Patterson 'pioneering new frontiers'
Some days, Ronan Patterson finds himself day dreaming and snaps out of it with a jolt, remembering that this is really happening. A few short months ago, he had never held an American football. Now, he’s getting ready to leave home, move to the United States and play the game at a high level.
Patterson spotted something online – a kicking coach offering young Irish lads a shot, almost literally – and chanced his arm. After that? Events, dear boy, events… The coach, Tadhg Leader, got back immediately, they met up and the Virginia man got to work.
Last week, the call came. A scholarship offer. The first stage of the mission was accomplished.
When the Anglo-Celt caught up with the 23-year-old (he turns 24 on Sunday) Ramor United footballer, he was sitting in the back garden of a house in Boston, having toured around some of the colleges who had shown an interest in taking him on. Monmouth University in New Jersey is where he will more than likely end up but at this stage, he was travelling east to west, checking things out.
“I feel like since we’ve been over here we’ve been living in a fairytale with the stuff we’ve been getting and the experience we’ve been having. I’m just currently in Boston, it’s 32 degrees, can’t complain. Yeah, it’s been quite nice,” he said.
“It seems crazy, every time I hear it back it’s like ‘whoa, is that really happening?’. I still can’t really believe it yet, it seems quite nuts.”
It happened just like that.
“About four or five months ago I saw online a fella called Tadhg Leader. He played professional rugby for Connacht, he moved to America and played for teams there and actually played with the USA team as well. At the end of his rugby he decided to transition to American football, he saw that Australian players were doing it and he said he would give it a go.
“Naturally, like most Gaelic footballers and rugby players, he was good at kicking. From that, he went on and played in the CFL, which is the Canadian version of the NFL. He played in a European NFL league which is really starting to take off.
“And he then decided to come home and set up Leader Kicking. The aim is to make it easier for Irish players to give it a go with him, to see if you’re any good at field goals or punting.
“That was how it started. I remember I texted him and just told him my background and he rang me straight away, he was in the airport in Toronto. I was in cold Cavan in the middle of January and he just sold a dream to me regarding what this could be.
“I thought nothing would come off it, you’d be silly if you thought otherwise. Even explaining it to my parents, they still don’t fully understand what’s happening.
“That was about four months ago, I met him in Athlone and did a kicking session. Ever since that I was an eager beaver, contacting him asking him when could I go again. He had explained to me about my one-year eligibility because I did a four-year degree in TUD.
“I knew it was all or nothing, I needed to get a scholarship for September or I wouldn’t be able to play D1 football. You could play D2, it works differently with that. I still only have one year but I could start that next year.
“It just worked out, I did maybe two sessions myself a week and maybe one every week or fortnight with him. I started sending clips on Twitter, he had contacts and all you’re waiting for is that response from someone somewhere online asking about you or asking for more clips.”
Having completed an Undergraduate degree in Quantity Surveying and Construction Economics in TUD, he was weighing up his next move. Travel was always on the agenda and sport is his passion. This combined the two.
The fact that he hadn’t kicked an American football before was only a small impediment.
“I didn’t even buy my first set of American footballers until about two months ago, I was using Tadhg’s old ones,” he smiled.
But his background was a huge advantage. A former stand-out centre with Virginia RFC and Ulster and a midfielder with a star-studded Cavan minor team who lost an All-Ireland semi-final to David Clifford’s Kerry, he had played a high level of sport across different codes.
In his late teens, he developed glandular fever, which knocked him back, drained his energy physically and every other way and indirectly led to mental health troubles, out of which he set up a clothing company called Need To Talk.
“I played underage Ulster rugby right up to U18, I had to drop off the rugby side of things with glandular fever, I mentioned that with Need To Talk. I loved rugby and was really playing at a high level in rugby and wished I could pretty much pursue rugby but I just never got the chance.
“Naturally I had that ability to kick out of the hands. I did AFL trials back in the day and the shape of it is pretty much exactly like the AFL ball so that’s why a lot of Australians go over and have a natural ability for it too. I played with Virginia Rugby Club and we had a great underage group.
“Was I a big American football fan? I obviously had an interest, like a lot of us are interested in the NFL, but it’s so far away from our reality of living in a small rural town in Cavan to actually being so close in contact with the sport now, it’s crazy. I was a fan but not a crazy fanatic fan, I wouldn’t stay up and watch every game.
“It was the play-offs, I’d enjoy watching it but never looking at the kicker once. I’d be looking at the QB, we try to connect Tom Brady with Cavan as much as we can.”
Patterson will play as a punter, which means he will receive the ball from the line of scrimmage and then kick it to the opposing team so as to limit any field position advantage. A Gaelic-like tactic of ‘rolling out’, which involves a Gaelic style kick, has become popular, which is a help, too.
“The role I have been offered is for punting, specifically they want me for roll outs and obviously the spiral punt as well. What you see in the NFL is a direct straight spiral punt. They catch the ball and they’re kicking it straight with a spiral on it.
