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NFL tryouts: Ireland’s kicking kings aiming to grasp the opportunity of a lifetime

Rory Beggan, Darragh Leader, Mark Jackson and Charlie Smyth already in the US preparing for month’s NFL Combine in Indianapolis

The phone beeps, Charlie Smyth will be waiting in reception, he’ll be the one wearing a Down GAA jacket and cap.

The finer details of the message are hardly required, Smyth juts out like a sequoia standing in a field of switch grass. It’s Saturday morning and the lobby of the National Indoor Arena in Abbotstown is a jumble of kids milling around for the Dublin Juvenile Athletics Championships.

Smyth leads the way through a series of bright hallways towards the covered 3G synthetic pitch where he is one of four Irish hopefuls continuing preparations for next month’s NFL Combine in Indianapolis.

He travelled from Mayobridge earlier that morning, parking in Ardee to hop in alongside Rory Beggan for the remainder of the trip down the M1 – the goalkeepers’ union on a journey to be kicking kings.


Inside the vast arena, Wicklow’s Mark Jackson is kicking. There’s an effortless elegance to his ball striking, each connection with the “pigskin” sends out a strangely satisfying boom, like the endorphin rush a golfer gets when their driver clinks a Titleist right on the sweet spot.

Beggan has a watching brief today, because this session will be followed by two kicking days at Connacht GAA’s Air Dome.

Darragh Leader, a former Connacht rugby player, is present too. They are all here because of his brother, Tadhg, who is kitted out in black branded Leader Kicking gear and a Pittsburgh Steelers woolly hat. Here they are, a small band of pioneers chasing a dream. It’s not a pipe dream, mind.

“It’s extremely realistic,” says Tadhg. “We are coming through the NFL international programme, and every year five or six guys get signed from that.

“These players have already had to jump over a lot of hurdles to get here, there are metrics you need to hit to be considered and they have hit or exceeded all of those.”

Since the inception of the International Player Pathway in 2017, 37 international athletes have signed with NFL teams and there are currently 18 on NFL rosters. A total of 16 international players have been selected for this year’s Combine, representing eight different countries, from diverse sporting backgrounds such as rugby, basketball, Aussie Rules and Gaelic football.

The NFL has this year also introduced an additional practice squad roster spot on all 32 franchises, reserved exclusively for international players.

As Leader puts the players through rep after rep, the door at the far end of the arena is constantly swinging open to reveal wide-eyed trialists arriving in dribs and drabs for a kicking clinic. Some have travelled from Cork, others from Galway, there’s a Tipperary GAA jersey among the mishmash, a Connacht rugby hoodie, a Ballyboden St Enda’s half zip and even a training top of the Indianapolis Colts. This is no underground movement.

When Leader set it up 18 months ago the aim was to get scholarships to US universities, and that is primarily the reason over 20 young athletes turned up in Abbotstown on a chilly February morning.

The big show of the NFL wasn’t the immediate target, but Leader is inside that tent now.

The trailblazing crew flew out to Florida on Thursday and they will spend the next three weeks in a fully immersive training camp at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, south of Tampa. They will then move to Indianapolis for the Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium, with kicking and punting taking place on March 3rd and 4th respectively.

The Irish Times attended the group’s final kicking session in Dublin last Saturday.

Smyth is no recent NFL convert, he’s spent countless Sunday nights glued to RedZone. Hell, the 22-year-old has even watched the Combine in the past. He always felt his leg strength and kicking ability could allow him to be a kicker, but until Leader Kicking came along there was no way for him to test out that theory.

A qualified teacher, Smyth was on placement with St Patrick’s College, Banbridge until recently.

“It’s mad really to be planning for the Combine,” he says. “But it’s exciting, and we are here to work.”

His first time in America was only last month when the group went on a training camp to Boston, using the facilities of the New England Patriots. He supports the Green Bay Packers, though truth be told there wouldn’t be much talk about Lambeau Field across the Smyth family kitchen table.

“My ones didn’t know a whole pile about it, they knew I had an interest in it, but that was about it. But now that I’m doing it, my dad has started watching YouTube videos on NFL kicking,” he smiles.

“I share a car with my mum and she has sacrificed her own things to allow me go after this as best I can, I’ve had great support from home. I’m sure if I get signed it will be worth it for all of us.”

