Monday 27 January 2020

Offaly's Tom Furlong and the NFL career that slipped away

Offaly's Tom Furlong
Offaly's Tom Furlong

In a new book, author and journalist Pat Nolan traces the history of the famed Furlong family, from a life on the run in Wexford during the War of Independence to their new surroundings in Tullamore, Co Offaly.

That's where the four Furlong brothers - Mickey, John, Tom and All-Ireland hero Martin - grew up and became synonymous with the GAA. Then, like so many other Irish families, economic circumstance saw three of them turn to America where the name expanded into New York GAA and American football circles. This edited extract from The Furlongs recalls how close Tom came to becoming an NFL star

Tom Furlong was a relatively late developer when it came to kicking frees. Although he was the chief scoring threat on successful school and minor teams, others were entrusted with place-kicking responsibilities. It was only by chance that he fell into it. Noel McGee took the frees for Tullamore but was having an off day once and passed responsibility to Furlong. Similarly, when he got to New York, Paddy Casey was struggling one afternoon and told Furlong to take over. He practised in Van Cortlandt Park and quickly became proficient.

He'd bring an American football too and enlisted the help of friends to hold the ball and kick it back to him. He found it easier than kicking a Gaelic football. It was lighter for a start and given that he kicked 'soccer-style', with the side of his foot, rather than the straight-line toe-poking method that was widespread among field goal kickers at the time, he had more accuracy and distance in his kicks. American football grew on him once he moved to New York. Getting tickets for the New York Giants' games was rather difficult so he started following the Jets along with his housemate at the time, Mike McCormack.

A member of the New York Giants staff was at that National League final when Furlong put on a flawless display of place-kicking against Galway. The Giants were going through an underwhelming period at the time and failed to make the play-offs in the 1965 season, having won only half of their Eastern Conference games. As the season was winding to a conclusion, some of the coaching staff would pore over the team's shortcomings in Jim Downey's Bar on 44th St and Eighth Avenue.

Working there was a chap called Eddie McDwyer from Daingean in Co Offaly. When McDwyer heard them moaning about the difficulties they were having with goal kicking he mentioned Furlong's name to them. Assistant coach Emlen Tunnell, a legendary former player for the Giants and the Green Bay Packers, was intrigued. He told McDwyer to bring his friend down to Yankee Stadium the following Tuesday morning at 8.0 for a trial.

It was a bitterly cold morning and they were just pulling the tarpaulin off the pitch when Furlong arrived. He was introduced to Tunnell and other members of the coaching staff, who instructed him to start kicking into the open end of the ground. He took pots at the posts from a range of distances. As he took one kick he lost his footing as he struck; the ball split the uprights regardless. After taking 30 kicks he had converted 27. When he turned around he saw the co-owner Wellington Mara, head coach Allie Sherman and kicking coach Ken Strong.

"What I didn't realise at the time was word had spread to the big boys inside so they had all come out. I turned around and they were all there, shaking their heads. They had never seen a soccer-style kicker.

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"There were still four games to go in the season. So I figured they'd sign me. Tunnell said, 'You had a great workout, tremendous, you should be kicking against the Chicago Bears next Sunday'. Sherman didn't want to sign me. He had never seen a soccer-style kicker and he wasn't putting his faith in it. But they signed me to a contract to keep me on."

Furlong was put in the taxi squad, which meant he effectively sat on the bench in his civvies for the remaining games of the National Football League season and was paid $200 a week. They told him to report to the training camp ahead of the following season but then things changed when they signed Pete Gogolak.

Gogolak was Hungarian-born, his family having fled during the revolution in the 1950s. He was contracted to the Buffalo Bills in the rival American Football League and his signing for the Giants is credited with sparking the 'war of the leagues', eventually resulting in an AFL-NFL merger. Gogolak had the same kicking style as Furlong, having played soccer in Hungary. Sherman may have been dubious about that style but, unlike Furlong, Gogolak had proven pedigree in the game.

