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Tommy Dickson/INPHO Leader with the USA rugby team in 2018 before a clash with Ireland in Dublin.
# Crossover
The former Connacht man now trying to make it as an NFL kicker
Tadhg Leader won two caps for the USA in rugby but is now part of the Spring League.

THERE HAS ALWAYS been a joy in the art of kicking for Tadhg Leader and now the former Connacht man is hoping his passion will lead him all the way into the NFL as an American football kicker.

It was as recently as 2019 that Leader made his Test rugby debut for the US, winning two caps after qualifying on residency grounds, but the 28-year-old has decided to pursue a very different pathway in 2021.

Having only started properly kicking American footballs during the initial Covid-19 lockdown last year, Leader is already part of the upcoming Spring League – a developmental league that allows NFL hopefuls to showcase their skills. 

His cannon of a right boot – he has hit 65-yard field goals – will be closely watched.

The eight-team Spring League gets underway this coming Thursday, with one game per round broadcast live around the US by Fox. Leader will be with the Aviators team playing out of Indianapolis, having initially joined the Blues in Houston, Texas only days ago.

Yesterday, Leader was traded as he chased the chance of greater exposure with the Aviators, jumping on a plane to Indianapolis to make the trade happen before he had even played in a game.

“My head was absolutely spinning and I still haven’t come to grips with it all but I’m buzzing for the prospect of playing for the Aviators in our opening game on Thursday night on national TV,” said Leader yesterday. 

“Coming from rugby, it just all seems pretty crazy how quickly things can change but it struck me how the administration people just seemed to treat this as another day in the office. As I said to myself from day one of this journey – embrace every day in the moment and don’t get too worried about the future.

“There are times when I think ‘What the fuck am I doing?’ but that’s par for the course.”

Let’s jump back in time here. Leader is a 15-year-old in his native Galway and he takes sheer delight in heading out for kicking sessions with older brother, Greg, and the youngest of the Leader boys, Darragh – who also played for Connacht and is now living in the US, coaching and studying at Clemson University in South Carolina.

Tadhg remembers the whole family heading out on Christmas Day to their local rugby pitch, where his dad, Noel, a former Galwegians RFC president, says he’ll stump up 50 quid if any of them can slot a kick from the halfway line. Tadhg and Darragh bang over their efforts. That kicking power always remained part of their rugby repertoire.

tadhg-leader James Crombie / INPHO Leader during his time with Connacht. James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

Tadhg had a tough time with injuries towards the end of his time with Connacht, then a brief spell in Italy before coming to the US to study and ending up as an Eagles international.

Life was good last year and Leader was a key man for the New England Free Jacks in Major League Rugby when Covid struck and the world slowed down. The Irishman’s power off the tee had always led to Americans telling him he should try football and he decided to scratch that itch, hooking up with a high school football coach last spring.

“I kicked two or three balls and he just said ‘Wow’ and called some of his friends,” says Leader. “20 minutes later, there’s three of them watching me. People walking around the field stopped to watch too, so I thought there might be something here.”

Leader kicked for three hours straight that first day and he couldn’t shake the scent in front of him thereafter.

Having thrown himself into online research about all things NFL, he was soon driving to meet a football kicking coach in Connecticut. The reaction was similar again.

“After one session he told me I was good and that there was more here than just having a bit of fun with it.”

And so, Leader connected with former Super Bowl champion and two-time Pro Bowler John Carney – who remains fifth on the NFL’s all-time points scoring list – and moved out to San Diego to begin training with him.

The first week went well and last November, Leader made a decision to go after American football – cutting off a rugby career that had still been growing before the pandemic.

“I felt I had enough skill and talent to warrant jumping headfirst into this,” says Leader. “Trust me, it wasn’t easy. A few people were asking why I would leave rugby now after getting caps.

“I just love kicking and it gives me pure joy. I felt I had to take this opportunity.”

It has been an eye-opening experience for Leader, who continues to learn every day and expects his involvement in Spring League will be invaluable in that sense.

While place-kicking in rugby and field goals in American football might seem similar, Leader explains how the process is very different, with the latter a collective effort involving several other players.

“You have around 1.3 seconds to get your kick away,” says Leader. “It’s so weird approaching a ball that isn’t there. You do what they call your drive step – your last step before the ball – and then it’s kinda getting into full vision.

“If your timing is a split second off, or one step is too long, that means your kick is off.

“When the snapper rockets the ball in between his legs, the expectation is that when the holder catches the ball, ideally the laces on the football are pointing towards the target so the holder doesn’t have to catch it and readjust because that takes a fraction of a second. The ball is rotating a lot over that eight or nine yards.

“That filters on to the holder because if he doesn’t get it at the perfect angle, ready to place, he might have to twist the ball, so now I’m approaching with my drive step about to impact and the ball is mid-being twisted, so I’m looking at a ball that’s moving.

“I’ve got to get my kick off in 1.2 or 1.3 seconds, but if the other lads don’t nail their roles, you don’t have a chance.”

The training-ground focus extends to things like flexion of the foot, the angle of legs, every little detail. 

“In rugby, kicking is obviously very important but I never really broke down my place-kicking to a fraction of the detail we go into in football. In football, all the kicker does is kick – it’s all you discuss, review, plan, analyse, do.”

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Kick-offs are a crucial part of the job too and, again, Leader has found the level of depth to ‘schemes’ in this area of the game jaw-dropping.

For the first time next week, Leader will get a chance to show his kicking ability in actual games rather than just on the training ground.

104 players from the Spring League have been signed to the NFL since its launch in 2017 and Leader will be playing with and against many men who have been in and out of NFL rosters in recent years. The Aviators play out of the Indianapolis Colts’ stadium.

kansas-city-chiefs-v-tampa-bay-buccaneers-super-bowl-lv-raymond-james-stadium SIPA USA / PA Images Kicking in American football involves more than one person. SIPA USA / PA Images / PA Images

Training with players of this calibre in recent months has also helped him to develop an appreciation for how cut-throat the NFL is.

“It’s a ruthless world. They say NFL stands for ‘not for long’.”

He was recently working with a fellow kicker who signed for an NFL team and was then cut two days later.

“The idea of missing a single kick in training… I could be cut for that,” says Leader. “Every rep is on, there’s no way of feeling your way into it.

“Even if a scout recommended a player to come in for a trial and the player didn’t perform well, that scout could well be fired. I didn’t appreciate that, I thought there would be more willingness to take a punt on someone but to get your foot in the door, someone has to put their head on the chopping block.”

The reality is that there are only 32 NFL teams, so only 32 people in the world can be the front-line NFL kickers. 

There is also the Canadian Football League, from where Leader has attracted interest, but their contracts are three-year terms and he is keen to give things in the US a real shot. 

He is still involved in coaching rugby and is passionate about doing that in the long-term, particularly given that US rugby needs to improve its coaching structures if the Eagles are to become a force at Test level.

Leader is close to finishing a Master’s degree in business too, but the next couple of months will be all about seizing the moment as an American football kicker.

“I wouldn’t have had the courage to do this two years ago but I feel way more comfortable in myself and I’m just going to back myself a bit more,” he says.

“As the Yanks would say, it’s a blessing being here.”

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