The Road Not Taken
Tadhg Leader doesn’t do things by half. The former professional rugby outhalf and kicker for Connacht rugby team and the US Eagles rugby team, decided when the pandemic hit that a different path was necessary. Life was at a crossroads. When a shot as a pro football kicker presented itself, Leader moved fast. He bet on himself in his new career. Liberating, as he concedes it was, to do so during the pandemic. Today, I’ll chart his unlikely route to knocking on the door of the NFL and the exciting road ahead.
Growing up with Rugby To find what makes Leader tick, you need to go back to his upbringing in a sports mad house in Galway City, in the west of Ireland.
“My brothers and I played every sport we could and ended up breaking lots of windows in our house. All I wanted to do growing up was to play for my local rugby club, Galwegians,” explains Leader. “My Dad was heavily involved with the club and we’d go there to all the home games. At the time the AIL (All Ireland League) was rocking. I remember the RTE cameras coming down to Crowley Park and going on the road to play Blackrock, where Brian O’Driscoll (Ireland’s greatest player) was lining out. I idealized the players. I haven’t thought about this in a long time but it is all coming back now.” That sense of community and culture fit is important to Leader. Several times during the interview we compare notes on growing up in close knit communities (Galway and Skerries, Co. Dublin) where all the town’s children would descend on the field post-game to imitate their heroes at 4pm on Saturday afternoons between September and May. It's an abiding and enduring image of Ireland.
At 15, the professional rugby route opened up for him, and Leader realized there was a system around him, both at boarding school, and with Connacht’s Academy (west of Ireland pro rugby team), that could advance him to professional rugby. Kicking was one of his strongest attributes. After a stint with his native Connacht, he moved to the United States where he studied and played Major League Rugby for San Diego from 2018 onwards. He had the distinction of being capped for the US Eagles and playing international rugby at this time.
The Covid Transition
Then Covid brought everything to a shuddering halt. The pandemic’s randomness, Leader concedes, made him assess other options. After positive feedback, he set his sights on becoming a pro football kicker, perhaps the loneliest and most scrutinized position on the field after quarterback. “I was quite proud of what I achieved in rugby and that made it easier to move on,” Leader says. “The transition was much more difficult than I would have expected. Trying to play professionally a sport you’ve never played is tough. The football world is more closed minded than I could have imagined. They don’t like non-traditional things as I'm finding. I’ve had to learn to deal with rejection a lot. Coming from rugby, I am constantly asked where I went to college. I thought NFL teams would respect my pro rugby background but I think rugby in America is seen as a sport in the U.S. that people who are not good enough to play football play. Trying to break down that stigma and how they perceive rugby is much more difficult than I thought.”
Not being able to play football in college has counted against him. Because he’s been a pro rugby player and has an agent, colleges won’t accept him. Ironically, Leader’s brother Darragh is coaching the Clemson Tigers rugby team, a college which has won two national football championship titles since 2016. Leader has had to be resourceful, a word he comes back to throughout our interview. Playing in the European league with a German team and the spring league in the U.S. (a development league for aspiring NFL talent), gave him that much needed experience. He’s had to answer every question levelled at him with NFL and Canadian Football League (CFL) teams.
“When I played with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in the CFL, I was the highest statistical kicker in camp,” Leader says. “I hit a walk off field goal in my first game and I’m still facing questions about where I went to college. Then I’m released. The message is stark: I’m going down a route where there hasn’t been anyone to call.”
Dubliner Neil O'Donoghue is the only Irish-born player to have enjoyed a successful career in the NFL in the late 1970s and early 80s. With an Irish punter recently getting a college scholarship to Georgia Tech and other kickers on the fringes of NFL squads, I asked Leader if he is fazed by all the ‘First Irishman Since…’chatter began in the Irish media, but he’s unperturbed. “I don’t let it occupy much headspace. Mentally I’m more efficient in how I think. You can’t attach much to those things, especially when you are a kicker. Hopefully there’ll be some Irish guy in the league soon."
Football has begun to study rugby in the last decade, chiefly the area of the tackle. When Pete Carroll took over as head coach of the Seattle Seahawks, he knew his team needed a competitive edge. He wanted his players to tackle more like rugby players, who could chop tackle and use their shoulders, rather than initiate upper body or head contact that lead to concussion and draw penalties from referees. Carroll brought in legendary Fijian rugby player Waisale Serevi and his team to adopt the textbook rugby defensive measures. Spearheaded by its much vaunted defense, the Seahawks won a Super Bowl in 2014. Dan Quinn, Carrol’s defensive coordinator, has close ties to Leinster rugby’s Stuart Lancaster. Encouraging as these links are, Leader dispels the notion that rugby players have a leg up in the eyes of NFL coaches.
Kicking Through Football’s Conservatism
“Hopefully a new, younger generation of coaches come into the NFL who are open minded and more innovative,” Leader says. “I hope they explore new ways to find that person that helps their team win. Watching guys tackle at training in football is horrible. On the defensive side of the ball I think it makes more sense for rugby players to come in, especially given how they are accustomed to executing the tackle.”
By virtue of his experiences, there’s a maturity and assuredness about Leader that belies his years. Life has been nomadic on occasion. Still, the prospect of kicking in the NFL or CFL propels him forward. “I love kicking and, thankfully, I’m half decent at it,” Leader says. “In rugby you have so much control. The ball is on a tee and you have over 60 seconds to work with. There’s no momentum on the approach to kicking in football. I felt stuck in the mud at the start. The ‘dry step’ is the last step before getting the plant foot in place. The ball is rotating. It all happens so quickly. Kickers spend almost the entirety of the game on the sideline. The expectation is you score every time. The mindset is one of a sniper - one shot, one kill. Hanging around on the sideline is one of the biggest transition areas I’ve had to deal with. ” Leader’s first-hand insight into how football could learn from rugby is all too clear. Namely, the cultural difference between how players of each code are treated.
State of Mind “The NFL and pro kicking circuit is extremely cut throat,” Leader says. "Rugby has much more of a human element to it. In this sport, you’re chopped and traded, but you have to deal with it. What I'm doing is unique and random - I’m also onboard with that. I’m focused on the CFL because there’s a more logical path to the NFL. I have good clips on tape and having talked to most of the CFL teams I’m hoping to make a breakthrough. I’ve seen how when rugby players retire some can lose their identity. That’s why for me it is important to do my MBA and plan for life beyond sports. The concept (of moving on) doesn’t daunt me.”
Leader is a man at ease with his decision and, by his own admission, the random path he has chosen. If his opportunity comes, he’ll be ready. The boy who spent rainy days at home in Galway tackling his brothers in the hallway and playing ice hockey on roller skates might conclude that the strides and prioritization of almost 15 years in the elite sports arena have prepared him for one final push. From talking to him for an hour, one gets a sense that stroking the rugby ball over the bar in Crowley Park, Galway and doing so in a pro football game have more in common than we might think. It's a state of mind. Whatever happens next, that for Tadhg Leader has made all the difference.