He starred for Cornell University before putting down a couple of good seasons with the Bills. Such was his success in the game as his career progressed that he is credited with revolutionising goal kicking to the point where virtually every elite kicker now approaches the ball at an angle and kicks on the instep.

Furlong was undeterred, however. He'd got a sniff of a career as a professional athlete in the biggest sport in America and he wanted more. Paddy Lenihan, an influential Cork native who was a former president of New York GAA, penned a reference for him which he included with letters that he wrote to more than a dozen teams. Ten of them replied expressing an interest. He effectively narrowed it down to two - the Boston Patriots (now the New England Patriots) of the AFL and the Atlanta Falcons.

There was always going to be a pull from Boston given the strong Irish community there. They were owned by Bill Sullivan, an Irish-American businessman. "I didn't think I'd have much of a chance with them because they had a guy, Gino Cappelletti. He was the field goal kicker and he was also a wide receiver and he had a damn good year the year before. He was selected on the All Star team. I said there's no way I'm going to beat him out. But what I didn't know was he was retiring so meanwhile I had made three trips down to Atlanta."

The Falcons were a new franchise and the 1966 season would be their first in the NFL. Furlong felt they offered him the best shot at making an immediate breakthrough. They decided to sign him. At first he was offered a salary of $10,000, which was the minimum wage in the NFL at the time.

"Of course I wouldn't take that," he smiles. "So he upped it to $11,000 and I wouldn't take that and he offered me $12,000. Now I was beginning to get a bit worried because when was he going to say, 'Forget about it'? So I signed for the $12,000."

Micheál O'Hehir had got wind of Furlong's flirtation with American football and asked him to keep him abreast of developments. When he told him that his salary worked out at roughly $800 per game, O'Hehir was aghast.

"He says, 'You mean you're getting $800 a game for just running out on the field and kicking a free and running off to the sideline?' I says, 'Yeah'. The highest paid player in England that time was Denis Law. He says, 'Denis Law is only getting £200 a week!' Micheál O'Hehir couldn't believe it."

Furlong wasn't the only Gaelic footballer catching the eye of American football scouts around that time. Kerry footballer Donie O'Sullivan was studying in St John's University in New York for a year. While there he kept his hand in by playing for the college team as a goal kicker. The New York Jets were training at the college for a period and liked what they saw of O'Sullivan.

"I had a few try-outs with them at Shea Stadium," explains O'Sullivan, who also observed Furlong's field goal kicking at the time. "This was going on towards the end of the year, early December 1966, and I was supposed to join them the following year. That isn't saying I was going to make it, but they'd sign you on, give you some contract."

O'Sullivan decided against hooking up with the Jets again and has no regrets. He went home and won a further two All-Irelands with Kerry, captaining them to success in 1970.

"I'm always grateful because of the enjoyment. If you're kicking, there was a downside to it, and Tommy Furlong would say the same thing - you're sitting down on the sideline and you're called in to kick, so you're kind of out of the game. The attraction of football, there was no comparison."

The newly appointed coach of the Atlanta Falcons was Norb Hecker, who had come from the Green Bay Packers. When the legendary Vince Lombardi was appointed head coach of the Packers in 1959, he had immediately installed Hecker as his assistant. Together they won three NFL Championships, and when the Falcons were looking for a coach they initially tried to prise Lombardi away. He was thought to be keen but negotiations ran aground when he apparently wanted part ownership. Owner Rankin Smith wouldn't concede, but asked if he'd have any other recommendations for them. When Lombardi didn't put Hecker's name forward, Smith effectively took it as an endorsement and appointed him.

"Eight guys came for try-outs during our three days of work-outs," Hecker told The Gadsden Times as he settled into his new job. "We signed three of them and may sign another, so I think that is pretty good." The three were Furlong and halfback pair Don Porterfield and Harold Hurley.