“With a lot of college teams now, they roll out and naturally that is how we kick a Gaelic ball, go to the side and kick it off the side of your foot. A lot of college teams have started doing that.
“A lad last year playing for Ruckers College just did roll outs, averaged 42 yards, kicked it out every time and got one of the highest ratings in America doing that. So the roll outs have got hugely popular.
“You’re catching the ball and rolling either to the right or left and kicking it either with a spiral or as you would a rugby ball.”
From the start, he felt he had an aptitude. Leader did too but believed deep down that this coming academic year may come too soon.
“I knew I was good at punting pretty much straight away, the field goals were more difficult.
“In August I can still go on to the team and try to beat the field goal kicker as well and try to earn my place there. At the moment they want the punting but I can win that job too by going there and proving myself.
“I still think my punting is the better side of it. I had a general idea, Tadhg kind of knows straight away if you have a certain amount of talent that might get you there.
“But if you asked him at the start would I get a scholarship this year, hell no, not a chance, no way you’d get it that quick. But I’m a determined young fella and once I heard there was a chance, I wasn’t going to say no. So… that was that.”
Leader’s story is fascinating in itself. As he carves out a niche online and builds more connections in America, more young lads will make the leap, Patterson feels.
“He has a bit of a following online and it’s going to be much more accessible for Irish lads going forward because people are following him and saying ‘look, these Irish lads can kick’ so it’s going to really open a pathway for people now. We’re going to get as much stick as the AFL gets now for lads going over because it’s such a big pathway for people who can get over and do it.
“He puts it up online and if he thinks you’re good enough, he’ll start contacting schools. I also started emailing colleges my clips and luckily Monmouth got back and we went from there.
“I’m pretty determined I’m going to be going there (rather than a different college). I haven’t signed a contract yet but they give you a bit of time to think about it, it’s the norm over here. You’re just kind of waiting to see, I’m still waiting on my college results for example. I need to go through the admissions process and stuff like that but I’m 95% sure I’m going to be pulling on a Monmouth jersey.”
The hard work will start in a couple of months’ time.
“In August it’s all football. We aren’t obliged to even look at a book, it’s a crazy training camp and then September will be the first game. Regarding college, it’s the same as doing a Masters at home.
“I’ll be going to classes, because I’m on scholarship I’ll have to be reaching a certain amount of hours in the library and stuff like that. It’s not normal at home to be getting scholarships, you need to be elite, to be playing for Ireland nearly to get a scholarship.
“The set-up is unreal. I went to TUD in Bolton Street, the difference in the set-up is unbelievable, it’s so hard to explain. The stadium that we’ll be playing in is unreal too. Monmouth is based in West Long Branch, a 40-minute train ride from New York and a 90-minute drive to Philadelphia, where Patterson played ball last summer and has a group of friends. Having played such a high standard of rugby and played Gaelic with the likes of Paddy Lynch, Cian Madden, James Smith et al, it’s remarkable that a sport he never considered could end up being the one that alters his life path.
“It’s crazy, it just shows that you never know what will happen in life. You can have ups and downs, I’ve had many downs. I didn’t think I’d ever finish college, now I’m going to do a Masters.
“It’s great to have just put the head down. When you put that bit of effort into yourself, you can go off and do something. Six months ago, I wouldn’t even have thought of it. “I always wanted to go back out to America so that’s why I was so interested in what Tadhg had to offer at the start. It’s nice to be able to do it, I love sport and it’s great to be able to do something that I love and that’s training and having fun. “I’m going back out in mid-July. August is all football, sleep, eat and breathe football for that month. That will be exciting.
“When it gets to the level after college, there are so many different leagues. XFL, USFL, the CFL in Canada, a European League. If you go to them, you are competing for your job every day. If you don’t kick well, you can wake up the next day with no job. It’s not as bad as that in the colleges but I want to be performing, I want to give myself my best chance of doing something after this year.
“It will be pressurised but look, that’s the fun in it too, isn’t it? The buzz, Gaelic footballers know it too. You want to put your best foot forward.”
He’s blazing a trail, too. No other Irish player has come through this route – Kerry’s David Shanahan made it at Georgia Tech via Australia, a route Declan Bonner’s son Cillian is also pursuing.
“There is none that have gone through the way that we’re doing it… We’re trying to make it more accessible that you don’t have to go and spend all that money and then maybe not get a chance.
“Tadhg’s slogan is ‘Pioneering new frontiers’. That’s what he’s trying to do. I think we as sports heads under-estimate the academic side of things too. I’m getting access to a Masters programme in America which is something I will have whenever sport stops.
“I’m actually buzzing now, I can’t wait.”
Support from Partnership
The Irish-American Partnership have helped to support this new departure.
“The Irish American Partnership is fully in support of this wonderful initiative,” stated Vice-President Clodagh Boyle.
“Leader Kicking mirrors our longstanding mission of investing in Ireland’s future - its youth. We applaud Tadhg and his team in supporting and providing scholarship opportunities for these talented athletes, Leader Kicking is further strengthening the links between Ireland and the US.”