Football

Cleveland or Clones? NFL star Patrick Murray dreamt of winning the Sam Maguire with Monaghan

New Jersey-born Pat Murray made his name as a kicker in American Football, but his ultimate dream was to lace up his boots and have a kick on the most famous fields in Ireland. He spoke to Andy Watters about his career and his love of Monaghan...

Former NFL placekicker Pat Murray previews the Aer Lingus College Football Classic which takes place in the Aviva Stadium on Saturday, August 27 at 5.30pm and will see the Northwestern Wildcats go head-to-head with the Nebraska Huskers. Tickets for the match are on sale now and can be purchased at https://www.ticketmaster.ie/touchdowndublin. For more information around the game go to collegefootballireland.com or follow the conversation on social media using the hashtag, #TouchdownDublin.
Former NFL placekicker Pat Murray previews the Aer Lingus College Football Classic which takes place in the Aviva Stadium on Saturday, August 27 at 5.30pm and will see the Northwestern Wildcats go head-to-head with the Nebraska Huskers. Tickets for the match are on sale now and can be purchased at https://www.ticketmaster.ie/touchdowndublin. For more information around the game go to collegefootballireland.com or follow the conversation on social media using the hashtag, #TouchdownDublin.

PAT MURRAY, the placekicker for the Cleveland Browns, sat in the players’ lounge engrossed in a battle being fought thousands of miles away. The All-Ireland football final.

“What are you watching Pat?” asked curious team-mates.

“That soccer?”

He told them to sit down and watch it. They marvelled at the big hits, they marvelled at the skills, they asked about the scoring system and their jaws dropped when they found out the players didn’t get paid.

“I think it’s a really interesting conversation how you have got guys like a David Clifford, or a Shane Walsh, or a Conor McManus, or a Jack McCarron getting up on Monday and having to go work a normal job and still training as if they were professional athletes in the evening,” says Murray.

“The off-season workouts, they do just to get ready to represent their club and county on weekends or during the week... It’s a very foreign concept to a lot of professional athletes because that’s your job at the end of the day - that’s your only job, is to play football.

“So a lot of them couldn’t believe it, a lot of them said they’d never do that but then you get the guys that truly understand because where they come from is very important to them.

“Just like Jack (McCarron) or Conor (McManus) or anybody in Ireland, your county, where you come from is very important to you and being able to mirror those and kind of have the best of both worlds, in my eyes that’s truly what makes athletics and community and what makes the GAA that much more exciting, and it’s a pleasure to be a part of.”

Murray was paid handsomely in the NFL but he’d have given anything to line-out for Monaghan like his uncles Brendan and Ciaran (an Allstar in 1985) did. Born in New Jersey, he played football for the Rockland club and spent summers in his dad’s native Clones.

Now 31, he retired from the NFL in 2017 after a second spell with the Tampa Bucanneers. Over a career of snap-hold-kick in 1.43 seconds that also included a stint at New Orleans Saints, he kicked 40 field goals from 49 attempts (an average of 81.6 per cent) including a monster effort from 55 yards.

He works in Florida there days but on Tuesday evening he trained at Gaelic Park in the Bronx with the Rocklands club and, at 31, he hasn’t given up getting the jersey on again and maybe even representing New York.

“I was able to lace the boots back up and go training with Rocklands,” he explained from his office in Manhattan.

“I kicked over a few points and, oh God, it brought back old memories and it is still my favourite thing to do, lace up those boots and go out with the lads and kick the ball around.

“I’m living in Florida now. Work moved me down there but I was up here (in New York) doing a couple of things and I will be here for the next couple of weeks. There is a semi-final on and I am still registered so I may sneak into Gaelic Park and see what I can do.”

Our conversation was supposed to be based around the American Football college exhibition game between Northwestern and Nebraska at the Aviva on August 27 but Gaelic Football quickly takes centre stage.

It’s obvious that he keeps a close eye, a very close eye, on the fortunes of the Farney county. Growing up, his backgarden games weren’t replays of The Super Bowl, they were Ulster finals at Clones and he dreamt of following in the footsteps of his uncles who won National League and Ulster titles with Monaghan.