However, just because he had been signed by the Falcons didn't necessarily mean Furlong had made it. A total of 104 players were brought to camp at Asheville, North Carolina in early July 1966. Only about half of them would be retained for the season proper. So, although he had signed professional terms, Furlong was effectively still on trial and it was a cut-throat business. "Everybody's an enemy there," he explains, "you're fighting for a job."

Still, if he kept nailing the kicks then he had every chance of being retained. A reporter from the Atlanta Constitution was intrigued by the kicking Irishman and wrote glowingly about him. However, he had handicaps that his competitors didn't have to contend with.

"They were all college guys and I wasn't a college guy and I wasn't American. As a guy told me before I went down there, there was still a lot of bigotry at that time. I remember I kicked balls in behind the goal and I was going down looking for them in the undergrowth and one of the coaches came along and said, 'What are you doing down there? Get your ass up out of there, that's full of snakes'. He turned around and he says to one of the ball boys, 'Hey you, nigger boy, get down here and get those balls'."

In the profiles that the club collated on each player, "none" was written for where Furlong attended college. He didn't want people thinking he was ignorant and asked them to insert 'Christian Brothers' instead. "Then I thought Christian Brothers sounds like a distillery! There was Christian Brothers brandy out in America, so I didn't know whether that was great or not either."

The training camp in Asheville was testing. "You got up in the morning at 6.0, went down to breakfast and then you had practice and meetings and then you had lunch and then you went practising again and then you had dinner."

Naturally, field goal kicking took up a large part of Furlong's day, though it was a limited role that didn't allow you to get into the thick of the action. With his speed, size and handling ability, he felt he had the potential to make it as a wide receiver. He mentioned it to one of the coaches but got short shrift.

"They wouldn't listen to me. I could catch the ball as good as any of them. They figured I was a real dumb Irishman, didn't know where my Xs and Ys were.

"Field goal kicking is very complicated in a way. The three components in a kicking game is the snapper, the holder and the kicker. The guy that snaps the ball, he's got to snap the ball back, the holder is seven yards behind him. That ball has to come back seven and a half spirals and he's got to catch the ball and put it down with the laces facing the goal. From the time the guy snaps the ball I start moving because I've got 1.4 seconds to get to kick the ball."

One of the holders in the playing group wasn't too enamoured with the Irishman. They were going through the routines one day when he fumbled the ball as Furlong ran up to strike. Having already started his kicking action, he kicked through fresh air and fell flat on the ground clutching his knee. He suffered what proved to be ligament and meniscus damage. He knew he'd be out for a few weeks at the very least. There is never a good time to sustain a serious injury but the timing in this instance was particularly disastrous.

Hecker, at that time at least, wasn't a very hands-on coach and didn't speak directly to Furlong at any stage until then. But he called him into his office that evening, told him he was releasing him and asked him for his play book. Given his background and kicking style, Furlong was on the back foot right from the off. At the first sign of adversity they cut him loose. He went back to New York and had to look after the injury himself.

"I was shell-shocked. I don't remember saying a word to him. I got shit-canned right away, whereas if I had gone to the Patriots I reckon they would have given me a chance to get my knee back in shape.

"Later on, when the agents came in and all that, you signed a contract and you were guaranteed X amount of money or something like that, but back then it was just the players and the general manager that did the signing and you had nothing. You weren't protected at all."

Within a few months he was back on his feet again. He hooked up with the Brooklyn Dodgers, a newly formed semi-professional side that played in the Continental Football League and borrowed its name from the baseball franchise that had moved to Los Angeles in 1957. The Dodgers hired the legendary Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to play Major League Baseball in the modern era, as general manager. Furlong was hopeful that if he could regain his kicking form, another opportunity would present itself with an NFL side. His brother Martin was on a visit to New York from Ireland and saw him playing on television.