The minimum salary for an NFL player on an active roster for the 2024-25 season is set to increase to $795,000, while players on a practice roster can expect to receive between $11,500-$12,500 per week.

As the positions of kicker and punter are deemed specialist, they won’t be asked to demonstrate their ability at some of the other evaluations – such as the bench-press, 40-yard dash and vertical jump.

However, during the training camp in Florida there are plans to make a splash.

“Darragh is hoping to press for the record with the bench-press for a specialist,” says Tadhg.

“And Charlie is hoping to set a record for the 40-yard dash, so although we are not going to run them in Indianapolis, we are going to do them down in Florida and get those official times on tape.

“Scouts will love that, not only can these guys kick but they are athletes, so that’s a unique selling point.”

There will be a total of 30 kickers/punters taking part in the Combine, including the quartet of Irish hopefuls.

“It’s the best of the best,” adds Tadhg. “It’s extremely hard to get invited to the Combine.”

Beggan is the highest-profile Irish player, the 31-year-old is one of the top goalkeepers in the country and widely regarded as having evolved the position in Gaelic football.

Still, it’s fair to say the 2018 All Star didn’t quite know what to expect when Leader first got in touch.

“But I said I’d give it a go,” says Beggan. “The way I see it now, you could be back playing Gaelic football at the other side of the Combine or you could be signing a contract that could be life-changing. In my opinion there are no real bad sides to it. Just go and do your best and see where it leaves you.”

Beggan recently co-founded a clothing company, Ignite 23, and prior to flying out to Florida this week he had remained in with the Monaghan panel. The lads in the WhatsApp group have been wishing him well, though at the back of it all they are fully aware their goalkeeper might be about to trade McManus for Mahomes.

Jackson also has a clothing company, APEC Sportswear. The 25-year-old Wicklow goalkeeper was another talent spotted by Leader.

“I know it’s a life-changing opportunity I have on my hands, I’m not taking it lightly,” Jackson says. “It is a great opportunity to be taking part in the Combine but it’s not only that, I’m going there trying to make something out of it.”

After he finishes chatting, Jackson jogs over to take a punting drill with the newbies. At the other end of the arena Smyth and Beggan are chatting with a group preparing to kick field goals. Students becoming teachers.

Tadhg Leader recently organised a zoom call to chat with potential kickers and had over 140 people log in, while he has more than 500 sign-ups online for athletes who want to attend a kicking clinic.

“Going to the NFL Combine, it’s probably something I hoped we might experience somewhere between year five to year ten,” he says.

“Perhaps at that stage it might be feasible and realistic to have guys looking at the NFL, and have maybe 200-300 participants throughout Ireland. But here we are, 18 months in, and we have blown beyond all those metrics already.”

Securing four coveted spots in the NFL Combine has raised the profile of Leader Kicking significantly. But the prime focus remains trying to secure scholarships for Irish athletes to play college football in America – among those who have made the leap so far are Cavan’s Rónán Patterson (Monmouth University) and Laois native Ross Bolger (Idaho State).

Beggan says he has been consistent with kicks inside 50 yards while he has also made a couple of 63 yarders, but those ginormous ones are more a swoosh of frosting on top, consistency from 50 is what scouts really want to be served.

“We’ve been working hard,” he adds. “We’re feeling confident.”

Only last July Beggan was taking the fight to Dublin in an All-Ireland semi-final, keeping the Hill worried, so it is at once both weird and fascinating to hear him talk kickoffs and touchbacks and hitting the endzone. But this is where these players are right now – staring through a window of opportunity.

The Super Bowl takes place in Las Vegas on Sunday, one of the brashest and most unapologetically extravagant sporting events on the planet, with the Kansas City Chiefs playing the San Francisco 49ers.

“To be in Florida in that NFL environment watching the Super Bowl is going to be amazing,” adds Smyth.

The session in Abbotstown ends with a kicking competition between the newcomers. It is closely monitored by Leader, Beggan, Smyth and Jackson. They might be the first, but chances are they won’t be the last.

“I suppose it’s on us as the first kickers and punters on the programme to try protect it and make sure it’s there for years to come,” says Jackson.

As they begin to pack up, energetic squadrons of under-13s from St Sylvester’s and Naas spill through the door for a Gaelic football fixture.

One of the mentors spots Beggan standing along the far sideline, a bag of NFL balls resting at his feet.

“That’s the Monaghan goalkeeper,” he points out.

For now, anyhow.

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