Mark Jackson grew up playing Gaelic football. He’s taking a shot at the American kind in Pittsburgh

By Will Graves

PITTSBURGH (AP) — Mark Jackson does not look out of place.

Standing inside the Pittsburgh Steelers practice facility on Friday, Jackson’s yellow No. 2 blends in with the other 42 players trying to catch head coach Mike Tomlin’s attention during the team’s rookie minicamp. At 6-foot-1 and a solid 214 pounds, Jackson practically towers over Caleb Shudak, the other kicker brought in for a look.

Things change, however, when Jackson starts to talk. Then it becomes very evident very quickly that while Jackson doesn’t look out of place, he certainly sounds out of place.

An extended stint in the United States chasing a job he never saw coming has done little to take some of the edge off Jackson’s Irish brogue. At one point, the 25-year-old from Baltinglass (just over an hour southwest of Dublin) is asked to spell out the name of his hometown for clarity’s sake, a request Jackson happily obliges.

The way Jackson figures it, if he needs to translate a little bit to fit in, that’s fine. Just so long as the skills he’s honed while playing Gaelic football back home — think a mishmash of soccer and rugby with a touch of basketball — translate to the American version, too.

There’s hope, maybe more than a little for a player who had never kicked an American football until six months ago when Tadhg Leader, who runs a professional kicking program in Ireland, reached out and asked Jackson if he was interested in joining the NFL’s International Pathway Program.

Shortly thereafter Jackson was training in Florida, where he went through a combine and participated in a Pro Day. He returned home and earned an invitation to Pittsburgh after winning the team’s inaugural American Football Kicking Clinic in Dublin.

Tryout kickers Mark Jackson, left, and Caleb Shudak listen to instructions during the Pittsburgh Steeler’s NFL rookie minicamp football practice in Pittsburgh, May 10, 2024. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Yeah, it’s been a lot for a player who admits he’s spent most of his life consumed with his home country’s national sport.

“When you’re a kid growing up in Ireland, the NFL is the furthest thing from your dreams,” Jackson said. “You could say it’s a dream but you don’t even dream that big really.”

Back home Jackson is a goalkeeper, where if he’s not making saves he’s blasting in free kicks from deep, a skill that requires Jackson to drill the white Gaelic football (which looks like an oversized volleyball) over a crossbar 8 feet off the ground and in between goal posts 21 feet across.

Jackson points out there are only two sports in the world that require a player to kick the ball directly off the ground through uprights. One is American football. The other is the game he grew up playing.

“There’s definitely transferrable skills there,” Jackson said.

Still, working with a snapper and a holder and figuring out the timing of when to start the motion took some getting used to. The sweet spot on an American football is also smaller, requiring a little more finesse.

Jackson believes consistency is among his biggest issues. Strength, apparently, is not one of them. Asked what his range is, Jackson said he’s made field goals from 70 yards out in training. Not while goofing around on kickoffs, but in a traditional three-step approach.

“I always had a big leg I suppose,” Jackson said.

There is a pedigree — sort of — for Irish athletes to reach the NFL. Charlie Smyth, like Jackson a Gaelic football veteran, signed a three-year deal to kick for the New Orleans Saints in March. Green Bay punter Daniel Whelan grew up on the Irish coast before moving to the U.S. as a teenager.

As wide-eyed as Jackson can sound about his unlikely journey, he’s dead serious about finding a way to stick. He signed with agent Robert Roche, who represents Baltimore Ravens star Justin Tucker, and seemed a little puzzled when asked what he hopes to gain out of his tryout with Pittsburgh, which has one of the league’s better kickers in Chris Boswell.

“Obviously the main goal to come here is to get signed,” Jackson said. “That’s why I’m here. I wouldn’t be here for any other reason.”

If Jackson impresses over the weekend, there’s a chance he earns a spot on the 90-man roster to serve as an extra leg during training camp.

Or maybe the NFL’s new kickoff rules, which could put a priority on directional kicking and may require kickers to be more active participants in the return game will lend themselves to Jackson’s particular skillset.

Goalkeepers in Gaelic football serve as de facto quarterbacks at times, using their legs to direct pinpoint passes to open teammates in hopes of creating a rush the other way.

“I think it suits us Irish guys, we’re not small guys either, we’re big and strong so we can make tackles,” Jackson said. “We’ve taken hits in different sports. So … having to place the ball in certain areas of the field, that’s what we’ve grown up doing. That’s our bread and butter really.”

And if Jackson finds a foothold in Pittsburgh, all the better. The NFL awarded the franchise international marketing rights in Ireland last year, and Hall of Fame Steelers chairman and president Dan Rooney served as the U.S. ambassador to Ireland from 2009-12.

The team’s popularity is one of the reasons interest in the NFL is spiking in Jackson’s homeland, where Ireland’s national rugby team is ranked second in the world. If he can find a job with the Steelers, who knows, maybe the trickle of athletes trying to transition from one form of football to another becomes a flood.

“You can see how much the NFL is growing in Ireland,” Jackson said. “And yeah, I want to be part of that.”



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