Early next month, Fionn Fitzgerald will board a flight in Shannon bound for Dallas, Texas.
In the Lone Star State the Dr Crokes man will immerse himself in the world of Friday Night Lights and high school American football for the month of December.
One of Kerry football’s brightest talents, the 23-year-old will link up with Mungret native Michael Cahill, former physical trainer to the Clare footballers, at the Jesuit College Preparatory School of Dallas.
It’s all part of Fionn’s Master’s in sports performance study he has undertaken at the University of Limerick.
For now though, the Killarney man is knee deep in Gaelic football. His Masters is on talent identification in the GAA and on a phenomenon called the relative age effect: why are players born earlier in the year more likely to succeed?
He has honed his practical skills while working with Killarney physio Jimmy Galvin. Then there’s tomorrow’s Munster Club SFC quarter-final in Killarney as Dr Crokes host Cork champions Castlehaven.
On the field of play he readily admits he loves the big occasion. A comparison to Marc Ó Sé is proffered — but he rejects it.
“I don’t think that comparison does Marc any justice. I like to think that I have combined the attributes of loads of different players. With Marc there’s a million and one attributes that I would love to learn from him. You try to learn from everyone but not compare yourself to them.”
Humble, yes, but he is creating his own path. Football is in the family, his father Micheál played with Crokes for years “when they didn’t win anything” and his uncle Eamonn was Kerry’s goalkeeper in the 1972 All-Ireland final replay loss to Offaly.
Now, he is a Kerry player. In the past 18 months he recognises he has matured physically. Typical for a Crokes player, he looks his best on the ball. Those skills honed in the club’s underage structure. He recalls his first club memory from the mid-1990s.
“I was six and playing in the small field behind the dressing rooms in Fitzgerald Stadium — the ‘field of dreams’,” he remembers, as a smile slips across his face.
“At the time Crokes were developing Lewis Road. I remember Pádraig O’Shea, the postman; Mike Neeson and my father were involved. The following year we moved across to Lewis Road. The underage structures were well in place at that time.
“The Kieran O’Leary/Brian Looney — the 27/28 age bracket — were the first group to come through.”
That structure, consistently playing at a high level, shaped Fitzgerald. It has prepared him for days like last September playing for Kerry against Dublin (his mother Kathleen’s native county) in Croke Park.
“I loved the game — apart from the result! I loved the atmosphere. It can either give you a boost or it can sap the life from you. It’s a game of football, you are there to enjoy it.”
He relates this appreciation of the big occasion to those underage days with Dr Crokes.
“To this day there’s nothing that puts more fire in my belly than a big game of football. I was lucky to be involved with a Crokes team that were successful. I played in three county minor finals in a row. I was just talking to Dáithí (Casey) recently and it’s no coincidence he was man-of-the-match in the county final. We both grew up playing in big games and we just love the buzz of them.”
There was a time in Fitzgerald’s fledgling career when that ‘buzz’ was dulled by a chronic hamstring injury. It was 2011 and he decided he needed to get off the GAA roller coaster.
“Yeah, I was in a different place two years ago. I was just about making the Crokes team but then I started breaking down with a hamstring injury. I was so sick of football.”
It was the spring of 2011 and he was coming to the end of his degree in sports science in UL, a six-month work placement beckoned. He made the decision to leave Killarney.
“I went to the New Zealand Sports Academy, just north of Auckland, for the summer of 2011.”
In the land of the long white cloud he found a silver lining. He worked with professional athletes on their training and their recovery processes and, with football on hold, he was able to work on his own injury issues.
“I worked very hard on rehab with the hamstring. I had severe trouble with it and it was probably tickling me a bit mentally. But I put the head down in New Zealand and really enjoyed it.”
Thoughts of success back in Kerry were never far away. “Even then, in the back of mind, I was thinking I would love to go back and win a county championship with the Crokes. Luckily when I came back in August 2011 I got on the team. We powered on and won a county championship, then a Munster final before losing to Crossmaglen.”
By March 2012 the then Kerry boss Jack O’Connor was on the phone seeking his services. It was the reward he had sought during those months in New Zealand.
“It was a nice sense of fulfilment given that seven or eight months before that I was in New Zealand wondering would this hamstring injury ever go away.”
And now another trip, to Dallas, offers Fitzgerald a chance to rest and press refresh.
“Football just keeps revolving. It never stops. Over the last two years I have only had a couple of days off. At the moment though, I feel invigorated. Obviously, I was down after the Dublin defeat but I’m feeling good now. I suppose the carrot of going to Texas in December keeps me tipping along.”
And how does the invigorated Fitzgerald view tomorrow’s game against Castlehaven, having just completed the four-in-a-row in Kerry with Dr Crokes?
“We just want to win and that’s it. We have learned from other games down through the years when we might have taken our eye off the ball. We know we will have as tough a battle as any against Castlehaven.”
Within weeks he will be Texas-bound, but before Christmas he’ll board a flight back to Shannon. He’ll finish his Masters, go job-hunting and will be hoping that he’s still in it for the long haul with Dr Crokes and Kerry.
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