One day at practice at Downing Stadium, Eusebio and Pelé appeared. Benfica and Santos were in town to play an exhibition game and the pair of them were presented for a few publicity shots as they tried their hand at kicking an American football. "The first ball that Eusebio kicked, he kicked it from about 50 yards right through the posts. Pelé couldn't kick it for shit."

Furlong's Gaelic football took a back seat at this stage, though John 'Kerry' O'Donnell tried to fly him back to Ireland to play for New York in the National League final against Longford the day after he had played for the Dodgers against the Orlando Panthers. The logistics were too tight, however.

The Dodgers only lasted one season as they struggled to attract crowds ,with their most regular home ground, Downing Stadium, way out on Randall's Island, a long way from Brooklyn. An opportunity came up to play for another CFL side, the newly formed Akron Vulcans in Ohio. Former Green Bay Packers quarterback Tobin Rote was their general manager. Furlong signed for them but they too lacked stability and only lasted a few games before folding.

He also kept goal for Shamrocks, a team in the German-American Soccer League, around that time and sustained another debilitating injury to his right leg, just above the knee, while in action for them. Coupled with his mishap in Atlanta, it shaved a few yards off his kick. He had taken a two-year leave of absence from the Transit Authority to pursue an elite career in American football but with misfortune dogging him at every turn, it was time to stick or twist. He couldn't live on fresh air.

"I decided when I was in Akron, I ain't going to make it," he says. "I had lost the length on my kicks." He resumed his old job and left the American football dream behind. An opportunity that had promised so much had delivered little more than frustration. He wishes that he had sided with Boston rather than Atlanta but remains philosophical about the whole experience.

"I could have had a big career but, I learned a long time ago, if you're wondering what could have been, you'll crucify yourself."

"If I was Tom's coach," says Mickey Moynihan, "looking back I wouldn't even have him as a kicker, as good as he was. He would have been a wide receiver. I'm convinced that he would have been a wide receiver for a National Football League team here, without any problem, because he had the speed, which you had to have. He had the speed to do that."

Donie O'Sullivan agrees, adding: "The other thing is, if he had come through the college system he'd have walked through it. If he wasn't injured and if he had decided to go to college there in the '60s he'd have no doubt got a scholarship straight away for kicking."

Furlong's interest in the game didn't waver and he attended a number of Super Bowls in later years after the NFL and AFL merged. In 1969 himself and Moynihan were in the Orange Bowl in Miami when the New York Jets shocked the Baltimore Colts to win Super Bowl III, their only such success to date.

"We were coming out of the stadium afterwards," explains Moynihan, "and George Blanda of the Oakland Raiders comes straight over to shake hands with Tommy Furlong. I'm just saying that he was known in the business. Tommy was known because Blanda wasn't a guy that would know everybody. He was a big-time quarterback and field goal kicker."

Furlong says he has "nothing only bitter memories of Atlanta" and didn't maintain contact with anyone, but some time later he happened to speak to another player who was on the books at around the same time. He told him a chilling story of the locker-room banter that prevailed after he had left. The holder who had fumbled the ball that caused Furlong to blow his knee out joked with his team-mates about how he had left the thick Irishman sprawling on the turf. Furlong was never in any doubt that he did it on purpose. "They made a big laugh about it in camp," he adds.

In the very first game that the Atlanta Falcons played, an exhibition against the Philadelphia Eagles at Atlanta Stadium ahead of the 1966 season, the kicker they finally settled on, Wade Traynham, missed the ball completely from the kick-off. Traynham had worked as a grave digger, funnily enough, and from there the Falcons found themselves in a hole that they struggled to get out of. In that NFL season the two clubs that dangled an elite football career in front of Furlong's nose only to swipe it away bombed spectacularly. The New York Giants finished bottom of the ladder in the Eastern Conference, with the Falcons just one place above them.

Norb Hecker was fired early in his third season in charge, having delivered just four victories in his 31 games. He was never hired as a head coach again.

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