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Why Gaelic footballers have the NFL’s attention: ‘These lads can kick balls’



The Athletic

TAMPA, Fla. — A tall lad with tousled brown hair and ruddy cheeks flipped through the pages of his light green leather notebook, looking at “wee reminders” to get his head right.

Killer mindset


Teams are watching me. Brilliant!

The kicking workout was the grand finale of the NFL’s International Player Pathway pro day this Wednesday afternoon at the University of South Florida. The event featured the first kickers and punters in the IPP program, which since 2017 has sought to provide players outside of North America with opportunities to play in the league.

Three of the kickers were plucked straight from Gaelic football, Ireland’s most popular sport. Charlie Smyth, 22, of Down, Mark Jackson, 25, of Wicklow, and Rory Beggan, 31, of Monaghan, each left their posts as goalkeepers for their county teams this winter to give NFL kickin’ a fair go.

The lads started kicking NFL footballs this past fall, so Smyth’s wee written reminders were necessary. He stretched outside in the Florida sun before his workout, then took out his phone and watched a cutup of himself making 50-plus-yard field goals at this same indoor field.

“I know I can do it here,” he said.

Smyth has been illegally streaming NFL games since he was 16. When he was 18, he sent an email to [email protected] pitching himself as an NFL kicker. He never heard back.

This past August, during his off-time from his county team, he finally went to an American football kicking session in Dublin, “just for the craic,” he said. (For the uninitiated, “craic,” pronounced “crack,” means fun in Irish.)

The craic turned serious and led Smyth to the scouting combine, where he caught the eye of several NFL special teams coaches, then to Tampa for this second NFL audience.


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The Gaelic kickers were inconsistent past 50 yards in their first appearance in front of NFL teams — “I was kicking myself a bit after the combine,” Beggan said, no pun intended — so this time they wanted to prove they had the distance. When Beggan lined up from 50 yards, he banged it through. Then again from 55 and again from 60. Jackson was perfect through 45 yards and narrowly missed from 50-plus. Smyth drilled his 50-yard attempt, missed from 55, then was good from 60.

After Smyth knocked in his last long attempt, a senior NFL executive who’d been on the field said he expected at least one of the Irish guys to sign with an NFL team, a feat that once seemed outlandish.

“I have to be very honest, I didn’t expect it,” said Ravens assistant special teams coach Randy Brown.

“They were further ahead than everybody expected,” said Saints special teams coordinator Darren Rizzi. “There’s the expression, an ‘NFL leg.’ All of them have an NFL leg.”

These “Irish Gaelic” guys, as special teams coaches call them, seemed to come out of nowhere. So how the feck did they go from kicking 45s and frees to kicking field goals for NFL personnel?

The lad behind the lads is Tadhg Leader. Fair-skinned and ginger-haired and -bearded, Leader is a former professional rugby player from Galway on the west coast of Ireland. He wound up stateside with Major League Rugby in 2018, and when the pandemic hit he started kicking NFL footballs just for the craic.

Soon he started training with John Carney, the former NFL All-Pro who is fifth on the all-time scoring list. Carney encouraged Leader, then 28, to make a career out of kicking, so Leader called the IPP.

The program didn’t carry kickers and punters, so he sent his tape to NFL teams. He was told he needed more game experience, so he played in the Spring League, then European League Football before finally signing with the Canadian Football League’s Hamilton Tiger-Cats in 2022. In his only preseason appearance, he kicked a walk-off 35-yard game-winner.

“Life was great,” Leader said. “I thought I was going to be there for the season.”

But then Hamilton’s general manager called him in and told him he was too raw. Leader was 30 years old, and despite getting more tape, he kept hearing the same feedback.

“Well, like, where else do I get experience?” Leader said.

He tried to kick in the XFL but had issues getting a visa, so he decided to move on. “It’s looking like it’s too late for me,” he said, explaining his mindset. “Let me go home to Ireland to start a pathway that everyone else can walk.”

