Where are they now? Ireland’s ‘lost’ scholarship athletes
For young Irish athletes, the scholarship path to US universities is far from a dead end
Brother John Dooley reckons in all there are 55 to 60 Irish athletes on scholarship this year, a still-successful side of the sport that is sometimes forgotten. Photograph: Matthew Lewis/Getty Images
My dad still tells the story about the day he got a letter from Idaho State University offering him an athletics scholarship. All he needed to do was get himself to Pocatello and they’d take care of everything else from there.
He was living in Tralee with his aunt and his sister, who pulled out her school atlas and proceeded to scan America trying to find the place. They looked down along the east, with no joy, then looked west, and still nothing. They ran their fingers through the middle and were just about to give up when they found Idaho, in the heart of the Rocky Mountains. Pocatello wasn’t even mapped.
To cut another long story short, he graduated four years later, and, despite much promising in the 60 years since, never made it back to Pocatello. Considering where he is now, he hasn’t given up yet either.
These were the pioneering days of the American scholarship trail – or the “Irish pipeline”, as it was also known. That story has been told many times, how sprinter Jimmy Reardon, thrower Cummin Clancy, and miler John Joe Barry got chatting to two American athletes, George Guida and Browning Ross, at the 1948 Olympics in London. “We could sure use you guys at Villanova,” said Guida, with that statement forever changing the course of Irish distance running history.
Now, coming up on 70 years later, and the trail is well worn and the pipeline still flowing – not as fast as it did at its peak about 25 years ago (when some second-generation athletes followed certain footsteps), but still flowing nonetheless.
Around this time every year Brother John Dooley draws up a list of those Irish athletes currently on scholarship in America, not just out of interest: for some 30 years now he’s been a sort of mentor for those thinking of going, or indeed coming back, and also helps Athletics Ireland keep tabs on their progress. During his teaching days at North Monastery in Cork he also helped secure many a scholarship.
What surprised Brother Dooley about this year’s list isn’t just the slight rise in the number Irish freshmen (14, by his counting), but also their geographic locations. The traditional east or even west coast colleges have been replaced by places like St Leo University in Florida, where Mayo’s Tadhg McGinty has just started, Butler University in Indiana, where Waterford’s Barry Keane is on the freshman roster, and Michigan State University, which Carlow’s Bobby Crowley now calls home.
Only last week I was reading about Dr John Foxe, from the St Brigid’s club in Dublin, who went on scholarship to Iona College, and is now one of the top neuroscientists in the US
These are not the traditional Irish strongholds, and while the likes of Harry Purcell and Síofra Cléirigh Büttner (both at Villanova) and Aisling Quinn and Aaron Hanlon (both at Providence College) keep that flag flying, it’s a changing landscape. Kilkenny’s Aoibhe Richardson, daughter of former Irish international Noel, is the first Irish athlete to be attending the University of Portland, and Waterford’s Sean Curran is also further afield, at Wichita State University.
Brother Dooley reckons in all there are 55 to 60 Irish athletes on scholarship this year (including those “red-shirted” because of injury), a still-successful side of the sport that is sometimes forgotten.
“They may not all be on full scholarships anymore,” he says. “And not just distance runners either. It depends on the college, but we’re still talking about several million dollars’ worth of scholarship funding going into Irish athletics. At the same time I don’t think the quality is the same as it used to be. How to gauge that? We don’t have as many qualifying for the NCAA finals, but the important thing has always been finding the right fit for the athlete, ensuring they come away with a good education.”
Indeed, there are four Irish athletes on Ivy League rosters, where average annual fees are around €65,000 (including room and board): Dublin’s Ciara Roche at Cornell, Kilkenny high jumper Donagh Mahon at Harvard, throwers Sean Ryan and Owen Russell at the University of Pennsylvania and Brown, respectively (both of those, incidentally, sons of former Irish scholarship athletes Gerry Ryan and James Russell).
There is no definitive list, but the number of Irish scholarship athletes since 1948 must run to a couple of thousand, and just because the majority of those have never been seen or heard of again doesn’t mean they haven’t been successful. Unlike those who go abroad to play club soccer or rugby, those who survive a four-year scholarship in America typically come away with a decent education which opens up a wealth of opportunity far beyond the track or field.
“That’s always bothered me,” says Brother Dooley, “that just because we don’t hear from these athletes anymore some people think they are lost forever. We hear about the recognisable names, Marcus O’Sullivan at Villanova, now one of the most esteemed coaches in America, Ray Treacy at Providence, Ray Flynn, a leading agent.
“Mark Carroll has just got a big promotion as director of track and field at Drake University, and there would be 20-plus Irish coaches in the American college system, which is huge for a country of our size.”
The success doesn’t end there: he lists off several former Irish scholarship athletes who are now successful doctors, lawyers, engineers, etc. “Only last week I was reading about Dr John Foxe, from the St Brigid’s club in Dublin, who went on scholarship to Iona College, and is now one of the top neuroscientists in the US. They are many others like that, all doing extremely well career-wise.”
Indeed, next time you hear Frank Conway give out financial advice on the radio, consider he was once the top miler at Providence, with a 3:56 to his name. Some are still being recognised: Daniel Caulfield, brother of Cork City manager John Caulfield, was just last month inducted into the Adams State Hall of Fame in Colorado.
Others deserve some similar recognition, like Jimmy Reardon, the last surviving member of those 1948 pioneers, forgotten, but not gone.