Monday 9 December 2019

GAA roots bear fruit as Ficken closes in on NFL dream

Sam Ficken kicks the winning field goal for Penn State at Croke Park
Sam Ficken kicks the winning field goal for Penn State at Croke Park

Donny Mahoney

With three seconds left in the Croke Park Classic, Sam Ficken got the call. His team, Penn State, trailed by two points. His task was straightforward: place a 36-yard field goal between the uprights at the Hill end to win the game.

One of the great ironies of American football is that so often these hyper-gladiatorial disputes are settled by kickers, scrawny guys with minimal media profiles and bargain-bin contracts. Kickers are generally only remembered for what they miss.

I watched Ficken's winning kick with interest last Saturday, since the previous day, Patrick Murray was named the starting kicker for the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Murray had, no doubt, once daydreamed about kicking points in Croke Park. A Jersey boy from Monaghan GAA stock, Murray was on the show in April 2013, ahead of that year's NFL draft.

Murray had been one of the best kickers in the college football that year. Unfortunately, his college Fordham had nearly no football pedigree.

Murray spoke optimistically about his chances of making the big time, but we heard little of him until this year's training camp, when new Buccaneers coach Lovie Smith added Murray to his roster. All Murray had to do was earn his place over Connor Barth, the best kicker in Bucs franchise history. And that's exactly what happened.

Tempered

While it was a great day for Murray, his family, and indeed Irish-America (Murray always credits his GAA education for his kicking ability), I assume his elation was tempered by the reality of the job before him.

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NFL kickers have almost zero job security. If Murray misses a couple of field goals against Carolina in the Bucs' first game of the season this Sunday, it might not just mean being cut by Tampa Bay, it could be the end of his entire career.

It was an act of faith that caused a new coach to trust in a new kicker, and I have a feeling Murray is about to repay him.

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