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One of the last Irish-born NFL players says we're 'not too far away' from another

Wexford’s John Sinnott was drafted by the Arizona Cardinals in 1980.

John Sinnott played his football with the Baltimore Colts.
John Sinnott played his football with the Baltimore Colts.
Image: AP/Press Association Images

THE NAMES NEIL O’Donoghue, Adrian Young and John Sinnott may not ring too many bells with even the most hardcore American football fans, but the trio were among the last Irish-born athletes to play in the NFL.

However, since Young hung up his kicking boots in 1985, this country has not produced a starter in America’s biggest sport with Patrick Murray, whose father played inter-county football with Monaghan, the closest we’ve come in over 30 years.

That could be about to change though, as an increasing number of American football teams at all levels — from high school to the NFL — are embracing rugby tackling techniques in an effort to reduce head injuries.

Naturally, that will result in football teams looking at rugby players as potential stars.

That’s the view of Wexford-born Sinnott, a former offensive lineman drafted by the Arizona Cardinals in 1980, but who is best known for his time with the Baltimore Colts.

“I don’t think it’s too far way, especially with more and more rugby being played in both countries,” Sinnott told The42.

“Here they’re having rugby players and coaches showing the next generation of footballers how to tackle properly and wrap with their arms instead of leading with their head.

I’m going to imagine there’s a few fairly big Irish guys over there who are playing rugby who could come over and play in the NFL eventually but the best way to do it is to go through a college and learn the game at that level.”

JSinnott Today, John Sinnott acts as a player adviser for the Football Players Health Study at Harvard University. Source: Harvard University

Sinnott does, however, warn that his college experience was very different from anything a young Irish student would face in 2016.

“College then, it’s a lot different than now where people are so heavily recruited coming out of high school.

“My high school football coach told me ‘John, you won’t always have football but you’ll always have your brains. You might get injured your first few weeks playing football.’

“The thing was, I had a bunch of scholarships but I always wanted to go into construction and be a civil engineer and that’s what I do now, and Brown University had an up-and-coming football team with a new coach and he had turned the programme around.

“On top of that, they had a very good civil engineering programme and that was the deciding factor.

“Back then, football in college was completely different. You were a student first and an athlete second, it was a good mixture. Now there’s a huge focus on the sport.”

Sinnott was born in Wexford in 1958 before his family emigrated to Boston the following year. He doesn’t remember much about his time in Ireland but two of this three children hold Irish passports and he’s scheduled to return here next spring.

“My dad, mom, older brother and myself emigrated in November of 1959 to the Boston area. My mother’s sister was already over here and her father kept saying to my dad, ‘Nick — my dad’s name was Nick — you’ve got to bring the boys over,’ so we uprooted and left Wexford.

“Talking to my dad later in life, we took the move for granted but it was very hard for a young family to leave relatives and friends behind and move to a new country.

“But it was nothing unique. Other relatives went to England because there really wasn’t much going on in Ireland back then.

The last time we were over was 2001 but we’re actually planning a trip back in April next year with our youngest.”

Browns Eagles Football Patrick Murray is the closest we've come to an Irish NFL player in 30 years. Source: AP/Press Association Images

Sinnott’s time in the NFL was short, but it has shaped his entire life, and he is now part of the Football Players Health Study at Harvard University, a programme designed to improve the lives of football players while further understanding of the benefits – and the risks – of participating in the sport

“I was drafted in the third round of the 1980 NFL Draft by the Arizona Cardinals but I was cut in the final round of cuts at the end of training camp and a few weeks later I was picked up by the New York Giants.

“I was on the Giants for a couple of years and then I was picked up by the Baltimore Colts and I played a couple of years there before injuring my back, an injury that’s bothering me today as it happens so the weather must be about to change.

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“I still feel the effects of playing football every single day. One very good thing about the group I work with at Harvard is that you realise there are quite a few former players going through a lot of the same things that you’re going through and you don’t feel as isolated or alone as you would be if you didn’t have it.

“For some of us, it’s too late for a lot of things but, that said, they are constantly coming up with new ways to deal with a lot of this (chronic pain).

“The second part of it is trying to ensure that the game is a safer game to play. The people coming up through high school right now, they won’t be facing a lot of the same aches and pains and problems and issues that we’re facing now as we’re getting old.

“That’s starting to happen because there’s more of an awareness of the game and the best way to deal with injuries and what to do with concussions and head injuries in particular. Changing some of the rules has helped that and at least the sport is heading in the right direction in that regards.”

Panthers Newton Football Cam Newton feeling the affects of another concussion. Source: Rainier Ehrhardt

And if he had a chance to do it all over again, would he?

“I think the game that all of us love, the game that really shaped our lives and tested us to the limit and the rewards — and not financial because we got paid squat back then — of going through that and testing your limits really transfer over into your post game career and the business world and how you interact with people on a daily basis.

“I guess the problem for a lot of young players is that, when you’re in your 20s, you never imagine what you’re going to be like when your 50s. You just think ‘that’s never going to happen to me’ but I do at least see some players questioning the advice they’re getting.

“The Players Union is certainly more supportive and I think they’re a stronger union for advising players on getting a second or third opinion when it comes to injuries. We just went to the team doctor.

“Of course, the other thing is that teams are now making huge investments in players so they don’t want to see players go down with a stupid injury that could be prevented. So you see a lot more awareness now.”

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