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Northern Ireland From Rover to Buccaneer – an Irishman in the NFL


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Northern Ireland From Rover to Buccaneer – an Irishman in the NFL

Neil O’Donoghue would make his name as a kicker with the Tampa Bay BuccaneersDespite the Covid-19 lockdown, the 2020 NFL draft will go ahead – albeit without media and fans – starting on 23 April. Over three days, the cream of eligible players will be selected in sequence by each of the 32 NFL franchises…

Northern Ireland From Rover to Buccaneer – an Irishman in the NFL

Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland Neil O'Donoghue

Neil O’Donoghue would make his name as a kicker with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Despite the Covid-19 lockdown, the 2020 NFL draft will go ahead – albeit without media and fans – starting on 23 April.

Over three days, the cream of eligible players will be selected in sequence by each of the 32 NFL franchises in a television studio, with players interviewed via video conference.

Forty-three years ago, Dubliner Neil O’Donoghue was among the draft hopefuls vying for a shot at the big time. He made it, and remains to this day the last Irishman to have played in the NFL.

At 6ft 6ins, he is also the tallest man to have played as a kicker in the League in a nine-season career with the Buffalo Bills, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and St Louis Cardinals.

Initially in the States on a soccer scholarship, O’Donoghue’s programme had ended due to lack of funding so he decided to try his luck with a switch to American football.

A successful try-out as kicker with Auburn led to a two-year stint in College Football in Alabama.

“I had played a lot of Gaelic football with Round Towers in Clondalkin, I was good free taker – and some soccer with Shamrock Rovers. So I had the talent to kick and a feel for the ball,” he explains.

“I just kept working hard at it. I didn’t want to go back to Ireland and this was my way out. I felt I could do it. I had a couple of seasons at Auburn and I was All-American [selected as best in his position] which opens the door a bit. You’ve then got people looking at you.”

Unusually tall for a kicker, O’Donoghue did his reputation no harm by kicking what was then a college-record 57-yard field goal during his time at Auburn.

The Buffalo Bills selected him in the fifth round of the 1977 draft, the 127th pick overall.

“When I signed my first contract, I went out and got a car and a nice apartment. It opened a lot of doors for me. It’s all relative with the astronomical figures now but, at the time, the money was good compared to what I was used to making!”

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‘I felt like I could do it’ – Dubliner O’Donoghue on NFL career

‘Whatever OJ wanted, OJ got’

The man from Clondalkin was now sharing a locker room with the Bills’ star running back OJ Simpson, the five-time Pro Bowler who was famous back then only for his exploits on the playing field.

Simpson later became a Hollywood actor and then, in 1994, became the main suspect following the murders of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ronald Goldman. Millions of Americans watched as the police chased Simpson’s white Bronco car for 90 minutes live on TV. He finally gave himself up outside his LA home.

The trial that followed the gripped the US, and much of the rest of the world, for an entire year. Simpson was acquitted of the murders in criminal court, but was later found liable for both deaths in a civil trial.

“He was the first true superstar I had met,” O’Donoghue recalls. “He had a huge personality and definitely was ‘the man’ up there. Everybody knew who OJ was. He controlled the locker room.

“He had the superstar sound system and whatever OJ wanted, OJ got. He did have an ego but working with him, playing with him, he was a fun guy to be around – but, of course, no-one knew then what was going to happen down the road.”

OJ Simpson played for the Buffalo Bills as a running back from 1969 to 1977

O’Donoghue’s start in the NFL was not auspicious. After making just two of six field goal attempts, he was cut by the Bills, only five games into the 1977 season.

He was soon back in Ireland and playing football for Shelbourne, coinciding with Celtic legend Jimmy Johnstone’s short-lived spell at the club.

“He was barely above five foot and I’m six six, but he was a hero of mine,” O’Donoghue chuckles. “I remember us sitting on the back of the bus coming home from a cup game in Cork or somewhere, stopping at a few pubs and Jimmy singing Rod Stewart songs – and he did sound just like him.”

It was not long before the NFL came calling again, with O’Donoghue picked up by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1978.

A fresh start in Florida

The newest team in the NFL, the Bucs had had a tough start to life in the League, with just two wins in their first two seasons. Their fortunes would change over the next few years and O’Donoghue played his part.

In 1979, his field goal was the difference in a famous 3-0 win over Kansas City Chiefs which clinched Tampa Bay’s first ever divisional title in the NFC Central. They had reached the play-offs for the first time.

The game was played in atrocious conditions during a massive downpour and became known as the ‘Rain Bowl’.

“It was underwater, basically! It was delayed by an hour or so but the game went ahead,” O’Donoghue remembers. “It all came down to my field goal at the end. It’s over 40 years ago now but people still come up and say, ‘I was at that game’.

“If everyone who said that was, there must have been 300,000 there! It did put us on the map.”

With their first ever winning side, the Bucs would go on to reach the NFC Championship game, one match shy of the Super Bowl. They lost 9-0 to the Los Angeles Rams and so O’Donoghue just missed out on the biggest game in the sport.

He was then replaced in the off-season by Garo Yepremian, who had won two Super Bowl rings with the Miami Dolphins – including their famous unbeaten 1972 campaign.

But O’Donoghue’s NFL career would continue for another six seasons, playing for the St Louis Cardinals, although never reaching the heights of that 1979 Tampa Bay campaign.

Neil O’Donoghue kicks Tampa Bay Buccaneers into the play-offs in the ‘Rain Bowl’ game in 1979

Brady signing is ‘great for the Bucs’

Such is the fate of kickers, it is often the missed field goals that tend to be remembered. Despite setting a franchise record of 117 points for the Cards in the 1984 season, O’Donoghue’s last kick on goal in that campaign was a miss against the Washington Redskins – the three points would have clinched a play-off spot.

Although his longest stint was with the Cardinals, O’Donoghue remains closest to Tampa Bay. He still lives and works in Florida, as a car salesman, and enjoys attending reunions of the ’79 team. He is also thrilled Tampa Bay will soon see six-time Super Bowl winner Tom Brady as quarterback in the new season.

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“I think it’s great for the Bucs. He will sell a ton of jerseys, he’s going to fill the stadium and we have a really good wide receiver corps.

“I’ve seen Joe Montana and other great quarterbacks leave sides and it’s not the same but I’m hoping, if anyone can do it, Brady can. He’s smart, he’s got the history and has the tools to do it.”

The draft signifies the start of a new cycle in the NFL, offering the next generation of players a chance to launch potentially lucrative playing careers.

O’Donoghue certainly made the most of his opportunity, amassing a nine-year career in the NFL and playing over 100 games in a pressure position.

“I’m really proud of that,” he says. “I wasn’t the best kicker in the NFL but I hung on in there, hit some field goals and got a lot of good memories out of it.”

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