Irish kickers using foot skills honed for generations to target football scholarships at US colleges

DUBLIN (AP) — College football already has Aussie punters. Tadhg Leader hopes Irish kickers are next.

The former rugby player from Galway saw enough potential that he quit his job at JP Morgan Chase to focus full-time on finding and developing Irish “leg talent” for American football.

Leader, whose first name is pronounced “TIE-guh,” launched his program a year ago and some early returns are promising. He brought two Irishmen on a summer tour of kicking camps in the United States, and both came away with scholarships to Championship Subdivision schools.

Then there’s prized pupil Andy Quinn, who dropped rugby to enter Leader’s kicking competition and ended up winning it in a finale held at halftime of the Nebraska-Northwestern game at Aviva Stadium in Dublin a year ago.

The NFL Academy in Britain took note and signed the 18-year-old Quinn on scholarship as a kicker and punter. He repeated as Ireland’s “kicking king” last Friday by belting a 57-yard field goal at Donnybrook Stadium in Dublin.

“It’s part of our DNA,” Leader said. “It’s part of our heritage where we kick a Gaelic football, we kick a rugby ball, we kick a soccer ball. We’ve just accumulated so many hours of foot skills. It translates perfectly to American football, just there was never a program or platform to connect the dots.”

Leader, inspired to build a talent pipeline after experiencing his own ups and downs as a kicker, said his “very realistic” goal is to send 100 Irishmen on scholarships to U.S. schools over the next decade.

None of them have any 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 — just day one stuff,” Leader said.

Challenges include explaining American college athletics and persuading players to put other sports aside, but the interest is there with more than 400 applicants for Leader’s program.

The 31-year-old Galway native started Leader Kicking after his rugby and kicking career ended a year ago. After playing for the San Diego Legion in Major League Rugby and briefly for the U.S. national team — thanks to his residency at the time — he gave American football a shot. Stints in Europe and Canada ended when he was cut by the CFL’s Hamilton Tiger-Cats in 2022.

Along the way, coaches told him they wished he had some U.S. college experience.

Leader has enlisted some high-profile sponsors including Delta Air Lines and partners like the Pittsburgh Steelers. The NFL team, which is trying to grow its fan base in Ireland, donated a pair of tickets to a home game to the winner — Quinn — of the kicking contest.

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

The 22-year-old Bolger, who had played Gaelic football since age 5, won field goal competitions at UConn and Boston College camps. He also punts — with both feet. It’s helped open doors.

“We’re getting questions from coaches like ‘who else you got?’ and ‘who’s next?’ They’re coming to us,” Leader said.

High school student Noah Byrne might one of those next ones; he made an impression at the BC camp just 24 hours after starring for his Gaelic football team in Dublin.

Boston College was interested in Bolger as a kicker, as was Vanderbilt, which observed him in a workout via Zoom. Idaho State, however, showed the most interest and wanted Bolger as both kicker and punter. He has two years of eligibility.

Bolger has already made an impression out in Idaho. The team plays in the domed Holt Arena, where the ceiling curves downward above the uprights.

“He’s hit the ceiling at a couple of spots at the low part of the dome here trying to kick field goals,” Idaho State special teams coordinator Jesse Thompson said in a phone interview. “As a staff we were like, ‘what’s the ruling on that?’ I’ve never seen that before.”

“One of the things that drew me to Ross was his lift on his PAT and field goals,” Thompson added. “The ball just pops off of his foot.”

The 23-year-old Patterson has one year of eligibility and will play at FCS program Monmouth in New Jersey.

A handful of Irishmen have excelled as American football kickers and punters, but they typically left Ireland at a young age. Dublin-born Ben Kiernan, who moved to the United States when he was 15, punts for North Carolina. David Shanahan punts for Georgia Tech after he switched from Gaelic football and trained at Prokick Australia. Neil O’Donoghue kicked for Auburn and played nine NFL seasons in the 1970s and ‘80s.

Quinn hopes to land a scholarship after the NFL Academy.

“The experience of kicking in the Aviva I’ll never forget it, I got flights over to Chicago and tickets to a Northwestern game — the first-ever football game I’ve watched live, it’s an incredible environment college football — and then obviously a scholarship to the NFL academy,” he said. “I’ve gained so much already from kicking an American football, it’s unbelievable.”


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