Last February, Leader started a business to discover Irish kicking talent and help them land college scholarships. He wanted to create a program where cost wouldn’t be a barrier, so he spent his own money at the start, including at least a thousand dollars on footballs. His family thought he’d gone mad.

“It was extremely raw,” Leader said. But in a few months, he’d helped two Irish kickers earn college scholarships and arranged a sponsorship with Delta Airlines.

While Leader was training his first class of soon-to-be collegiate kickers, NFL special teams coordinators convened with the league office to discuss an idea they’d been talking about for years: taking the specialists out of the scouting combine and creating a separate event so they could invite more players and do more kicking.

Brown, the Ravens coach, said that when they presented their vision to NFL EVP of Football operations Troy Vincent, Vincent told them he’d like to see an international component. Last April, James Cook, who runs the IPP and knew of Leader’s quick work with Irish kickers, scheduled a meeting with him at the NFL’s London office.

Leader happened to be in town on business for his day job at J.P. Morgan and snuck away to meet with Cook, who told him they were considering adding kickers and punters to the IPP. Nothing was finalized, but did he think the guys were out there? And if so, could he get them ready in time?

“The biggest barrier that exists is not the capability, but it’s the access,” Leader told Cook. “And if you guys can give access, I can get the kicking talent.”

Monaghan’s Rory Beggan kicks a free during a match against Cavan on Sunday, April 7. (Ramsey Cardy / Sportsfile via Getty Images)

There are only two sports in the world where athletes kick a ball off the grass and send it high through uprights. And the width of the posts in Gaelic football is only about three feet wider than NFL and college football goal posts.

“Kicking the ball is part of our DNA growing up here in Ireland,” Leader said. “Americans throw baseballs, basketballs, footballs. We don’t do that. We pass those balls with our feet, so now we’ve just been given a new ball to use our feet with …

“It’s the most perfect of synergies, just no one’s ever connected the dots.”

His girlfriend and parents urged him to iron out more details with the NFL, but Leader couldn’t wait. Driving around the country, he started training a group of 12 Gaelic football players whenever they could make time.

Leader didn’t want to get on the bad side of any coaches, so he got the word out through mutual friends and encouraged players to reach out for information. He wound up with a group of the country’s most talented Gaelic goalkeepers, the most prolific off-the-ground kickers of any position in the sport.

Beggan is the equivalent of an All-Star. Jackson is the youngest goalkeeper in Gaelic Athletic Association history to score 100 career points. Beggan tried to mix in the odd kicking session during the fall while his focus was with his club team.

Gaelic players aren’t paid — Beggan runs his own sportswear business — so it was tough to balance it all. He made it work for his “favorite skill in Gaelic football,” which also requires players to run, carry, pass and bounce the ball.

“I love kickin’ out of hands,” Beggan said. “I love kickin’ off the ground.”

Smyth, a graduate student in physical education, arrived frazzled and late to his first session in August because he’d confused the location. “My head was gone and my laces weren’t even tied,” he said. He didn’t know how to set up the holder and had to kick four field goals in a row to catch up to everyone else.

He made them all.

By October, Leader whittled his group of 12 down to his four best — the Gaelic trio plus Leader’s younger brother, Darragh, a rugby player turned punter, and they were evaluated by NFL UK personnel in London.

Leader says there are only two indoor fields in Ireland, so that often meant training through rough weather. On one cold and rainy day in Dublin, Jackson, who also punts, said he could barely get an attempt off in the gale-force winds.

“Every time you dropped the ball, the ball moved around six yards,” he said.

They’d get stares from onlookers, “especially when we’re in a public park and a ma and a dog was walking around the field,” says Leader. “We looked like these weird fellas that were kicking weird-shaped balls. No one really knew what was going on.”

In December, the four Irish players found out they’d earned spots in the IPP along with Harry Mallinder, a British rugby player turned punter.

