When one of the helicopters he was using to commute from course to course had to crash land in a field because a rotor blade was coming off, he decided the facilities available just weren’t up to scratch. Having purchased two brand new helicopters to ensure his next trip would run more smoothly, he started a charter company out of Shannon to ensure they paid for themselves. With a personal fortune of $8 billion, this is not a man who messes around.
Within 48 hours of the story about Huizenga’s supposed offer of a contract to Ronan O’Gara initially breaking, it was surprising to see how quick a death it died on this side of the Atlantic. At the bottom of one of his daily NFL updates last week, the Miami Heralds Barry Jackson gave the following summary of events: “While amused, the Dolphins denied reports they offered Irish rugby star Ronan O’Gara $12 million to be a punter. British television and the Irish Times reported Dolphins owner H. Wayne Huizenga met with O’Gara in Ireland and expressed interest in signing him. Dolphins’ vice-president Rick Spielman said he has never heard of O’Gara.”
Unequivocal as that may seem, still more could be deduced from the indifference of the rest of south Florida’s media. Deep into the grid-iron off-season, anything to do with the fabled NFL franchise is usually deemed newsworthy, and yet, the other two papers that cover the team didn’t even afford the O’Gara episode the respect of a footnote. Imagine the Evening Herald ignoring some yarn about Brian Kerr courting a brilliant Italian striker with an Irish father and you get the picture.
“I went to Rick Spielman and showed him the print-outs of the various articles,” said Neal Gulkis, the Miami Dolphins’ director of media relations. “Rick is the vice-president in charge of player personnel and he informed me he’d never heard of the guy. That was more or less it as far as we were concerned. Whether Mr. Huizenga made an offer to O’Gara without mentioning it to anybody else in the organization, I cannot say.”
Although Gulkis didn’t rule out that Huizenga, who averages eight golfing trips to Ireland per year and so probably does know of O’Gara, may have acted alone, sources in Miami reckon it’s unlikely since the owner isn’t known for audacious solo recruitment drives. Any sort of firm offer also sounds pretty far-fetched at a time when the club have Olinda Mare, one of the best kickers in the sport under contract until the end of 2006 and boast an extremely reliable veteran punter in Mark Royals. Moreover, the ludicrous figure of $12 million mentioned in so many reports instantly undermined the credibility of the story. In his seventh year as a pro, Mare is the highest-paid kicker in the NFL with a salary of just under $2 million. Any new arrival would be lucky to make the league minimum of $270,000.
“While acknowledging an informal conversation with an agent representing the Miami Dolphins, I would like to categorically state my commitment to Irish rugby for the remainder of my contract, to the end of the Six Nations championship, 2004,” O’Gara said in a bid to end the speculation. “In the meantime, I am calling a formal closure on the issue and ask for understanding in that regard.”
That statement marked quite a rowing back from earlier comments where he brazenly mentioned chatting with Huizenga and cited the end of the current season as a suitable time for further discussion. From this vantage point, it looks like somebody took the bones of a good story and decided to flesh them out. In doing so, they’ve made O’Gara look a tad foolish and detracted from the legitimacy of the idea because the Cork Constitution out-half, and one or two other Irish rugby players as well, would have an excellent chance of making it as kickers in the NFL.
“It’s very hard for those type of players to make the transition,” says Doug Blevins, kicking coach for the Dolphins. “However, that certainly does not mean that doing so is an impossibility. I know, based on my years as kicking coordinator for the NFL Europe, that there are kickers in Europe 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 or not they are able to master the mechanics.
“In the NFL we are required to kick and punt brand new footballs in games. These footballs are delivered to the stadiums on game day in the sealed boxes they were packed in at the manufacturer’s factory. These NFL kicking balls are called by the name of ‘K balls’ and a brand new football coming right out of the box for every kick during a game has a very small sweet spot. There is very little quality surface area for the kicker to make the best contact with. Broken-in footballs have much larger surface areas for contact because the panels and corners are more rounded
The shortened run-up, and the art of kicking while wearing compulsory heavy gear and a helmet in occasionally oppressive heat, would also take some getting used to. After that though, there are a whole lot of positives worth considering. For most crucial kicks, the kicker usually gets a few minutes warming-up with practice kicks on the sideline; many of the games are played indoors without swirling winds; and hitting straight-on at a target almost identical in size to rugby-posts is a lot easier than converting from out near the touchline. Add in the fact that the kicker is really only expected to be consistently successful from inside the 40-yard-line and it all looks very plausible.
Apart from big-game experience and familiarity with an oval ball, O’Gara in particular has something else going for him here. Last week, Morten Andersen signed a four-year deal with the Kansas City Chiefs by the end of which the legendary kicker will have turned 46. The same afternoon, the St. Louis Rams appointed 41-year-old Sean Landeta as their punter for next season. Once somebody proves they can do it in this league, they can stay for as long as they want. Two rugby world cups from now, O’Gara will be just 30 years old and H. Wayne Huizenga will have been hearing his name for over a half a decade. Plenty of time to make the big bucks yet.