Dublin-born kicking king McCourt enjoys college football’s Champaign moment

Irishman seals biggest upset in two years as University of Illinois shock Wisconsin

Illinois Fighting Illini place kicker James McCourt is hoisted aloft by his team-mates after landing  the  game-winning field goal in the game against Wisconsin at Memorial Field in Champaign. Photograph: University of Illinois Athletics

Illinois Fighting Illini place kicker James McCourt is hoisted aloft by his team-mates after landing the game-winning field goal in the game against Wisconsin at Memorial Field in Champaign. Photograph: University of Illinois Athletics

 

There’s over 10,000 kilometres between Tokyo and Champaign, Illinois and last Saturday the change in emotions between two related sporting sons of Dublin were worlds and hemispheres apart.

While Garry Ringrose was coming to terms with Ireland’s exit from the Rugby World Cup at the hands of the All Blacks in Japan, his second cousin James McCourt was preparing for the University of Illinois’ big homecoming football game against Wisconsin, a team ranked sixth in America ahead of the meeting in the famed Big Ten Conference.

Just over three hours later, McCourt was the hero of the day after landing a 39-yard field goal on the buzzer to claim the biggest upset in over two years in the college game and the biggest upset in a Big Ten game since 1982, as the Fighting Illini made a nonsense of a handicap that had them as 30.5-point underdogs at their 60,000 capacity Memorial Stadium in the college town 220 kilometres south of Chicago.

Most of the crowd ended up on the field after the kick was landed, with McCourt mobbed by his team-mates; even passing out briefly under the mound of bodies before being hoisted up on shoulders as the party got underway.

“It was bonkers, it was nuts, it was definitely a scene,” McCourt told The Irish Times on Wednesday afternoon when reliving the post-game celebrations. “There was a dog pile in the middle of the field and I actually passed out underneath at the bottom with all the weight on top of me. I lost my breath and my eyes rolled back in my head for a minute so it took me a little while to actually realise myself what actually happened.”

From a family with rich sporting tradition on both sides, McCourt grew up in the Dublin suburb of Dartry, attending Scoil Bhríde in Ranelagh and kicking any ball that moved in the eight years he lived in Ireland before his family relocated to America.

“I moved over to South Florida, to Parkland, in 2006 I think, because of my Dad’s work. I played a lot of rugby and I played a lot of soccer growing up, just kicking and kicking. In Ireland you use your feet a lot, in rugby you’re kicking, and soccer of course.

“In eighth grade I started tackle football and they needed a kicker on the team and as I’d a pretty good boot from soccer, one thing led to the next. I got a bit of coaching here and there and the University of Illinois, they called me in my senior year and asked me if I wanted to come here and play for them. It was pretty unreal at the start.”

Illinois Fighting Illini place kicker James McCourt celebrates landing his winning kick with team-mates Griffin Palmer (81), Bryce Barnes (48) and Blake Hayes (14). Photograph: University of Illinois Athletics
Illinois Fighting Illini place kicker James McCourt celebrates landing his winning kick with team-mates Griffin Palmer (81), Bryce Barnes (48) and Blake Hayes (14). Photograph: University of Illinois Athletics

McCourt had to bide his time as back-up to Chase McLaughlin, who is now kicking with the Los Angeles Chargers in the NFL, and didn’t play at all in his first two years at Illinois, where he is studying finance.

Now the starting kicker in his junior year on the football team, he missed his first field goal, a 30-yard attempt seen as a routine distance. His first successful one came the week after from 53 yards, and he has shown a good ability from long range, including a 57-yard effort he describes as “a good boot”, his Irish upbringing coming through in phrase if not accent.

McCourt’s match-winning heroics came in the week that Illinois were announced as the opponents of Nebraska in the 2021 Aer Lingus College Football Classic at the Aviva Stadium, the second in a five-match series that gets underway next August when Navy take on Notre Dame.

Sadly for McCourt his college career will be over at that stage, but he intends to be at the stadium, behind which he used to play with Lansdowne RFC as a youngster.

After putting his name on a national stage in America last weekend, McCourt has ambitions of maybe making it in the pros one day.

New Zealand’s Sevu Reece is tackled by Jordan Larmour and Garry Ringrose during the Rugby World Cup quarter-final at the Tokyo Stadium. Photograph: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images
New Zealand’s Sevu Reece is tackled by Jordan Larmour and Garry Ringrose during the Rugby World Cup quarter-final at the Tokyo Stadium. Photograph: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

“Obviously the NFL is something I do work for and I strive for, that’s the dream of everyone, and if the opportunity presents itself I’m definitely going to put everything I can towards that,” admits McCourt, who turns 22 next month.

After making it back to Ireland during last summer, where he worked as an intern with IBI Corporate Finance, McCourt has been keeping up with his Irish sporting relations, who also include Drogheda United goalkeeper Luca Gratzer.

His sporting hero remains Brian O’Driscoll, while as a nine-handicap golfer he is a huge Rory McIlroy fan. It was the present incumbent in the Ireland No 13 shirt that put his sporting disappointment behind him to send his congratulations that meant so much to McCourt in his moment of sporting triumph.

“Garry reached out to me after the game, he sent his congrats over and I sent mine back,” says McCourt. “I haven’t really touched on the World Cup stuff with him yet but I’ll probably keep in contact with him for the rest of the season.”

For more information on the Aer Lingus College Football Classic games see collegefootballireland.com

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