By KEN MAGUIRE
Townsfolk weren’t the only ones curious about what David Shanahan was up to with the funny-looking brown ball.
Trading Gaelic footballs for American footballs, Shanahan was booting the pigskin on his uncle’s dairy farm in southwest Ireland.
“I had a lot of young calves watching me curiously,” he said. “Every now and then a ball would land in the middle of them and they’d kind of circle around it and suss it out.”
Shanahan’s punting prowess led to a scholarship to play college football for Georgia Tech.
The Australians have led a punting revolution in college football but the 19-year-old Shanahan said Irishmen can do the job, too, with skills developed from their years of playing rugby, soccer and Gaelic football.
“I’m sure I won’t be the last one,” Shanahan said. “Hopefully not, anyways.”
Shanahan tapped into the Australian pipeline, though, to earn his scholarship. He attended Prokick Australia, the Melbourne academy that trains mainly former Australian Rules footballers and helps them get scholarships to American colleges.
Six of the past seven Ray Guy Award winners for best collegiate punter went to Aussies who came through Prokick. NFL punters Michael Dickson of the Seattle Seahawks, Mitch Wishnowsky of the San Francisco 49ers, Cameron Johnston of the Philadelphia Eagles, and Jordan Berry of the Pittsburgh Steelers are all Prokick alumni.
Prokick focuses on three styles: the traditional spiral punt, the drop punt that spins backward, and the rollout punt that Australians have made popular in college football. They also have classroom sessions to learn about the rules and the conferences.
Shanahan, a left-footer, was the first Prokick student to come from Ireland but academy owner Nathan Chapman said more will follow. Chapman said he and coach John Smith, who is from England, plan to hold camps in Ireland for the first time. The coronavirus pandemic has delayed the scheduling.
“We had enough emails from after David’s signing to know that people want an opportunity,” Chapman said of interest from athletes in Ireland. “There’s absolutely going to be more players from Ireland who could do it.”
Chapman, who talked his way into a tryout with the Green Bay Packers in 2004 after seeing fellow Australian Darren Bennett’s success with the San Diego Chargers, said they may add stops in England and Scotland. Cleveland Browns punter Jamie Gillan was born in the Scottish Highlands and moved to Maryland as a teenager.
“There’s talent all across the world,” said Chapman, citing Japan and the work of the Japan Kicking Academy.
Last month, Shanahan accepted a full scholarship to Georgia Tech. He spoke to coaches in a Zoom call and verbally committed, beginning in 2021. He plans to enroll and move to Atlanta in January.
Landing the scholarship has made it easier for Shanahan to explain why he dropped Gaelic football. Before going to Prokick, he had been bicycling to sports fields early in the morning so the rest of Castleisland, a small town with a population 2,500 in County Kerry, wouldn’t see him punting. His father is a pharmacist and his mother is a school teacher.
Questions were asked.
“Definitely people started talking, wondering what I was doing,” Shanahan said.
American football is becoming popular among his generation thanks to televised NFL and college games, Shanahan said.
“But older generations, like 35 upwards, don’t really have a clue what it is,” he said. “They were a bit puzzled by what I was doing. I got a lot of funny looks.”
Shanahan will have a countryman in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Dublin-born Ben Kiernan, who moved to the United States when he was 15, is entering his sophomore season as a punter at North Carolina. He has applied some rugby-style play into his game.
“The rollout is definitely one of my specialty punts. It’s one of my favorites to do,” Kiernan said. “Australian punters and kids who grew up playing rugby, like me and other guys, are making more of an impact. Before, it was just directional punts.”
Elsewhere in the ACC, Miami, Pitt and NC State all have Australian punters.
Other Ireland-born collegiate players include UC Davis punter Daniel Whelan and Illinois kicker James McCourt, both of whom had moved to the United States when they were younger. Ireland’s Neil O’Donoghue kicked for Auburn and played nine NFL seasons in the 1970s and 80s.
“There are so many people in Ireland that can kick the ball, so I’m glad that we’re being noticed,” said Whelan, who will be a senior this season.
While Ireland remains under coronavirus restrictions, Shanahan continues punting on his uncle’s farm. He hopes to return to Melbourne for some extra training before moving to Atlanta.
“I’d love to think that it’s kind of an avenue being opened for other guys that have grown up playing Gaelic football or rugby in Ireland,” Shanahan said, “and want to try something different.”