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The Student-Athlete in America: Should the Irish Even Bother
PJ Browne
February 16, 2006

Four years ago, James Grufferty, a young runner from Cork (Leevale) headed to America on an athletic scholarship. A talented middle-distance runner, and under the guidance of Der Donovan, he was making significant improvement. In his first semester at East Tennessee State University – a University with a mediocre track history until the arrival of the Leddy brothers, Frank Greally, and most notably Neil Cusack – Grufferty won the Southern Conference Championships. That was achieved on the back of the training he had done with Donovan. 

Three years on and the Cork youngster is no longer associated with the athletics team or Coach Doug Johnson. After enduring two years of injury and humiliation, the youngster gave up his scholarship, confused and totally disillusioned with the American set up. 

His parents paid for him to complete his tuition, and he is back in training with a schedule mapped out by his first coach, Der Donovan . In hindsight it is easy to say that he should never have went to America. His performances showed a marked drop off and a once promising athlete was all but lost to the sport. Grufferty is just the latest in a long list of athletes who have followed their athletic dream to the States only to find themselves enmeshed in a hellish and impersonal existence. It's a cautionary tale and a compelling argument for Irish athletes to stay in Ireland.  

JP (Jim) Reardon was the first Irishman to take up an athletic scholarship at Villanova after the 1948 London Olympics. Since those pioneering days, the debate about athletic scholarships has surfaced at various times. However, there is no end state to this debate; only the names and the social climate have changed. 

  Eamonn  Coghlan, argues in favour of young Irish athletes going to America: 

"America," he says, "provides them with an opportunity to pursue their athletics career, get an education and establish business connections out there which they might not have had at home. Granted, some of them, very few, might not have improved athletically because they have went to the wrong college and they were run into the ground. But generally speaking, I would encourage any youngster to avail of the opportunity."  

Tom Gregan went to Villanova with Coghlan. He was heavily recruited (28 offers of full scholarships) following a series of outstanding schoolboy races. Gregan's performances indicated a world- class career. At 16, he was the fastest miler in Europe for that age. He was the "Golden Boy," the schoolboy prodigy with outlandish talent. When he graduated from Villanova in 1975, Gregan had quit running and disappeared from the world of track and field. He never did get under four minutes for the mile. 

Gregan's early success can be attributed to the coaching and influence of  Maurice Ahern, Clonliffe Harriers. "His best year in America was his first year," Ahern recalls, "and that was the influence of the training here. As he became more influenced by the American training he went downhill." 

" That he didn't break four minutes for the mile is scandalous when you consider that he was running 3:50.00 for the 1500m as a schoolboy. He could have done better if he had stayed at home. I've been very opposed to lads going to America since. It has destroyed many promising runners. Tommy would run up a wall if I asked him, but by the time the 1976 Olympics came around he was shot –a major talent squandered."  

Jim Kilty, national coaching director 1988-1999, is convinced that the American system has failed Irish athletes. "Presently, you'd nearly win a national championship with a team of 40 year olds because all the 20s and 35s are either gone to America or have given up. The American system gives you four years and then you're out. Irish kids are often over-raced and there is no fallback. We are not getting them back in this country. Mark Carroll went to America more than 12 years ago. Some 40 to 50 athletes have gone over each year since then. That's over 600 athletes and all we get out of it is one?" 

"Irish coaches have always been more than capable. True we don't have the facilities and the competition, but when all is said and done, if you have a coach who can nurture an athlete instead of killing him between 18 and 22, your chances are so much better. Many of the athletes who go through the four years are simply burned out. It's always going to be difficult for the American coach because he has new arrivals each year, and their system is results orientated. After four years it's simply a case of good luck lads, and not many are able to come back to Ireland." 

John McDonnell, the legendary track coach  at Arkansas University (and the mastermind behind Alistair Cragg) offers a different perspective: "The Irish kids that come over today are a different breed," he says. "They're not as tough; they want it easy just like the American kids, the reward without the effort. There was a time when it was a great honour to get an athletics scholarship to America. Those days and that attitude are long gone." McDonnell is only partially correct. There is no lack of motivation among the vast majority of Irish athletes who take up an athletics scholarship stateside. 

" Every Tom, Dick, and Harry comes over here to schools nowadays. I hate to be overly critical, but it has degraded what an American scholarship means. You don't have to be all that good anymore to get one. In the past when kids came over here they were kind of ambassadors. They were proud to be here and doing something special because they were from Ireland." McDonnell is overly harsh here, and if a few mediocre individuals took advantage, then one has to question the quality of the scouting arrangements. 

Jerry Kiernan, is uniquely qualified to comment on this subject.  His casual demeanour belies a needle sharp, insightful, and fearless advocate for Irish athletics.  

"To be honest," he says, "I don't lie awake at night thinking what's good and bad about going to America on an athletics scholarship. Even so, there is no disputing the fact that our very best and most successful athletes all went to there. Des McCormack (one of the earlier scholarship athletes at Villanova) maintains I'd have been an Olympic Champion if I'd gone there. He believes that's what the American system would have done for me. I've never gone along with it myself, although he's right when saying that the athletes are well looked after in the States" 

Kiernan bemoans the inadequate club system in Ireland. "We have a club system, after a fashion, in places like Tralee, Wexford, Tullamore, Galway and so on. But they are certainly not vibrant. These clubs are kept going by committed individuals who love the sport, and without whom we would not have any organised training . There has been a tremendous fall off in numbers, fellas have loads of money, and greater choices." 

" If it's in a person to run in Ireland, and there's nobody around to nurture that talent, it can very easily wither, whereas if a youngster wants to pursue Gaelic Games, soccer or rugby, and he/she shows any ability, there are clubs within a four or five mile radius willing to help." 

In that respect I would say that the athletics system has failed kids in Ireland. I certainly wouldn't knock the American system. I know there are individuals totally against it. The fact is our greatest athletes went over there. Yet one must acknowledge the huge number of failures as well, failures in that they were never again heard of in athletics." 

"We will always have this debate on the merits or otherwise of the Irish athlete going to the States," Kiernan concludes. "What we need at home is harmony between the top athletes and top officials, so that when it comes to major championships we can get our best teams out there."  

Grufferty, meanwhile, is beginning the slow road to recovery under Der Donovan. He is physically getting stronger and fitter. However, the emotional and psychological scars - the breakdown of self-esteem and the loss of self- confidence will take a lot longer to heal. 


PJ Browne

PJ Browne, an Irishman, has written for publications such as Irish Runner, but wrote this article as a freelance writer.

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