It was a weekend like no other. On Easter Saturday, 1947, there was a sensation at Aintree; an unfancied trundler called Caughoo, bred and trained in north county Dublin, won the Grand National at 100/1.
The next day, Connacht hurlers beat a star-studded Munster to win a first Railway Cup and, that evening, GAA Congress amazingly voted for the All-Ireland football final to be staged in New York.
On Monday afternoon, little Derry — who had only reformed a county board 18 years earlier — won the National League final. Simultaneously, in London, All-Ireland champions Kerry were facing Cavan in a tournament at Mitcham Stadium.
The GAA President, Dan O’Rourke, had headed over immediately after Congress, carrying with him the news, walking off the field, Breffni great Mick Higgins turned to some Kingdom players and joked: “We’ll see yiz in America!” Little did he know the sides would, in fact, clash in the Polo Grounds five months later. Little did anyone know, either, a teenager of the same name — Larry Higgins — who starred in that Derry v Clare game the day before, would also grow to have an indelible link with the United States.
That year, 1947, was famous for the record levels of snow that fell. In late February, the worst blizzard of the 20th century – 50 hours of relentless snowfall – arrived and it continued right up until St Patrick’s Day, playing havoc with GAA fixtures.
The Association were forced to call a halt to the leagues and nominate the counties leading the tables for the last four, which is how Derry ended up meeting Longford in the semi-final at home. Before the biggest crowd ever to watch a match in the county, they won. The place erupted.
The final was Derry’s first-ever game at HQ but their teenage half-forward, already an Ulster player, was not phased, turning in a man-of-the-match performance as they won 2-9 to 2-5.
“To my mind, young Higgins was the star of the game, sparkling in several toe-to-hand runs that sent the big gathering of Derry supporters delirious with delight and finishing off with very accurate marksmanship,” read one newspaper report.
Three years later, on his home pitch of Magherafelt, he shone again as Derry beat Limerick in an All-Ireland JFC semi-final, then a prestigious competition, with The Irish Press noting “the genius of Derry’s attack was Larry Higgins”.
And then, at the height of his powers as a player, he quit, trading his boots for a higher calling. To that point, young Higgins had been a wild boy. The third of eight children, born on September 3, 1928, his rebellious streak saw him expelled from St Columb’s in Derry, a brutal environment at the time.
He had raged against the system, trying to lead a student strike during the war because, The Tampa Bay Times reported last month, “he didn’t like the fare in the college cafeteria.”
Luckily, the headmaster at St Pat’s, Armagh saw something in him and took him in; soon, he won a Hogan Cup medal alongside Tyrone’s Iggy Jones on what he would later remember as the best team he ever played on.
While studying medicine in Dublin, he became renowned for skipping classes and arguing with professors. After two years, he packed it in; the Church beckoned.
He was ordained in 1952 and quickly shipped off to America, spending five years in Miami, working with the poorest of the poor.
In 1958, as his old team-mates were making a first senior All-Ireland final (“the ‘47 team inspired the generation of the 50s and everything that followed,” says Derry PRO Dermot McPeake) he was sent north to Tampa, handed 20 acres of scrubby church-owned land — nothing new to a kid from Magherafelt, the plain of the rushes — and told to plant a parish and make sure it grew.
So he went door to door and built the parish from next to nothing (216 worshippers attended his first Mass) to 2,200 mostly blue-collar and immigrant families, founding three more churches as he went.
He was revered and, in time, his influence at the highest levels grew to the point where, in 2002, he was part of a high-powered delegation who were sent to Cuba to liaise with Fidel Castro. There, the former Derry footballer blessed the athiest, communist revolutionary in Latin. Afterwards, the pair embraced. Those were the circles in which he moved.
“People in Derry would always have been very proud of him and what he did for the needy. He harnessed big business. He had contacts with the moneyed classes. He worked those circles, he straddled both worlds,” says Joe Brolly, another St Pat’s old boy.
When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers franchise joined the NFL in 1976, Higgins — a friend of the owner, naturally – quickly became club chaplain, a position he held until his death. He was seen as a superstar Irish footballer and soon befriended players and staff alike.
Before each game, he would say Mass for the team, as former Buccaneeer John Lynch recalled.
“He was an athlete himself and he’d get into it. He’d get so fired up it would turn into a sort of pep talk and we loved it,” said Lynch, who added that “it got to the point where we had a lot of non-Catholics at Mass... There are certain people that just draw people to them.”
Family was important to him. The Higgins are a large extended clan and he was the glue that bound them.
“We have lots of cousins and Laurence came over every year and all the cousins got together. There are 30 of us, in Germany and everywhere, and we’re all very close and I have no doubt that he’s the gel behind it. He came over 25-odd times to marry us all, too,” says his nephew Matt, son of Justice Liam Higgins. “We would go on holidays to Tampa to be with him. He was just a very important part of our lives.”
Matt’s father passed away between the 1993 All-Ireland semi and final and Fr Larry came home to bury his brother and, while there, attend the match.
On the morning of the final, he stopped off at the team hotel. “I got a phone call up to the room the morning of the final, Eamon [Coleman] wanted me to come down, there was somebody wanted to speak to me,” remembers Brolly. “And it was Monsignor Higgins and he gave me a blessing. What was he like? He wasn’t pious or anything like that, he was very down to earth, plain speaking, just totally self-confident.
“Just bright. Formidable. And he spoke very knowledgeably about the game ahead – he had obviously been watching us from out there.”
And that was no surprise because he remained a GAA man and a Derry man at heart. “He loved the concept of the GAA, that it was amateur and parish-based and he was very proud that he had been a part of that. And, of course, he thought Magherafelt was the centre of the earth,” Matt smiles.
At the heart of the man was that contrast. He embraced America but was intelligent, forceful and charming enough to bend it to his will, to his goal of helping the downtrodden.
“He’s like a street saint. He knows how to connect with regular people,” former San Francisco 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr once said.
His nephew agrees.
“Coming from Magherafelt stock, you’d be almost embarrassed to see the respect in which he was held. He was able to become friends with the great and good while looking after the poor.
“He raised millions but he always told me that he never asked anybody for money. People just liked him and trusted him.
“He was very good fun. It was always mischief, he was clever, engaging, warm. He really was adored.”
The headline in one American paper — the story led the news in Florida — summed that up.
“From Ireland,” it read, “with love.”
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