JOHN RIORDAN: A throwback to when O’Connell showed his steel

With the All Star footballers flying into New York today for the first time since 1990, it’s worth going back to the first trip in 1975 which involved a unique exhibition remembered with affection around here.

When Roy Gerela and Mick O’Connell were brought together by a mixture of gimmick and opportunity that April afternoon, the former was at the peak of his career and the latter had probably accepted that his was over.

Gaelic Park was welcoming the All Stars of both codes of the GAA for the first time and after Eddie Keher inspired a Kilkenny hurling victory and Jimmy Keaveney’s winning point sealed the Dubs’ success in the football, the 8,000 or so spectators had good reason to hang around for a few more minutes.

Gerela and O’Connell brought their kicking boots and put on a show with the round ball and the oval pigskin.

The Kerry legend was used to the adulation but he must have found the experience a little vacuous. He was facing into his first summer without inter-county football since the mid-50s but even though he was 38, he was convinced that a substitute appearance in the previous year’s Munster final defeat at the hands of Cork in Killarney shouldn’t be the way he’d go out.

Gerela, meanwhile, was that unfairly maligned of all American Football players, the place kicker, but one who was nonetheless credited with revolutionising the role. The previous January’s Super Bowl IX had seen the birth of a dynasty as his Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Minnesota Vikings to win the first of their historic quartet of 1970s titles.

Gerela won three of them before being farmed across the country to the San Diego Chargers, meaning he would miss out on a fourth title, 1979-80’s Super Bowl XIV.

Memory is a funny thing in sport, especially in the hazy days before multiple camera angles.

Try and get a straight, verifiable version of events from the patrons who packed Gaelic Park in those glorious seasons that stretched all the way through the 1960s and into the early 1970s is impossible, but undeniably fun.

The unverified talk around New York GAA circles was that the Steelers were interested in signing Valentia’s greatest and although he won the contest 7-6 (a fact which it must be said is also the subject of dispute), his fluid kicking style did not impress the scouts sufficiently enough.

It’s not hard to believe that Art Rooney, the Irish-American owner of the Steelers, would have envisioned O’Connell as a perfect fit for his fast-evolving football powerhouse. An Irish-born player, a legend in his own game, it was a marketing dream for a team that was a way of life in a heavily Irish-American, working class town. But in order to make it in Gerela’s world, quick elevation of the ball was required to avoid the onrushing defenders whose job it is to bulldoze the kicker’s protection and extend their hands high enough so as to put him off or ideally block him.

It looks easy on both sides. It isn’t.

But it’s not just patrons of the GAA that fall victim to the odd varnishing of the facts.

In reading up about Gerela, who was apparently humbled by Mick O’Connell, it was interesting to discover that in the subsequent Super Bowl in January, 1976, he almost cost his team their second title against the Dallas Cowboys.

To this day it remains a mystery as to why he missed his first two kicks, putting his team in jeopardy and potentially rendering him infamous for the rest of his days.

According to the man himself, when his opening kick-off was returned for over 40 yards by a Dallas player, it fell to Gerela to force him out of play.

“I got the ribs banged up pretty bad,” he would tell reporters afterwards. “I think that’s why I blew that first field goal. I didn’t approach the ball right. I knew it was going to hurt and I just didn’t drive the ball the way I normally do. The second one was a little better but I was still hurting.”

However, according to one fan who recently contacted a Pittsburgh Steelers blog and claimed to have been there on the day, the injury may have actually been suffered when during the pre-game warm-up, Gerela was practising kicks and became angry that the ball wasn’t being returned from the stands. When he jumped into the seats, he inevitably tripped and took out a female fan.

True or not, it probably serves as a harbinger of doom in retrospect. Mick O’Connell would have had an eye-opening experience if the Steelers ever did decide to bring him in. But he would never have been loved or even appreciated as he was in his own Kingdom.

* Twitter: JohnWRiordan

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