Tuesday 24 October 2017

The Toughest Trade: An antidote to insularity as American footballers sock it to GAA's finest

Aidan O’Shea pictured in his American football attire. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / Sportsfile
Aidan O’Shea pictured in his American football attire. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / Sportsfile

Tommy Conlon

Shuttle sprints are not much fun for a big man prone to carrying a bit of timber on his frame. Which is not to say that Aidan O'Shea is in bad shape. The Mayo totem looked in good nick during the week he spent Stateside dabbling on the fringes of professional American football.

It was early February and he'd swapped relentless rain for the sunshine of California. Coming in the opposite direction was Roberto Wallace, a former NFL pro with the Miami Dolphins, who was going to train and play with O'Shea's home club Breaffy.

This was the latest instalment of the TV show The Toughest Trade, designed by AIB as a promotional spin-off for its ongoing sponsorship of the GAA's national club championships. It belongs to the fish-out-of-water genre popular with the reality television market.

It has no dramatic credibility because the crossover sportsmen involved are never actually going to cross over from one sport to another. But it has become an engaging curiosity, if only because it introduces Irish audiences to unfamiliar faces from sports such as soccer, cricket, baseball and gridiron. It's also a bit of fun watching hurlers and Gaelic footballers immersing themselves in an alien sporting environment.

In San Diego a couple of ex-professionals are putting O'Shea through a series of drills. They are measuring his speed and agility with a stopwatch. Any aspiring NFL pro has to have a very high standard of basic athletic ability.

So they give him a "5-10-5" shuttle run: five metres out to the first cone, turn, and ten metres back to the next cone; turn, and five metres back to the cone where he started. They stop the clock at 4.65 seconds. They immediately cop that O'Shea laboured at the first turn. Jason Carter is one of the testers. "You got stuck right there," he says. 4.65? "That won't do it." O'Shea has another go. He knows himself it wasn't good. "That was shit," he says. "Yeah," drawls Carter, "that was shit." O'Shea does not have a smooth running style. It is inefficient, technically awkward. He has an ungainly turning action too. He is a high-level performer in Gaelic games. His flawed athletic habits wouldn't be tolerated in serious US sport. The world's biggest and richest sporting culture is a Darwinian experiment in physical evolution. O'Shea is a big man by Gaelic football standards. American sport is full of specimens who are bigger, faster, stronger and more technically accomplished.

Back in Castlebar, Roberto Wallace is showing the difference. Aged 29, and now retired from pro football, he too is tall and strong. But the speed of his footwork is mesmerising. A lifetime spent in schools, college and professional gridiron has produced an immaculately streamlined athlete: beautifully balanced, with electrically quick feet. His talent and presence offer a window into a different world for his new team-mates.

"He's making me question everything around me," says the Mayo and Breaffy goalkeeper Rob Hennelly. "Not just the way we play the sport but everything that goes with it. I think having that perspective, and the more we look outside ourselves and bring it back into what we're doing ourselves, the better."

Never a truer word. An indigenous sport will always need outside influences and external benchmarks to show where it really stands in the pecking order. Even a made-for-TV project such as this offers valuable lessons: it is an antidote to insularity.

Still, there's no getting away from home, even when a fella is on the other side of the planet. O'Shea takes the opportunity to visit a long-time resident of the Golden State and a revered son of his home county. Dr Padraig Carney is almost the last of the Mohicans now: one of the few remaining members of the last all-conquering All-Ireland winning Mayo side. O'Shea tells him he has seen the photos of that beloved team many times. He wants to stand in a team picture of similar stature, one that will bridge the long gap back to '50 and '51: a framed photo that will also hang from walls for all time.

There's no doubting his sincerity or conviction. But one wonders, in passing, why O'Shea thinks it's acceptable to wear white socks in Mayo games while all his team-mates are wearing regulation red. It's not about the socks, it's about the symptom: as they're fond of saying in the States too, there's no 'i' in team.

The climax of his American adventure is a 'Combine' in Houston, Texas. This is essentially an organised trial for NFL prospects, young athletes hoping to make the almost-impossible grade. O'Shea gets his turn. He is timed again over various sprint distances. His standing jump is measured. "Watch this guy," he says to camera, referring to one particular prodigy. "He can jump, (he's) got calves the size of my head."

Over in Mayo, Wallace is climbing a snow-capped Croagh Patrick with some of his new Breaffy friends. The view from the summit is breathtaking, a celestial panorama of lake and landscape. He's not in Kansas anymore, but he apparently has loved the whole experience.

Then they stick him in at full-forward for a challenge game against local rivals. He gets on the ball quite a bit but, says the Breaffy coach, has missed "a lot of chances".

Which would suggest that the lad had almost gone entirely native by the time he was finished.

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