Smyth finally told his Gaelic manager that he’d been kicking American footballs in his spare time, and that he’d be stepping away for now — maybe forever, depending on how the NFL received him. Jackson said his Wicklow teammates and boss were shocked, but supportive. He’d been playing in goal for the club since he was 18. “No one expected me to be leaving at 25,” he said.

The lads took up kicking full-time with Leader, whose volunteer work became a paid role with the NFL in January. Leader took them to Boston to get acclimatized to America before joining the other players in the IPP program in Florida in early February.

In Boston, they saw a field marked up with hashes and numbers for the first time, as well as yellow uprights (in Gaelic football, the posts are white with a black spot in the center of the crossbar). They’ve been playing “Madden” and reviewing game film to master the intricacies of situational football and spent time learning about the business side of NFL clubs and the value of each roster spot.

“We’re quick learners, in fairness to us,” Beggan said.

Beggan said the hardest adjustment has been wearing all the gear. “Funny, we were doing all this stuff in Ireland with no helmet or pads on us. So we thought this is quite easy, then,” he said. They took to wearing their helmets for five or ten minutes at a time to get used to the weight while sitting around in their villas at IMG Academy about an hour’s drive south of Tampa.

In February, Brown visited IMG to get them ready for the combine. While some of the guys were punting, he told Smyth to “Go down there and shag.” Smyth looked at him like he was crazy. The rest cracked up laughing.

“Tadgh looked at me and he says, ‘You know, shag means something different,’” Brown said. “And I said, Oh, yeah I watched ‘Austin Powers.’”

When the lads took the field at Lucas Oil Stadium to participate in the first-ever specialist showcase, there was at least one long snapper who scoffed at their presence.

“He thought we played Gaelic football in kilts,” Jackson said. “I stepped up for my first kick and banged it through the posts, and I think he started to take note then that yeah, these lads can kick balls.”

Brown, who coaches the NFL’s best kicker in Justin Tucker, started to believe when he saw the way the balls traveled end-over-end — and when he closed his eyes and heard a deep thud, like a fist pounding a chest, the distinct sound of an NFL kick.

“It brought a smile to your face,” Brown said. “God, they did it.”

“I was blown away by how good they are in a short amount of time,” said Cowboys special teams coordinator John Fassel.

When they interviewed in Indianapolis, the Irish trio had to explain Gaelic football to the coaches, who had no idea that although it is an amateur sport, athletes train like professionals and play in front of crowds of 80,000 people in the All-Ireland tournament.

“When you tell the teams that you’ve played at an elite level for eight years, it kind of perks their ears up a bit,” Jackson said.

“These guys are like household names in their counties in Ireland, and they dropped everything to pursue this dream,” Rizzi said.

Beggan’s Monaghan team went 1-6 in his absence and was relegated out of the first division after ten years in the big league. He is back playing for the club while he awaits an NFL opportunity. Jackson is training with Wicklow, which also went 1-6, but doesn’t want to risk injury.

Last year, Monaghan made it to the semi-final of the All-Ireland tournament, in which every county team plays for the Sam Maguire Cup. This year’s tournament started on April 6 and runs through July. Beggan isn’t sure how long he’ll be with the team if the NFL comes calling.

“They don’t know how it’s gonna go,” Beggan said. “And I suppose over the last few weeks, we’re in the unknown.”

Charlie Smyth signs an American football for a young Irish fan. (Courtesy of Brendan Monaghan)

When the Gaelic kickers first walked into the interview rooms at the combine, NFL coaches were struck by their size (average height: 6-3, average weight: 215 pounds). Beggan is built like a rhinoceros. Jackson’s quads compare favorably with Saquon Barkley’s. Smyth is a lanky 6-4.

The new NFL kickoff will increase returns, and a kicker who can run and make a tackle downfield could prove useful. “We played a tough sport where you have to give hits and take hits as well,” Jackson said. “We’re not just some wee fragile kickers.”

“Some special teams coaches were calling them ‘brick sh–houses’, I think that’s the phrase,” Leader said.

