He’s been here before. Seven years ago, JD Bertrand came to Dublin with Blessed Trinity, one of six top high schools in America invited to play at Donnybrook, the day after Georgia Tech played Boston College in the 2016 College Football Classic at the Aviva Stadium.
Thirty-five years before that, his father Jim Bertrand also played at Donnybrook in one of the defining matches in the 1981 Leinster Schools Senior Cup, captaining the Blackrock team that beat Terenure, champions the previous two years, in the quarter-final.
He’ll be here again. In August, Bertrand will be back in Dublin to play with Notre Dame against Navy in this year’s College Football Classic at the Aviva, where 42 years previous, in that same 1981 Leinster Schools Senior Cup, his father again captained Blackrock in the final win, over Clongowes, at the old Lansdowne Road.
It’s a properly unique connection between two of the most competitive non-professional sports anywhere in the world; college football in America and schools rugby in Leinster.
It all happened by accident. In the mid-1970s Bertrand’s father moved to Ireland from the US, after his father came looking for a European base for the company represented, setting up in Greystones. A chance meeting with Hugo MacNeill, picked up one day when hitchhiking, in turn introduced the family to Blackrock, and the obvious prospect presented.
The Bertrands were told there was no room in Blackrock, and could consider a wait list at best; they requested at least a meeting, and when the school saw the size of Bertrand’s sons both were accepted, Jim and his brother Chris playing second-row forwards on that 1981 team.
It’s still considered one of the vintage Blackrock teams too, Brendan Mullin and Neil Francis going on to play for Ireland. Bertrand’s father relocated to America, later settling in Georgia, although the rugby connections don’t end there.
“He’d always talk about it, how big rugby is here, when in America nobody would really know that,” says Bertrand, in Dublin this week along with other Notre Dame team-mates to promote the August event.
“It was only really when we came over here, saw all the interactions and Blackrock connections, that we got a better understanding of it. For me, the coolest part about that time [in 2016] was playing in Donnybrook, the same stadium my dad played in.
“My dad still watches all the Six Nations games, tries to teach us little bits here and there. Even though I still don’t fully understand it, American teams are bringing over rugby coaches, specifically in the area of tackling. Even if it’s just one thing, we can develop into our own style of play.”
Despite his father’s own experience in the physical, contact sport of Leinster Schools rugby, he was reluctant to allow any of his sons anywhere near the American game — Bertrand playing linebacker with Notre Dame, their leading tackler last season.
“After my two older brothers, they both played basketball and baseball, my middle brother still plays baseball, professionally, I was the only one allowed to play American football, because my parents were afraid they would get hurt. It was only when it came around to me, and I was way bigger at a younger age, they said, ‘all right, we’ll let you give it a try’.
“I think with my dad growing up here in Dublin, and my mom being from California, they didn’t know as much about American football, and we didn’t watch it as much. It took some convincing from my coaches to let them let me play football.
“But I’ve always been twice as big as anyone else, it’s caught up now at college and university world, but it’s never really worried me.”
It’s still unique for Irish-born players to switch to the American game, David Shanahan being recruited from Kerry as punt kicker at Georgia Tech in 2021 a rare example of late, Daniel Whelan also punting at UC Davis.
Bertrand sees no reason why more can’t join them, even from the ranks of Blackrock rugby perhaps: “Most definitely, I think the kicking position is the easiest spot to plug people. But there are so many things we steal from rugby, particularly roll-tackling, how rugby players tackle, and that transition can work well, can be seamless.
“Like my room-mate here is German-born and raised, Alex Ehrensberger. He only picked up American football in Germany, then ended up getting a scholarship to Notre Dame. There are a lot more European players on the university teams, and I think Ireland is probably the next step.”
For more on the Aer Lingus College Football Classic see collegefootballireland.com/