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  • Writer's pictureAndrew McGuinness

Georgia Tech’s Irishman Blazes College Football Trail

I sat down with Georgia Tech’s Irish punter, David Shanahan, to discuss life at a Division 1 football program, the education of the punter and playing in Dublin next fall.


David Shanahan recalls his first taste of college football, in the bear pit at Clemson’s Death Valley stadium. “On the sideline beforehand I heard someone shouting my name from the stand: ‘S-H-A-N-A-H-A-N! S-H-A-N-A-H-A-N!’ “I thought an Irish family member or friend was there. When I turned around, the guy shouting my name said: “Hey Shanahan, you suck!” Quite the welcome to American football.


Straight after his Friday morning off-season workout, he reports for the interview. Georgia Tech’s punter from Castleisland, Co. Kerry, Ireland is getting ready for spring practice, exams and his senior football season, which will kick off at the Aviva Stadium, Dublin against Florida State in August.


Picture: Georgia Tech Athletics/Danny Karnik


The Transition

Shanahan left Ireland at 18 to pursue punting on a program in Australia designed to guide and transition athletes for college football. He underwent the transition from Kerry underage gaelic footballer to globetrotter. “It was definitely a big move but I was able to lean on my two older brothers who also lived overseas,” says Shanahan. “After the first two months of adjusting, I settled in. A lot of Australians I lived with or met are all playing college football too and I’m still good friends with them. It was hard at the start but ultimately it made the eventual move to Atlanta, Georgia so much easier.” 


Soon after he had established himself in Australia, Georgia Tech came knocking. Within a month of hearing from them - on the basis of his strong kicking pedigree and academic record - he had committed. 


The Art of Punting 

Believed to be the first Ireland native ever awarded a full scholarship to play college football, Shanahan tells me punting is technically like golf. Some days you wake up and you just don’t have it. The technical adjustment from gaelic football to American Football took some time.


“In football, you need to be as linear as possible,” Shanahan says. “You can’t afford to kick out to the side or you will get blocked. Your protection is in front of you. I could kick the ball very well when I arrived, it was just a matter of being consistent. When I first got on the field in June 2021 it was the first time I’d really caught the ball from a proper long snapper. You take for granted catching the ball but you only have 1.2 seconds to kick it. It has to be a clean and efficient process.” 


When there’s ten members of the opposition charging at you, you need to drawn upon all the experience you can to stay calm in the moment. Until you’re in a game scenario, Shanahan tells me, you don’t know how you’ll react. 


The ATL

Finding the balance between football, studying and enjoying his college days in Atlanta has taken a while. His freshman year was a learning curve and at times overwhelming. The heavy onus on football in the fall term is challenging for all football players. Shanahan tells me how he pushed the more difficult academic classes to the spring term when he has more time. When he’s in need of a break he’s not short of options in Atlanta. 


“I love Atlanta because it’s such a sports orientated city. I didn’t know a thing about baseball before moving here and now I regularly go to games. The Braves are the biggest show in town. I regularly go to the Georgia Tech games and Atlanta Hawks basketball games. We’re lucky that our college is located in midtown right in the heart of the city. Getting to be part of a major sports city is something I really love.”


Picture: Georgia Tech Athletics/Danny Karnik


Special Teams 

Shanahan lists the NFL punters he admires and cites the impact their authentic kicking styles and body shapes have in pro football. “When I first got into punting I really looked up to Michael Dickson, an Australian who had gone through kicking school there, who’s now thriving with the Seattle Seahawks. We’re similar sizes so I model my punting quite a bit on him. AJ Cole is from Atlanta and has been probably the best punter in the NFL over the last few years. He does things a bit differently.”


I put it to him that with Daniel Whelan punting for the Green Bay Packers, and the first-ever Irish delegation of kickers and punters excelling at the 2024 NFL Combine, we’ll see more Irish representation. 


“To get into the NFL as an international player, kicking and punting is the way to go,” says Shanahan. “I think there's a perception that Americans didn’t grow up kicking and 

they can’t do it as well as Irish or Australians: they absolutely can. Whatever sport you play - rugby, Australian rules or gaelic football - I think you still need 2-4 years harnessing your craft before you can even consider playing in the NFL. How NFL punters punt is not a natural act. It’s a skill you have to learn and repeat. But there's definitely a place for the international pathway players. A practice squad route will give a lot of Irish guys a chance.” 


Since he came into college football in 2021, the industry has been reshaped by Name Image and Likeness and the transfer portal. Like a veteran, he discussed the merits of both, affirming how he’s delighted to see players being paid. Georgia Tech has adapted and attracted good players through the transfer portal.


Homeward Bound

For now, Shanahan’s not looking beyond the rest of his junior year. There’s already a maturity about him that belies his years. After his senior year he’s content for the score to take care of itself, whether the NFL beckons or not.


I ask him about going back to his beloved Kerry, and he describes bumping into the children and teachers from his old school. He happily recalls the impact Kerry football has had on him and his admiration for icons of the game such as Declan O’Sullivan and Brian Sheehan. Sheehan, he rightly points out, would have been a brilliant kicker in American football.


Before we finish, David Shanahan jokes that his Georgia Tech teammates think the famously volatile weather in Ireland will be fine come game time because it's August. “And I look the other way and say I’m not so sure about that,” he says. Best not to mention the horizontal rain and wind coming off the Irish Sea even if they make you feel at home.

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