‘It was nice to hear an Irish accent’: Punters form unlikely college football union

GAA and rugby skills allow men from Kerry and Dublin to step into the unkown

David Shanahan of the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets kicks with his left foot during a college football game against the Clemson Tigers. Photograph: John Byrum/Getty Images

David Shanahan of the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets kicks with his left foot during a college football game against the Clemson Tigers. Photograph: John Byrum/Getty Images

 

There was an hour to go before kick-off in the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta last weekend. Just shy of 40,000 fans were starting to filter in for the game between home underdogs Georgia Tech and fancied visitors University of North Carolina. The Yellow Jackets against the Tar Heels, a Saturday night staple in the gloopy-aired September of the American south.

That hour mark is when the kicking staff in American football warm up, getting their bearings and picking their spot before the field gets too crowded. So it was easy for the Georgia Tech number 43 to go and find the Tar Heels number 91 to grab a quick hello. Or, to put it another way, for David Shanahan of Castleisland, Co Kerry to stroll over and tap the shoulder of Ben Kiernan of Stillorgan, Co Dublin.

“It was nice to hear an Irish accent,” says Kiernan. “When I heard about David, I was just so chuffed to hear that someone else from Ireland was coming over to play college football. And then for him to end up in the same conference as me, meaning that we would come up against each other a few times over the next two or three years, that was just really, really cool. It’s never happened before.”

“I first heard of Ben a while back,” says Shanahan. “I didn’t really know him but I googled him to see what was the story. I went over and introduced myself. I wasn’t sure what kind of accent he’d have because he’s been in the States for a while. But he’s still got a pretty strong Blackrock accent. It was good to meet him. It was definitely a really cool moment.”

In lots of ways, the two of them are very similar. Both born in 2000 - Kiernan in January, Shanahan in October. Both handy at their original sport without particularly standing out - Kiernan as a junior prop/hooker at Blackrock College, Shanahan as a sub on a Kerry under-17 that won a Munster title. Both infused with the natural confidence of their sporting upbringing, no bad thing in the puffed up purgatory of a college football locker room.

For all that, how they got to where they are could hardly be more different. Shanahan’s story is reasonably well-aired at this stage. Last May, he told The Irish Times how upon noticing that the award for best punter in college football had gone to an Australian in six out of the previous seven years, he contacted the Prokick organisation in Melbourne that had produced them. He was basically shooting a flare into the sky and hoping the right people took the time to look up.

He told them who he was and sent them a video clip of him kicking American footballs up and down the Castleisland Desmonds pitch. They were duly impressed, enough to ask him if he fancied moving to Melbourne for eight months to join their programme, which he did in August 2019. The following May, he was in the middle of his two-week quarantine back in his parents’ house in Kerry when a text came through informing him that there was a full-ride scholarship to Georgia Tech with his name on it.

‘Rushed downstairs’

“That was the greatest moment so far,” he told us this week. “I was in my bedroom and I wasn’t supposed to come out of it for two weeks. But when that text landed in my phone, I couldn’t help it. I rushed downstairs to tell them.

“It’s been amazing. Obviously with the travel ban only just being lifted in November, nobody has been able to come over and see me yet. But my friends and family are watching it. My favourite part is calling my parents after a game. I called my mother after the North Carolina game and she was going, “I thought they weren’t supposed to hit you!”

If Kiernan’s route has been a little more direct, it’s been every bit as unlikely. Along with his older twin brothers, he grew up wanting to play rugby. He flitted up and down between the A and B teams in Blackrock College, although he comforts himself now with the fact that his main competitor in the front row at the time was Thomas Clarkson, recently elevated to Leinster’s senior squad. And anyway, he reckons he was a fly-half in a prop’s body.

“I was a big boy,” he laughs. “So I went into the front row. All I wanted out of life was to play SCT rugby. My brothers always talk about a memory they have of them sitting in the kitchen in our house getting some Irish tutoring and watching me out in the garden pretending to be Ronan O’Gara and Johnny Sexton. I did a box kick once in a game. It didn’t end well.”

