Subscriber OnlyGaelic Games

From Mayobridge to New Orleans - Charlie Smyth’s journey to the NFL

Seven months after his first American football kicking trial, the former Down goalkeeper has signed a contract with the New Orleans Saints

Charlie Smyth may well have thought his chance was gone. After travelling from Mayobridge to Dublin, the flustered Down native arrived at Suttonians Rugby Club having committed a cardinal sporting sin: he was late for training.

The previous night, Tadhg Leader was in Terenure taking trials and introducing NFL kicking to GAA, rugby and soccer players. The next day, he took a similar session in Sutton. Smyth confused the days and turned up on the wrong side of the Liffey.

“Halfway through some fellah turned up nervously, apologetically late,” explains Leader. “Charlie wasn’t used to coming down and driving around Dublin. He didn’t know where he was going, what he was doing.

“I gave him his kicks but turning up late was disruptive. I have a video. I made him attempt a 55-yarder, which he missed but at the end of the video you hear me going ‘good leg’. He missed, but it was a good miss. There was something there. He showed power and ability.


“Then we went to work.”

Seven months later, Smyth, aged 22, has signed a three-year contract as a kicker with the New Orleans Saints. Only a handful of years ago, after finishing secondary school, Smyth emailed the NFL asking how to get into the sport.

Through working with Leader, Smyth was one of four Irish players accepted on to the NFL’s International Player Pathway (IPP). Of the three GAA stars, Smyth, who had been in and out of the Down number one jersey in recent years, had the lowest public profile. Mark Jackson was Wicklow’s starting goalkeeper while Rory Beggan is, well, Rory Beggan.

Of the quartet, rounded off by former Connacht fullback Darragh Leader, Smyth was the NFL junkie. “He is one of the most knowledgeable guys in the country,” says Tadhg Leader, who himself tried to make it as a gridiron kicker, only to turn his hand to providing Irish athletes a pathway to college scholarships and, quicker than anticipated in Smyth’s case, the NFL.

“When I have questions about the NFL, I go to Charlie.”

In 2021, Smyth was the starter on the Down under-20 side that beat Monaghan in the Ulster final. A long-range free in extra-time that day foreshadowed his future career.

That he is now set to earn hundreds of thousands of dollars kicking footballs is no surprise to his club back home in Mayobridge. “He played in midfield at underage but he always could kick off the ground,” says Thomas O’Hare, the club secretary.

“You would have seen him from age 12, 13 with a bag of balls, practising in the club. By under-16 level, he was kicking 50s over the bar. St Colman’s [Smyth’s school] first put him in goal. Conor Laverty put him in nets for Down at under-20s, it took off by then.”

Despite his NFL obsession, training with Leader and travelling stateside for the scouting combine took some explaining to those around Smyth. His father, Leo, is a GAA referee. Like his mother, Julie, Charlie trained as a primary schoolteacher. He shared the car that he drove to the wrong side of Dublin with his mother. A regular at the Gaeltacht as a child, Smyth is most probably the first Gaeilgeoir to reach the NFL.

Such was Smyth’s excitement when teams such as the Texans, Jaguars and the Saints started sniffing around that he had to be reminded to stop saying he’d do all this for free within earshot of scouts. When working with Leader, strategising his next move, often the pair would have to stop out of boyish giddiness.

“I’m there on the laptop, being serious,” says Leader, laughing. “I look up and he’s got the biggest smile on his face: ‘Tadhg, this is class.’ I had to stop, acknowledge it, then get back into how we’re going to be signed to an NFL team.”

The Saints have been around Smyth from day one. His first session in the US was a trial to make it to the combine; at that stage all the NFL had to go on were video clips and Leader’s word. New Orleans’ special teams co-ordinator was there.

They were also one of eight teams who sat at a table interviewing Smyth as part of the recruitment process. One scout was from the Green Bay Packers, Smyth’s childhood team. He bit his tongue when asked about favourites; all he wanted was an opportunity.

On Thursday, Smyth will train with Leader and 70 kids at his old school in Newry. He’ll be back in New Orleans for April 15th before spending the summer in training camp, competing with last year’s starting kicker, Blake Grupe.

In many ways, this is the perfect landing spot. Grupe is inexperienced and isn’t owed a pile of guaranteed money – he can be cut if Smyth wins the job. Should Smyth fail, there is a place on the practice squad reserved for international players.

The NFL also just changed its kick-off rules in a bid to increase the chances of kick-returns, so having an athlete with a strong background in a contact sport such as GAA is now a bonus. As a goalkeeper, Smyth isn’t an expert, but he’s more familiar with tackling than American-born players who have done nothing but kick all their lives.

As for back home, interest in the NFL is only going to pick up if a goalkeeper on the fringes of the Down team can earn a pro deal within seven months of first kicking a ball.

“It’s amazing for the GAA that this young lad from Mayobridge can do it” says O’Hare. “There was a lot of Saints merchandise bought over the weekend. We just hope it works out for him, I think it will. He has a massive kick, a massive kick.”

Leader had to buy 30 extra balls from Elvery’s for his session on Thursday, such is the demand. If Smyth lines out in front of 76,000 in the New Orleans Superdome next year, he may well have to buy a few more.