From Kerry to Georgia – David Shanahan’s history-making American football journey
“The first day I suited up in full pads was the first full day of camp in August. I remember being pretty nervous. It was the first time you have big guys rushing at you!”
From County Kerry to Georgia via Australia, David Shanahan’s journey to a potential professional career in American football is an interesting one.
The first Irishman ever to receive a full scholarship to play American college football, the Castleisland native is in his first year as the punter for Georgia Tech.
“It’s been amazing,” Shanahan says of his experience so far. “My favourite part is calling my parents after a game. I called my mother after the North Carolina game and she was going, ‘I thought they weren’t supposed to hit you!’
Six games into his freshman year for the ‘Yellow Jackets’, he’s already played in front of over 80,000 spectators and a TV audience of millions in a narrow defeat by Clemson while also making an appearance against North Carolina at the home of NFL’s Atlanta Falcons.
The journey to Georgia started with gaelic football, as a member of the Kerry Under-17 panel that won the 2017 Munster Championship. He decided to try American football out, applying for and attending Prokick Australia in Melbourne, a kicking academy which has produced four current National Football League punters.
The first Irish alumnus at the academy, his booming left foot got him noticed and placed with Georgia Tech on a full scholarship. Remarkably, he had never played fully padded in a game of American football upon his arrival in the States.
“The cultural adjustment from Ireland to Australia was a lot easier than Ireland to America. I think it’s because in Australia there’s AFL (Aussie Rules) – and GAA and AFL are so similar, with the similar locker room banter. The culture around American football is so different to anything I’ve been around.
“The emphasis on strength and conditioning here is on another level to what we have back home. It’s far more intense.”
‘I was shocked and didn’t know what happened’
He says living in an apartment with team-mates has helped, in accommodation five minutes walk from the college’s stadium – and he’s enjoyed a solid start to his playing career so far. Georgia Tech have won three and lost three by week six of the season, with Shanahan averaging a very respectable 45 yards per punt.
But it’s not been a totally smooth transition. He has already experienced the punter’s nightmare of having a kick blocked and being clattered by onrushing opponents, the type of moments which do tend to leave mothers alarmed, watching back in Ireland.
“It was like a car crash. I was kind of shocked and didn’t know what had happened. First few games I had, I had noticed players out of the corner of my eye.
“You feel it rather than see it, but you get the ball away and only then notice the players are a yard or so away from you. Then we played Clemson and I’d look up and those guys were a lot closer! The standard of athlete was a lot higher. They also know I’m a freshman punter so I was half expecting it.”
‘I bring things they haven’t seen before’
But Shanahan says he has also been able to show the coaching staff a trick or two, due to his GAA upbringing, adapting to the unique pressure that comes to bear on a team’s punter.
“We got a punt blocked against North Carolina. They were coming hard from my left side as I kick with my left leg. So I just rolled to my right and kicked with my right leg for the next two punts. Now that’s perfectly normal back home – in Kerry every kid playing GAA can kick it with both legs. So I can bring things maybe they haven’t seen before.”
Shanahan exudes a remarkable confidence considering the big stage he is now playing on, which has included that match in front of 81,500 fans in Clemson’s deafening Memorial Stadium.
“I’m glad I had two other games before Clemson because that was such a big stage. But you want to enjoy the moment. I remember walking out for the warm-ups and looking around and it was really cool. But you just have to bring yourself back down to earth. I mean, you’re just kicking a ball – keep it as simple as you can.”
And while he may be the first Irish punter to take this route into college football, he can see it becoming a future trend, judging by the correspondence he’s received since his move Stateside.
“I get probably five or six messages a week from 16, 17-year-old gaelic footballers asking me what to do and videos of them kicking American footballs. I definitely won’t be the last one.”