Within hours, the pair had adjourned to a nearby field where, for just the second time in his life, the Kerryman attempted to guide an oval ball between the uprights. He did so with such repeated success that a thrilled Faulkner pressed a sample contract into his hands, arranged a more formal trial at the club some weeks later, and wondered what sort of a sport produced such prowess.
“The kicker’s lack of involvement in the actual play did not appeal to me, but at that stage of my life, I was prepared to take the job if offered under the right conditions,” O’Connell wrote in “A Kerry Footballer,” his autobiography.
“Under the critical eyes of the coaches, I was on trial for two days and my scoring percentage proved the reliability of the instep kick. After the trials Faulkner told me confidentially that I was the man they wanted. Next, I was interviewed by the chief coach to complete my contract forms. When it came to my age, 36, he was clearly taken aback. This was the deciding factor. It was his first year as coach and with the amount of money involved he didn’t want to run the risk of signing a kicker at my age.”
Thirty years later, we can only ponder what might have been had Chuck Knox employed O’Connell to kick the 3-point field goals which are one of the most crucial facets of the game. Given how soccer players from Scandinavia and out-halves from South Africa have all visited the NFL with varying degrees of success, it’s hardly a stretch to imagine the floodgates opening and scouts scouring Ireland in search of previously untapped kicking talent. Instead, the only Irish connection in recent times was a newspaper flyer in the mid-1990s linking Maurice Fitzgerald to the New England Patriots, and since nothing ever came of that, the argument about whether a Gaelic footballer could hack it in the NFL remains to be resolved.
“I’ve no doubt that Maurice Fitz would have made it,” said Tom Furlong, a member of Offaly’s most famous football family, who earned a kicking contract with the Atlanta Falcons in 1966. “The big difference is that you can only take two steps in your run-up and you have to hit the ball with a high trajectory because the opposition are lined up 7 yards away. If they penetrate just 3 feet, they are then 18 feet away and 6 feet odd in height, so, really, you have to have it 8 feet in the air by the time it travels 6 yards. Height and distance are the thing in American football and I was lucky in that I always kicked frees like that anyway. I used to use the arch of my foot.”
Furlong’s pro career was ended before it begun when he blew out his knee in the final game of his first preseason with the Falcons. He recovered enough to kick for a while in the minor leagues but had lost too much power to ever make it back to the NFL.
His dalliance with the game had come about initially through Eddie McDwyer, a bartender in Jim Downey’s on 44th Street and Eight Avenue who informed some of the New York Giants’ staff drinking there that they should take a look at this guy from Offaly. After converting 24 of 28 kicks during a subsequent trial at Yankee Stadium, Furlong was immediately signed to their training squad for the rest of the 1965 season. The circumstances in which they stumbled upon him offering an insight into how many in the NFL neglect this aspect of their sport.
Despite the New England Patriots winning the 2002 Super Bowl in large part due to the superiority of Adam Vinatieri’s boot, it is estimated that one team per week during the NFL season just gone was forced to hold open tryouts for kickers. In a sport where coaches spend days exhaustively reviewing tapes to calculate the tendencies of opponents, clubs were still scratching around for somebody capable of slotting over field goals at critical stages during the 16-game campaign. It’s probably not a coincidence then that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Oakland Raiders — the teams that contested this year’s Super Bowl — are bulwarked by Martin Gramatica and Sebastian Janikowski, two of the game’s most reliable kickers.
In an environment where Matt Bryant could walk into the kicking job with the New York Giants last September after spending the last four years working as a pawnbroker, it’s hardly surprising that Argentine out-half Gonzalo Quesada has visited kicking camps and been linked with a more permanent move to these parts. While a rugby player would have an obvious affinity with the shape of ball used, these days there is a lesser financial incentive involved than there was when Naas Botha tried his luck with the Dallas Cowboys in the early 1980s. If a stint in a league where the minimum annual salary is $270,000 looks a lot more inviting for a Gaelic footballer, what are the chances of a Colin Corkery or a Trevor Giles actually being able to make the switch?
The prolate-spheroid-shaped ball represents the most obvious difficulty, while the shortened run-up, wearing the compulsory heavy gear and a helmet in occasionally oppressive heat, would take some getting used to. After that, though, there are a lot of positives worth considering. For most crucial kicks, the kicker usually gets a few minutes warming up with practice kicks into a netting on the sideline; many of the games are played indoors without swirling winds, and hitting straight at a wider set of goal posts (3 feet, 6 inches wider but a crossbar that’s 2 feet higher than in Gaelic football) is a lot easier than curling over a free kick from out near the sideline. Add in the fact the kicker is really only expected to be consistently successful from inside the 40-yard-line and it all looks plausible.
“It is very hard for those type of players to make the transition and become a kicker in the NFL,” said Doug Blevins, kicking coach of the Miami Dolphins. “However, that certainly does not mean that doing such a thing is an impossibility. I know, based on my years of experience as the kicking coordinator for the NFL Europe, that there are kickers over there possessing the athletic ability to successfully make the transition. Although a kicker might have the talent and athletic ability to learn to kick an American football, it becomes a question of whether he is able to master the mechanics. When kicking in the NFL, a kicker must stick to and trust his technique, and be extremely mechanically sound. A kicker can have all the leg speed in the world but be lacking in the area of kicking mechanics and not enjoy a great deal of success.”
At the kicking school he runs in Florida, Blevins is currently working with two former professional soccer players, from Norway and Denmark. From his experience, the most serious problem faced by somebody coming from a round-ball background is the smaller sweet spot on an NFL football. Once a Gaelic footballer overcame that obstacle, his attractiveness to a team would be greatly enhanced by him also being able to take kickoffs and punts. He could also look forward to a long career, because of the uniqueness of the role, appearing on the field for just seconds at a time. Durban-born Gary Anderson kicked for the Minnesota Vikings this season at the sprightly age of 43.
“I was such a greenhorn when I went into the whole thing,” Tom Furlong said. “Psychologically, it was very tough and I wasn’t properly prepared for that. But I think any Gaelic footballer these days who could hit the ball with a high trajectory, and without taking a huge, long run-up, would have a very good chance of making it.”
Who better placed to judge?