They were rooting for the new kickoff to pass because it will emphasize directional kicking, away from the returners in a landing zone — exactly where they’d be placing the ball on kick-outs in Gaelic football. “We feel we have a bigger strength to maybe what the Americans have,” Beggan said.

At the combine, they kicked with long snappers they’d never practiced with before. At their pro day, they chose to kick with a long snapper and holder, a risk very few college specialists take, because they wanted to address the biggest question in their NFL transition: can they consistently handle the live field goal operation?

A perfect NFL snap, hold and kick should happen in 1.3 seconds to beat the rush, and the lads aren’t quite up to speed yet. Scouts at USF muttered that the kickers were a bit slow. But Brown is mindful that they are at the infant stage of the position. Learning intricacies, like how to adjust a plant leg for wind, will come later.

In September, the NFL announced that starting in 2024, every NFL practice squad would expand to include a 17th spot reserved for an international player. (In the past, international players had been allocated to just one division per year.) That could prove to be an opportunity for specialists.

Most NFL teams don’t carry a second kicker or punter on the roster, and most starters only practice two days a week. Special teams practice goes on without them with the help of the JUGS machine.

“Everybody probably should use that spot for a kicker,” Fassel said. “Let’s have a guy on the roster the whole time so we’re training him so we don’t have to go get somebody once somebody gets hurt.”

And in the NFL’s salary-capped world, a potential source of young, homegrown — read “cheap” — developmental talent could prove incredibly valuable. “Could they kick this year in the NFL?” Brown said. “Maybe, but the deck is stacked against them. Could they develop in the next 12 to 24 months? Absolutely.”

“This isn’t some marketing tool,” Jackson said. This isn’t any gimmick. We’re elite-level kickers. We’re not perfect, but if we were on a roster for a year we won’t be too far off.”

As the scouts cleared out of the USF facility following a long day, Leader sat on the turf and reviewed his notes, sighing in relief and exhaustion.

His work wasn’t done yet. He’d head back to Ireland the next day to host another kicking workshop to discover the next wave of young talent. “You think I’m joking, but there’s hundreds of Irish kids just like these guys,” Leader said.

Smyth scrolled through a flurry of excited texts from his parents, who’d been watching his workout on Instagram Live from their home in Mayobridge. When he earned his IPP spot in December, his friends still didn’t believe this was legit. “Sure you’re not going to the NFL,” he says they told him.

“Just you watch, boys,” Smyth told his friends then.

A week after the Florida workout, Smyth was in a yoga class with the rest of the IPP players. They aren’t supposed to bring their phones in, but he was expecting an important update. During the last meditation, he opened his eyes a crack to see a notification flash a message with a New Orleans Saints logo.

“We were doing our last namaste, but I knew this was happening,” Smyth said. “I was just trying to stay calm and I was like, sh–, the Saints are bringing me in!”

Smyth worked out for New Orleans that Friday morning. Afterward, coaches told him he could go shower before his flight back to Tampa. Then, Harry Piper, a Saints scouting assistant, told Smyth he should head upstairs.

They were getting his paperwork ready.

Smyth is back in Ireland until OTAs start next week, and he’s talked to what feels like every journalist in the country. He overheard his sister’s colleagues talking about him on a work call and was even a guest on “The Late Late Show,” the country’s most popular television show.

This past weekend, Smyth’s club GAA team in Mayobridge threw him a party. When he walked in, everybody cheered and applauded. He says he hasn’t cried yet, because he always knew what he was capable of.

“It’s where I saw myself getting to,” he said. “It’s where I expected to be.”

In New Orleans, he believes he has a chance to compete for the starting job. “I didn’t make all these sacrifices just to be happy to sit on a practice squad,” Smyth said.

After a Q&A with the 100 or so kids at his club reception, he headed to Gorman’s, the local pub, with a few pals. He’s normally not a Guinness guy, but he ordered a few pints. He knows it won’t taste as good in New Orleans.

(Illustration: Eamonn Dalton / The Athletic; photos courtesy of NFL UK)