But before Kiernan even got past his Junior Cert, life intervened. His younger sister Freya has cerebral palsy, causing her to be nonverbal and requiring her to communicate with a talking device. Her condition became so acute that the family decided to uproot and move to Raleigh, North Carolina when he was 13 so they could be nearer the treatment she needed. It meant that Ben and his brothers were parachuted into high school as young teenagers.

Ben Kiernan of the North Carolina Tar Heels punts while playing against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets. Photograph: David J. Griffin/Getty Images
Ben Kiernan of the North Carolina Tar Heels punts while playing against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets. Photograph: David J. Griffin/Getty Images

There was some rugby to be played over there - the playing pool was shallow enough for him to realise his wish to play outhalf. But he wandered along to football try-outs as well, even though his experience of the game stretched to nothing more than playing Madden 13 on the PS2 when they got bored of playing Fifa. It didn’t go well at all, until the third session when the coach got everyone to line up and see how far they could kick the ball.

“I knew of football but I had absolutely no idea what the rules were or how to play it,” Kiernan says. “I could run and tackle because of rugby so I had those fundamentals. But it wasn’t until the coach lined everyone up on the last day of try-outs and got us to kick the ball that I found a way in.

“It was hilarious because one by one, all the rest of these kids couldn’t do it. I was blown away by how atrocious some of them were. Some of them missed it altogether, some of them put it straight up in the air like a Garryowen. I was last in the line so when it came to me, I kicked it the full width of the pitch. And that was that. The coach went, ‘Okay, we have our kicker.’ That’s where it started from.”

By the time he was 16, Kiernan’s kicking for Wakefield High was a revelation. It had never occurred to him that he could use it to get himself into college until one of his coaches explained to him how good he was. He started going to punting camps and working with coaching gurus and by the time he was in his final year, he was the number two-ranked high school punter in America.

Starting punter

He was recruited by a plethora of big-name colleges and went with UNC, based just 40 minutes away from home in Chapel Hill. His first game was at home against South Carolina in front of 52,183 fans. In the space of five years, he had gone from never having so much as watched a game of American football to being the starting punter on a Division One college team.

“It never really hit me until about halfway through my first year playing. I was always confident in my ability to kick the ball but I didn’t really get how big a deal it could be or how big an opportunity I had I was a few games in. I was walking through the stadium one night around 7.30, it was all lit up and I just stopped and looked around.

“I think we were playing Duke that week and that’s a big rivalry game for us. It was going to be a huge game, 50,000 fans, the whole state watching it. And I just stopped and looked around me and went, ’How the hell did this happen? How did I do this?’ I stood on the halfway line for about 10 minutes and kept circling my eyes around the whole place.”

That was back in 2019 and Kiernan has kept the punting job at UNC since. All going to plan, he has another two season to go after this one. Year by year, he has moved up the ranks - 88th in the country in 2019, 34th last year, currently on pace to move into the top 20 this time around. An old hand at this stage.

For Shanahan, all of this is new. Last Saturday night against UNC was only his fourth ever game of American football. It started badly, with his first punt getting blocked - hence the maternal shrieks from far-off Castleisland. But then he changed up and threw the UNC defence off by switching feet for the rest of his kicks.

“We got blocked on that first one because they were coming pretty hard on my left side. But because I grew up playing Gaelic football, I was able to roll out and kick with my right legs with my next two punts. That element of it has surprised people a bit over here, that you’d be able to kick with both feet. But that’s perfectly normal for any kid in Kerry so that helps a lot.”

When it was all over, Shanahan’s team pulled off a fairly major upset with a 45-22 win. The two punters met again in the middle and chit-chatted for another five minutes before everyone broke up and went home. Shanahan got someone on the Georgia Tech communications team to snap a picture of them to mark the occasion. At the bottom, if you zoom right in, you can see an Irish tricolour on their two helmets.

Miles from home. But going in the right direction.

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