‘I want to be one of the 32 best kickers in the world’: Rory Beggan and two other GAA players attempt to make it to the NFL

Former Connacht rugby player Darragh Leader joins Gaelic stars that will be going to the NFL combine in Indianapolis

Rory Beggan, Darragh Leader, Mark Jackson, Charlie Smyth and Tadhg Leader standing on grass
Leader Kicking (L-R) Rory Beggan, Darragh Leader, Mark Jackson, Charlie Smyth and Tadhg Leader will trave to the USA to showcase the kicking talent Ireland has. Picture by Leader Kicking

RORY Beggan says he “wants to be one of the best 32 kickers in the world” and not just make up numbers when he and three other Irish athletes make the trip to Indianapolis for the NFL combine.

Beggan will be joined at the combine by Down’s Charlie Smyth, Wicklow shot-stopper Mark Jackson and former Connacht rugby full-back Darragh Leader in the combine.

The quartet were the four Irish athletes selected for the NFL’s International Player Pathway (IPP) program, which gives international athletes from a range of sports the chance to impress NFL coaches and hopefully win a roster spot at one of the 32 teams in the NFL.

Speaking to Pro Football Ireland, Beggan spoke about what a massive opportunity this is for him and for future Irish athletes hoping to make the jump to professionalism.

“[It’s an] unbelievable opportunity, probably an opportunity that I never thought would come, like Irish people in the NFL, there’s not many of them about,” said the Monaghan man.

“There is Dan Whelan at the moment, but...when I got the text five months ago from Tadhg (Leader) to say that this opportunity was coming and see if I wanted to give it a go I said “Why not?”

The Scotstown man went along to the initial Irish trials and instantly felt like it was “something he could get better and better at with a bit of coaching from Tadhg”.

He comes from a strong GAA background with his father Ben winning three Ulster club championships with Scotstown in the 1980s and Rory himself having played from the age of six.

A disappointed Rory Beggan. The Scotstown goalkeeper had a terrific game for his club. Picture: Margaret McLaughlin
Monaghan's finest Rory Beggan and the other Irish athletes will hope to impress scouts enough to earn a roster spot come next season Picture: Margaret McLaughlin

“I’m a massive GAA fan as well as a to make that decision was tough...all your friends at home are playing the sport and it’s a big part of the community where I live but when an opportunity like this came around, it’s not something that you can just put away and hope it will come again, that’s not an option.”

The combine gives the Irish athletes the opportunity to showcase their kicking talent to the NFL scouts and pit themselves against the best college kickers in the USA.

However, this is not the only chance that they can get as International pathway players, s teams can sign them for free and keep them on the squad through the off-season and assess whether or not they want to offer any of the players a full-time contract.

Beggan is confident of his ability and has set his standards for his own success high.

“There’s no guarantees in this sport but I will give it everything I have got and hopefully something will come out of it.

“I wouldn’t have made that decision to do this if I wasn’t full-throttle...It wasn’t an easy decision so I’m not going to go over here and not give it everything I have.

“I’m looking forward to getting over there and training with the lads and literally training like a professional athlete and seeing the improvements that can be made and hopefully going to the combine with the mindset that I am going to be the best here and that’s the way it has to be.

“It’s the way I approach Gaelic football and it’s that way I’m going to have to approach this.”

Beggan also spoke about how difficult it was to leave the Monaghan and Scotstown squads behind, having been involved in the senior county set-up since 2011, but this seems to have given him the fire and drive to make the most of this choice of his.

“There’s a lot I have to prove out there as well...” he said with conviction and a seriousness in his eyes usually reserved for an Ulster final or a game at Croke Park.

“I’ve been with Monaghan since 2011 and been starting competitively since 2013, so...there is a lot of motivation to succeed here and that’s what I want to do and aim to do, I’m not going over here for a handy ride.”

“Firstly, I want to get signed and that’s the big aim, that’s everybody’s aim here, but I don’t want to live over there for two or three years in the practice squad and not make a good jump at it.

“I want to be in the top 32 kickers in the world here, that’s why I’m going here; I want to succeed and I want to be the best.

“I’m not going away here to settle for second best.”

Down goalkeeper Charlie Smyth, along with the rest of the Irish athletes, impressed the NFL scouts and has earned another audience with them to potentially be invited to the NFL combine in Indianapolous
Smyth, along with the rest of the Irish athletes, impressed the NFL scouts and will now travel to the USA where he hopes to put his best foot forward at the NFL combine Down goalkeeper Charlie Smyth

Jetting off along with Beggan is young Down star Charlie Smyth, who knows what the prize is, being an NFL fan already, supporting the Green Bay Packers, a team that already has an Irishman representing in Daniel Whelan.

The Mayobridge man, who still has a lot of his career ahead of him, is looking forward to seeing how this opportunity plays out for him.

“Obviously, being a huge fan of the sport and having a real passion for place-kicking, the fact that these two are marrying together at the moment is just unthinkable really to be honest,” said Smyth, an Ulster U20 winner with the Mournemen.

“If you’d have asked me a year ago if I’d have been doing this I would have laughed at you, to be honest, but now it’s here it’s unbelievable and I’m willing to give it my best shot because it is a once in a lifetime opportunity.”

Smyth first attended a Leader kicking event, led by Tadhg Leader, who is a former American football kicker himself and has now devoted his time to showcasing Irish kicking talent to the NFL and will act as the NFL kicker and punter IPP coach going forward.

“I went just to try it out because [when I attended] my first training session, the International Player Pathway for kickers wasn’t even available.

“Tadhg told us ‘Lads, we’re going to Loughborough [for the NFL IPP kicking trials], and he asked me to go and I thought ‘Why wouldn’t I?!’ and it went decently so I was happy enough and now we’re here it’s literally unbelievable.”

Tyrone's Niall Morgan, Wicklow's Mark Jackson and Down's Charlie Smyth at Loughborough University for the NFL international Player Pathway combine. Picture by Tadhg Leader
Tyrone's Niall Morgan, Wicklow's Mark Jackson and Down's Charlie Smyth at Loughborough University for the NFL international Player Pathway combine. Picture by Tadhg Leader Tyrone's Niall Morgan, Wicklow's Mark Jackson and Down's Charlie Smyth at Loughborough University for the NFL international Player Pathway combine. Picture by Tadhg Leader

Mark Jackson is the third GAA player who will make that hop across the pond to try his hand on the gridiron, having showcased his skills for Wicklow under ex-Armagh and Crossmaglen forward Oisin McConville.

Jackson said: “It was definitely a tough conversation [with McConville], I texted him on a night when we had training and said ‘Look, do you mind if we sit down 10 minutes before training this evening’, so I just laid it out on the table and told him what was happening...he was shocked anyway, I don’t think he saw it coming but he said himself it’s too big an opportunity stand in your way of I’m extremely grateful that he was so good about it.”

Darragh Leader, former Connacht rugby full-back and the rugby coach for Louisiana State University, is the final Irish athlete to make it through the pathway, Darragh has previously played for Ireland’s U20 squad and was called up to the senior squad under Joe Schmidt but was uncapped.

The Galweigians man said: “I did think about [doing] it with the college stuff but I went to Clemson and my five-year [eligibility] clock had already started but I would have done it if I could have.

“Obviously, I’d thought about it a little bit because in rugby I have a big boot and often thought in my head, if I want to get better at kicking, I ought to learn off the guys who are getting paid to kick a ball as their only job.”

The next step for the group is to head over to America in the coming weeks and go through a training camp ahead of the NFL combine in Indianapolis between February 29 and March 2, where they will try to take the NFL by storm.