GAA Football

McAtamney kicking down doors in pursuit of American dream

Jude McAtamney in action for Derry U20s in 2018. Picture by Mary K Burke

THE world is only as small as you allow it to be.

In the rolling south Derry fields of Swatragh, Gaelic football and hurling are the ruling emperors.

Jude McAtamney’s family is steeped in football. One of his six elder brothers, Conor, played for the county up until recently. The McAtamney name is written deep into Swatragh’s history.

Their maternal grandfather is Harry Cassidy, a former player and manager of both Derry and Bellaghy.

Jude himself was the young free-taker for Derry U20s when they won the Ulster title three years ago.

But when he returned home from America last summer, he found himself hiding away at home, nearly wanting to avoid the question around home: ‘Why aren’t you playing for the club?’

McAtamney has ambitions that Gaelic football could not fulfil.

In one sense, he didn’t really care which sport it was. He’d watch it all, and try and find avenues that would allow his foot in the door.

Then Kerry man David Shanahan popped up on RTÉ News. The 19-year-old from Castleisland in Kerry was heading for Georgia Tech to play American Football.

He was going as a kicker having earned a place on the ProKick programme in Melbourne after footage of him kicking on the family farm impressed the scouts.

“David was always a man for ploughing his own furrow,” smiled his father Jack.

You’d have to be to go down this road, and so Jude McAtamney is too.

“Literally, it was that evening, I was went on eBay and bought three balls, a tee, the stand to hold the ball,” says the 21-year-old.

“When they came, I was going down to the pitch an odd day experimenting more than anything. I found pretty quick I would have been decent at it.

“When I contacted David, he saw the potential I had and that I could end with a scholarship down the line.”

McAtamney would have gone to Melbourne too and joined the ProKick programme had Covid not closed the borders off. Instead, he went to America and tied in with Shanahan and former two-time winner of the Ray Guy Award for College Punter of the Year, Tom Hackett, who went on to play in the NFL for Utah Utes.

Where Shanahan went as a punter, McAtamney was going as a kicker. The latter takes the field goals after a touchdown, while the former returns the ball to the opposition when there’s no conceivable chance of running it.

He headed to America at the end of January and for two months, they were on the pitch kicking or in the gym every day.

The ProKick programme did the promotion of his skills as they tried, from Melbourne, to have him accepted on a full scholarship.

One college made an offer but it was only part-funded, which McAtamney simply couldn’t afford to accept.

“I can’t afford to pay $30,000-a-year fees before food and flights and all that. I was disappointed but I had to reject it.”

And then North Carolina’s Chowan College, operating in Division Two of Conference Carolinas, came along.

Full scholarships for kickers are rare.

In a 2013 piece for The Athletic, Rodger Sherman wrote that those who become great kickers in the NFL are “often those who can afford to”.

Colleges tended not to pay full whack for such a specialist position, whose time on the pitch during any game can be measured in seconds rather than minutes. It was only those that came from a background where they could afford their own enormous tuition fees who stood a chance.

“Though it's dangerous to conflate race with wealth, it's unmistakably obvious that kickers, as a group, are overwhelmingly white,” he wrote.

McAtamney didn’t come from a silver spoon house. He comes from your normal, hard-working, rural Irish family.

His parents, Martin and Paula, had eight wee mouths to feed. Seven boys and daughter Ciara, they did what young siblings are meant to do and kicked and battered other around the front yard in the pursuit of sport and entertainment.

“When we were younger, all we did was run about and play football in the front garden and try to take lumps out of each other. Looking back, you wouldn’t change it for anything.

“Thankfully Ma and Da let us tear into each other and told us to rip on and learn from each other.”

The nature of their play has changed as they’ve grown.

The brothers were still heading down to the pitch in summer to prepare for championship with Swatragh, while Jude admits he felt “isolated” after deciding to opt out until he had an answer on his American Football dream.

That’s the decision he made. And after a spell in which it looked as though it wouldn’t happen, Chowan came through and offered him a place.

He’ll study psychology over three-to-four years, but might lose out on a year of football because of his two years spent studying PE teaching at St Mary’s in Belfast, which eat into the time he’s allowed to play college football in America.

Jude McAtamney reckons he’ll have a fair idea by the end of year one where this road will take him.

He expects to play his first ever game on American Football in early September. There’s only so much that kicking the ball between the posts at Swatragh pitch with the brothers roaring and trying to put him off can prepare a man.

It’s a very small percentage of college kickers that ever make it to the NFL. Very small.

But you never know if you don’t try.

The world is only as small as you allow it to be.

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