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Tadhg Leader came close. Now, he’s convinced there are teenagers in Ireland that could make it in American football

Former Connacht player kicked the game-winner on a Saturday and reality intruded on the Monday

Tadhg Leader trotted on to the field with four seconds left on the clock in his 10th ever game of American football. It was late May of this year and the stage was the Canadian Football League, the venue Hamilton, Ontario. The game was a pre-season dust-up between Leader’s team, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, and their East Division rivals, the Montreal Alouettes. Every player fighting his own small war.

Though the result couldn’t have mattered less in the greater scheme of things, it was the greater scheme of things that actually mattered least. A pre-season game is a platform dash – the train is pulling out and everyone involved is chasing alongside, trying desperately to grab on. For a kicker, you can’t ask for much more than to be sent on to take the kick that will win or lose the game.

Let’s leave him there for a bit, stewing on the kick that could be his passport stamp. In all truth, Leader had beaten lotto odds to even make it that far. He’s a rugby player by birth, one of three brothers who flitted on and off Connacht’s books over the past decade. He was promising – an Ireland under-20s centre for a while – but injury pockmarked his time with his native province. An itinerant career brought him to Italy for a while and then to America, where he ended up winning a couple of caps with the US Eagles.

Gridiron found its way into his life pretty much by accident. When Covid shut everything down in 2020, Leader took up coaching bits and pieces of rugby around Boston. That autumn, he was taking a session with a team in which one of the players was a high school football coach. The guy had a bag of American footballs and for a laugh one day, Leader started kicking them.

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“Pretty quickly, the lads that were involved with the sport were saying, ‘Hang on, the distances you’re kicking field goals and the hang time you’re getting on punts is at a pretty high level for somebody who has never played the sport.’ I didn’t take it too seriously but on the back of the encouragement of a few people I decided to head down to Connecticut to meet a kicking coach there to see what my level actually was.

“I was 28 at the time. Was I at the level of a high school kid? I had no frame of reference. I kicked three balls for this guy and after the third one he said, ‘Okay, you need to go to San Diego to meet John Carney.’”

Carney is probably the most famous kicking coach in the game. He played 23 seasons in the NFL and sits fifth in the all-time list of NFL point-scorers. His pre-season training camp for kickers in San Diego brings free agents from all across the country chasing the last desperate drop of their dreams.

All Leader wanted was for Carney to tell him he was wasting his time. He had a decent rugby job that he was enjoying. He was getting to an age where fantasies become luxuries. He figured Carney would most likely do him the favour of bursting his bubble for him.

“I spent a week with him and I said, ‘I’m 28. What are the odds of me being able to make a career out of this at a professional level? Tell me straight because if you think it’s a pipe dream, then I will just go back to playing a sport that I am now enjoying again.’ I wasn’t afraid of being told no.

“He said, ‘Look, I’ve had a lot of people come to me from other sports and nearly all the time I have to sit them down and tell them this isn’t going to work for them. And they’re never usually in their late-20s like you are. But you are one of the first guys who have come into me and been able to produce NFL-quality kicks. The future could be quite exciting.’”

They quoted the fact that I didn’t play college football. I didn’t have that bank of experience. That was what kept coming up time and again

It was a great compliment and lovely for Leader to hear and absolutely, asphyxiatingly terrifying. It meant that he couldn’t not try to make it. To go back to his old life would have been a toxic what-if to carry around with him for the rest of his days. So for 18 months, he gave it a go.

In November 2020, he quit his rugby job in Boston. He went around the country talking to NFL scouts. He showed them what he had and they liked what they saw. He punted and kicked field goals, a combination most kickers in the game aren’t able for. On technique, on accuracy, on numbers, he was a damn good kicker.

There was one problem. He had never played the game. Never once. The kickers he was up against all had college careers behind them. And before that, the vast majority of them had high school careers. Leader was coming from a standing start and no matter how well he did or how good he looked, he had no body of work to point to. It made him too much of a gamble.

So he went on the road. He played spring league. He played European league. He kicked 50-yarders for a team in Poland and got his numbers up and put his footage together to bring back to the US with him. Again, he got bits and pieces of interest from NFL teams but again, they needed more. So he went to Canada. Which brings us back to where we started – May 29th 2022, Hamilton, Ontario.

The CFL ain’t the NFL but the Tiger-Cats were offering a job as a professional kicker and it was a single step below the big show. He was competing against a kid who had kicked for Texas A&M the previous year and who was clearly a decent prospect. But the team were fair and told him he’d get a chance to kick in the game against Montreal. Which he did.

Four seconds left. Game on the line. Snap. Spot. Kick. And suddenly, there it was, spinning high and straight and dead centre through the sticks. Tiger-Cats 25 Alouettes 23. His whole team sprinted out and surrounded him. When they got off the pitch, he was ushered into the press room to face the cameras and tell his story. From never having touched a ball to kicking a game-winner in 18 months. Dream stuff.

And then they cut him.

Within a week, he was sitting in the general manager’s office and listening to them set out why they were going with the Texas A&M kid. They told him he should be proud, that they put him in the arena in the most pressurised situation and he proved he could do it. But ultimately, they just couldn’t back someone with so little experience.

“That was that,” he says. “They quoted the fact that I didn’t play college football. I didn’t have that bank of experience. That was what kept coming up time and again. I had the best kicking percentage throughout the camp. Kicking the ball through the yellow posts is the job and I was able to do that better than the rest of them. But sure look…”

All of which brings us to where he is today. He has been back in Ireland since the summer and has set up Leader Kicking. Essentially, it is his own training camp that aims to funnel Irish kickers with potential into the American college system. It’s not a million miles removed from the Prokick programme in Australia that has proven to be such a fruitful source of players for the collegiate and, in turn, professional game.

“I always knew Irish lads could do this. From day one, I saw it from talking to the NFL teams. We can do it but obviously we’re just not exposed to it. I kept getting the same response – that basically it doesn’t matter how good you look or how good your numbers are, they need to see you in that college environment. That’s what they know.

“So with Leader Kicking, I want to provide a programme and a pathway for Irish lads to be introduced to kicking and punting with the potential of getting them scholarships to US colleges. We have rugby players, Gaelic players and soccer players in Ireland who all have the advantage of knowing naturally how to kick from an early age. They are out there. They just need the platform. That’s what I want the programme to be.”

It’s a long road and nothing is guaranteed. But he’s convinced that there are teenagers right around the country today who have it and can make it. If he can show them the way, it won’t all have been for nothing.

Malachy Clerkin

Malachy Clerkin

Malachy Clerkin is a sports writer with The Irish Times