Kicking academy helping grow American football in Ireland, Europe

Dublin’s Croke Park, shown here during a 2010 rugby match, could be the site of a Georgia Tech football game against Boston College in 2015. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

Dublin’s Croke Park, shown here during a 2010 rugby match, could be the site of a Georgia Tech football game against Boston College in 2015. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

The competition is called Ireland’s Kicking King and is conducted by Tadhg Leader, a former Irish rugby and Gaelic football player connecting the dots between Ireland’s rich pool of kicking talent and college and professional football.

In 2023, during the IKK competition, Leader spotted Charlie Smyth, a 22-year-old from Northern Ireland. Smyth didn’t win the competition, or even qualify for the finals of the event, but Leader could see the raw talent. So when the NFL’s International Pathway Program contacted Leader and asked for potential kickers, Leader suggested Smyth.

Smyth signed a three-year contract with the New Orleans Saints in April.

“As a result of the swing mechanics, directly with the ball placed on the grass (in Gaelic Football), you have to have your foot at an optimum angle, and you have to guide the grass perfectly to get the outcome desired. We’ve been doing that since we can walk,” Leader said. “That’s the hardest to piece to kicking, your foot to ball. What’s your foot look like when it contacts the ball?

“Most guys come to me with that piece or something that is pretty similar to what it needs to be, so they’re way ahead of the curve. Thankful due to our sport, that no one else plays in the world, we actually have it. So the NFL and college football’s eyes have been opened in the last 12-18 months.”

Leader runs Leader Kicking, an Irish-based academy he founded that tries to create a pathway for Irish athletes to access college education in the United States. It’s a pathway that Leader never had, and one he realized may have altered his life had he been exposed to football earlier than three years ago.

But before then, Leader’s only baseline for American football were movies “Any Given Sunday” and “The Waterboy.” It wasn’t until the COVID-19 pandemic that Leader picked up the pigskin and started fooling around with kicking the foreign ball.

“Someone told me to take three steps, and that was it. I got back to getting to 58, 59 yards (for a field goal),” he said. “Someone was like, ‘Who do you play for?’ I was like, ‘no one.’”

Leader began to take punting and placekicking seriously, but it was somewhat too late in the game for him to make an NFL roster. He gained some playing time in European leagues and in the Canadian Football League, but a kicker with little to no experience in his late 20s was a hard sell for professional owners and general managers.

So Leader returned to Ireland and his hometown of Galway, began a career in finance and started coaching football on the side. As his reputation grew, the NFL asked Leader to be its international punting and kicking coach.

Meanwhile he was further understanding what it meant to play college football in the United States.

“It was so obvious. This is class, college football in America,” Leader said. “I talked to these guys and learned what it means to be a Division I college athlete and was like, ‘This is phenomenal. This is like playing in the Premier League in England.’ And we can do it, there just needs to be a pathway.

“My journey, there was no path. So I was just like why not connect the dots here and do it. And I really enjoy coaching. It was never a matter of I’m not doing this, it was just a matter of when. It was very purposeful.”

Success has been almost immediate with Leader in assisting Smyth, Idaho State punter Ross Bolger and Rutgers kicker Jack Scullion, to name a few. Now Leader said he has a database of almost 1,000 names of young kickers from all across Europe looking to get their big break in America.

“This year at the (NFL Scouting Combine) was the first year they had the specialist combine. We had three guys kick and two guys punt,” Leader said. “Talk to any coordinator and the general feedback from them was like, ‘Wow, these lads belong. We did not expect them to be comparable to the top seven kickers in college football.’ I knew we were better than they thought we were, but they had no frame of reference.”

Leader plans to attend Tech’s season opener Aug. 24 when the Yellow Jackets face Florida State at Aviva Stadium in Dublin, Ireland. In fact, his Ireland’s Kicking King competition leads to that game and helps tie together his efforts to showcase college football to the Irish and Europe and college football’s efforts to broaden its appeal.

(The Tech-FSU game) educates people on what college football is and the scale of college football,” Shanahan said. “It shines a light on how big it is, how well it’s resourced, how crazy and fanatical people are about it and now we’re showing how we can access it,” Leader said. “It’s a really nice synergy.”

This story has been revised since its original posting.