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'My Irish heritage is something I boast about' - the Dublin-born kicker chasing NFL dreams

James McCourt moved to Florida when he was eight and he’s enjoyed a remarkable season at the University of Illinois.

Image: Cal Sport Media

IT WAS THE biggest upset of the 2019 American football college season. 

Wisconsin 23 – 24 Illinois.

And in keeping with the fairytale, the rank outsiders got the better of the sixth-best team in the country thanks to a last-second field goal.

But there was more. 

The kicker who cemented his NCAA legacy by delivering from 39 yards was a story in himself.   

Born in Dublin, James McCourt moved to Parkland, Florida when he was eight. Up to that point his heroes were Brian O’Driscoll and Thierry Henry.   

“I went to school in Scoil Bhríde in Ranelagh and really enjoyed playing rugby but soccer was probably my main sport”, McCourt says. 

“I always took the free kicks and all of that. I was a big Arsenal fan  - and still am – and grew up watching Thierry Henry and the latter years of Dennis Bergkamp’s career. It was still the glory days, just about. But when I was growing up, it was peak fandom with Brian O’Driscoll. Every kid looked up to him, especially if you played rugby. I didn’t really start playing American football until the start of high school so I was a little late to the sport, to be honest.”

A typical over-active youngster, McCourt threw himself into a range of sports once the family arrived in the US, though finding a rugby club proved problematic. Missing the physicality of the game, he felt gridiron was the closest thing so turned up for his first practice.    

“When I started, I didn’t even have my eyes on the kicking position”, he says. 

“I was just trying to find somewhere I could play. It just came naturally. I don’t think I was particularly good in any of the other positions and in my first year we needed a kicker so I raised my hand. I got some coaching and started to get the hang of it.” 

You see all these Australians coming over and punting in college and they’re making their way to the NFL now too. So there’s not much of a learning curve with kicking. I never felt behind at all. If you’re good enough, you have the talent and practice, it doesn’t matter where you come from. Sure, it’s a little different. In rugby, you lean the ball forward and you strike the bottom of it. But in football, there’s no tee and because you’re kicking from the ground, it makes the sweet spot that much smaller. The ball is smaller too. And you hit it differently than you would with, say, a free-kick. You need to get height on the kick so you make contact with your in-step so it’s almost like a pass but more powerful.”

And rugby still remained pretty useful. If only for research.  

“I read Ronan O’Gara’s book, Jonny Wilkinson’s book and I’ve watched so many interviews with Johnny Sexton and Dan Carter just because there are parallels and similarities between their kicking game and what I have to do regarding the mental approach”, he says. 

“When I first started, I was super-raw. But after some coaching, I fine-tuned the small things to help me to the next step, which was college. And I continue to fine-tune even now to get me to the NFL. I attended St Thomas Aquinas, which is a football powerhouse but I didn’t go there thinking football was a route to college. But after I’d been kicking for a little while, some college coaches started to come and visit. When I started to get pulled out of class to meet them, I kinda realised it was an opportunity I shouldn’t shy away from and that I should take full advantage of it. I stopped my soccer and lacross and turned my focus to getting a scholarship and planning for college.”

He admits his mother, Margaret, had some initial concerns. But, he was adamant it was what he wished to pursue. Confronted by a range of suitors, he eventually settled on the University of Illinois but it proved a baptism of fire. His role as back-up kicker to Chase McLaughlin (now with the Indianapolis Colts) meant he didn’t even get on the field in his first two seasons. There was frustration and irritation. But, he remained patient. He knew the process and the scale of everything. His high-school had prepared him for it. He would get his chance and needed to be ready. 

“It’s top level”, he says. 

ncaa-football-2019-wisconsin-vs-illinois-oct-19 James McCourt lands the crucial field goal against Wisconsin back in October. Source: Cal Sport Media

“You’re playing in front of sixty thousand. Sometimes it’s as much as ninety thousand. It’s as professional as it gets. My cousins come over and see what it’s like and the facilities we have and they’re blown away. It’s stuff they’ve never seen before. I’m used to it now but sometimes I have to take a step back. It is amateur – like the GAA – but the money that’s around, the ticket sales, sold out stadiums…”

A kicker spends a lot of time waiting. McCourt had three years of it. 

Then, against Wisconsin on 19 October, he became immortal. 

Illinois had lost their previous four games. Now, facing the sixth seeds, McCourt could win it for them. He could make history. He got the call, settled in and focused. In the chaos, he tried to find the calm.  

“I have a pretty good recollection of everything”, he begins. 

“I stick to a strict routine, which I think is really important. And I visualise a lot. I try and imagine myself playing in the game sometimes because it makes me feel more a part of the team. It’s so unique because you’re on the sideline for 95% of the game but your one or two or three plays can be the whole difference. There’s a lot of weight. The rugby guys talk about routine and how important it is. And a football game is a lot of time for you to be locked in but only getting a certain amount of action. So you have to be relaxed and almost have to bring yourself away from the game sometimes, so you’re not super drained by the time you get out there.”

It was a lot of pressure but it’s what I’ve been working for. I saw everything in my life flash before that moment. I knew what was at stake. I knew the circumstances. But I also knew it was a routine kick that I’d gone through thousands of times over. I’ve played it in my head, in practice, in games. I knew I could do it. So the pressure was there but not as much as you’d think. If you’re in control of the situation, you understand. But if you’re not, you can’t. I always say it’s like when you’re driving a car, you’re always in control of every situation, however crazy it might be. But the passenger never is. And I knew my family and everyone watching were more nervous than I was. Even a few weeks ago, I watched the game back with my girlfriend and her family and I was more nervous, even though I knew it was going in. In the situation, I wasn’t thinking too much.”

“It went in slow-motion. It wasn’t too far – only 39 yards – and once it came off my foot, I just knew. Almost instantaneously. It felt good. And I looked up, just to make sure. In the dog pile, I passed out for a little bit. Once I got out of that and stepped back, I wanted to take it all in. I knew opportunities like that don’t come around too often.”  

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Afterwards, there was bedlam. The upset was covered by every major media outlet. McCourt’s kick was heard around the world. Even back in Rathmines. 

“I went back to my phone after the game and went on my Instagram and the kick was on SportsCenter, Bleacher Report, House of Highlights so that was definitely a surreal moment – it was pretty amazing”, he says. 

“We’ve struggled the last few years but the significance of the upset was how it could really propel our programme to new heights. It embodied my four years here. We started the year pretty well and then had a dip and then beat the sixth-best team in the country. It was a turning point for us. And we pushed on after it.”

And the family reaction down in Florida? 

“There were some great videos of my parents jumping up and down”, he says. 

I had about fifteen texts from my Mum and sister. They enjoyed it as much as I did, I think. My Mum is a wreck when she watches and she can’t watch the kicks, to be honest. My brother always sends me these videos of my Mum on her knees praying rather than watching. It must be an Irish thing. But I’ve always embraced my Irishness and been super proud. I never want to lose my Irish heritage and my connection back home. I try to get back as much as I can. It’s something I pride myself on and it’s something I boast about, if I’m honest.”    

McCourt’s next objective is grandiose. But given how far he’s come already, it doesn’t exactly sound outlandish. 

“My goal and dream has always been to play professional sport and the NFL is something I’ve definitely longed for”, he says. 

“I’ve been working for it. And I’m going to continue working for it.” 

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About the author:

Eoin O'Callaghan

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