“The goal was to get back and play in some capacity,” he says.

“I transitioned obviously to dreaming of playing for New York and that was never able to happen either.

“You never know, I could get involved (with New York) in some way, shape or form. I had a fantastic career in the NFL but the dream was always to win Sam for Monaghan. Hopefully somebody else can do it.”

He was in Clones last March when Monaghan beat Dublin so dramatically in injury-time in the final round of League games to keep their place in Division One. He’d welcome former Dub Jason Sherlock as the manager and says there’s still life in the Farney old guard.

“Conor McManus is definitely still a talisman,” he says.

“He is getting a bit older but can still do a job for you and that left peg of Jack McCarron - I’d trust him to do anything.”

At one stage Murray came close to enrolling at Queen University Belfast with the intention of playing Sigerson Cup football and who knows where that would have ended. But instead he chose Fordham University in New York instead and was an All-American kicker after a brilliant senior season with ‘the Rams’.

“The choice was to go over to Ireland and play or take a chance at this American football kicking thing and the choice was kind of made for me and it was the best choice that could have been made,” he explained.

“I got a fantastic degree from Fordham University. I got the opportunity to do a lot of really cool things in college football, set a whole bunch of records, get all these accolades, meet some incredible people and obviously that led to the AFL.

“But the dream was always there, even in college, to go and play and I remember somehow my coach found out that I was still playing for Rockland in college.

“He called me into his office and he said: ‘If you play that sport that I cannot pronounce, again, I am pulling your scholarship.’ So that was kind of the end of that dream.”

Dublin-born kicker Ryan O’Donoghue was the last Irish-born player to feature in the NFL back in 1985 but Irish hopefuls Dan Whelan (New Orleans Saints) and James McCourt (LA Chargers) signed with franchises as undrafted free agents this summer and are trying to force their way into contention for the season.

“Those two lads are very good at what they do,” said Murray.

“I’ve watched them in college and I’ve spoken to James a couple of times.

“I wish them nothing but the best and truly hope that they do land somewhere because it is an experience unlike any other.

“The best piece of advice I can give them though is: It’s just kicking a ball, the same thing you were doing when you were a little kid.

“Don’t worry about the fans in the stands, don’t worry about the cheque that may be deposited into your account if you make the team. It’s just kicking a ball at the end of the day and you have to go out there and have fun with it.”

Murray says his background in Gaelic Football had a huge impact on his style, and success, as a placekicker, particularly in College Football which is hugely-popular in the US. He says he punted the ball “as if I was kicking it to a corner-forward” and the tactic paid off spectacularly. Fordham had the highest punt percentage distance-wise and net punt wise in college football in his junior and senior years.

He says cool-headed dead-ball specialists like Stephen Cluxton, Sean O’Shea and Dean Rock, and you could add Rory Beggan and Rian O’Neill in there among others, would have the tools to be successful placekickers in the NFL.

“I think Stephen Cluxton would have been fantastic,” he says.

“He’d have to change his approach and change his style but if you talk about accuracy and dealing with pressure then there’s your man.

“There are guys who are very accurate when they’re kicking a ball and they just have to adjust their technique a little bit. But I was kicking an American football since I was 13. To get to that NFL level, to get the timing right, to understand what it means to kick with a helmet and shoulder-pads – because it’s very different – it does take time but there’s no reason why some of those 18-19 year-old lads who may be are on a county panel or are there or thereabouts couldn’t go and give it a shot.

“But they would have to go over and play college football first. You’re not going to take a guy from Dublin or Monaghan or wherever at 23 years-of-age and stick them in the NFL and they will be successful.

“It’s not going to happen because they don’t have the practice, the experience necessary but if there was a pipeline for guys who maybe see a path in GAA but want to try something different and potentially get college paid for them that’s the route they’d need to go because you’d have years in college to get used to the speed of the game, the pace and the differences in kicking and then, who knows, they might be able to make a run at it.”