its fan base in Ireland. It donated game tickets to the winner of a recent kicking contest.

Delta flew Leader and two others from his program, Ross Bolger and Ronan Patterson, to the United States this summer for college camp visits.

Bolger has played Gaelic football since age five. He won field goal competitions at University of Connecticut and Boston College camps. He also punts—with both feet!

“We’re getting questions from coaches,” Leader says. They want to know who else has the talent and desire to kick college ball on the other side of the pond.

Both Boston College and Vanderbilt were interested in Bolger as a kicker. But Idaho State pursued him as both kicker and punter.

In the past, a handful of Irishmen have excelled at American football, but most left Ireland at a young age. Dublin-born Ben Kiernan moved to the United States when he was 15. He now punts for University of North Carolina. David Shanahan played rugby in Ireland. He joined Georgia Tech—the first Irishman to receive a full scholarship to play football at an American university.

Keep an eye out for more Irish players joining American football in the next few seasons.

Why? Sports connect people across cultures. Giving opportunity to skilled athletes from around the world may turn out to be a win-win for individuals and college teams.

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