Irish reception for Penn State game a mixed bag

DUBLIN — The first thing cab drivers ask when they pick you up and realize you’re an American: So, you here for the game Saturday?

It’s not necessarily a good thing. One cab driver brought this up Monday, noting that the Penn State-Central Florida game had forced a semifinal Gaelic football match between Kerry and Mayo to Limerick rather than Dublin’s Croke Park.

Or it can be positive. Robert Kelly, who has friends and family in America, has watched American football for years. His favorite has always been Pittsburgh native Dan Marino and the Miami Dolphins.

“I’m probably the only Miami Dolphins fan in Ireland,” he said.

While American football has certainly not reached the popularity of soccer, Gaelic football, hurling or rugby, it’s a niche sport that continues to grow. Reportedly, Croke Park officials are expecting 35,000 of an anticipated crowd of 55,000 to be Irish. NFL games are regularly televised. Young athletes play, and Gavin Quirke, an American football player from University College Dublin, points out Dan Rooney’s efforts as a former Ireland ambassador for helping ingratiate the game in Ireland.

The game today, just like past Notre Dame-Navy games, are part of the sport’s growth. But as mentioned, the game comes at a controversial time.

Last Sunday, Kerry and Mayo tied in their semifinal match, forcing a rematch. It would usually be played at Croke Park, but Penn State and Central Florida were already booked. American football was taking precedence over the Irish game to the chagrin of many. Former Gaelic football player Tomás O Sé penned a particularly hot take against the Penn State game Friday in the Irish Independent.

“I just get the impression that, more and more, there’s an attitude that building around it of, ‘Get off the pitch, we’re making money here!’” he wrote.

“So there’s a principle involved that bothers me this week. Why on earth agree to putting this American football game into Croke Park at our busiest time of year?”

Quirke and his teammates Colin Harper, Oisin Stack and Chris Scollard are four people excited for the Penn State game. They play American football for University College Dublin, the campus on which Penn State practiced this week, and range in age from 20 to 23 years old. They have been playing for between one and five years.

Though University College Dublin features uniforms nearly identical to those of UCLA’s, these four don’t look like college-age football players. Their heights hover around 5 feet 10, and they weigh close to 150-175 pounds. There’s no Christian Hackenberg or Donovan Smith in the group.

Their American football is still a purely extracurricular event. At the eight games — plus a playoff — they play each season, friends and family attend. There are no massive crowds. While university athletes in rugby and soccer can get scholarships and living expenses for their sport, athletes such as Harper, Stack, Quirk and Scollard play for fun. They are hoping American football only continues to grow.

“Games like this are great,” Scollard said, “because they bring up the recognition.”

Mark Dent:, 412-439-3791 and Twitter @mdent05.

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