Perhaps Angelo Mangiro and Deion Barnes won’t return to the United States when Penn State flies back from Ireland on Saturday evening.
The two Nittany Lion football players might have careers in Gaelic games — hurling and Gaelic football specifically — ahead of them.
Mangiro and Barnes drew praise from their teammates and temporary coaches on Thursday, when the Penn State football team was treated to about an hour-and-a-half of hurling and Gaelic football instruction from the staff of Experience Gaelic Games.
Hurling, a Gaelic sport with ancient origins, is a tricky concept to a foreigner but is best described as a mix of hockey, soccer, baseball and football. Players use a stick — or hurley — in attempt to smack a ball about the size of a baseball through the opposing goal or up over a crossbar. It can get physical at times, with shoulder-to-shoulder checks permitted. A player can advance the ball by hitting it on the ground, or scooping it off the pitch and into an open hand. A player can’t take more than four steps while carrying the ball in hand, however and must balance the ball on the stick if he wants to carry it longer.
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This is where Mangiro excelled.
The 6-foot-3, 309-pound center had little difficulty bending down, scooping the ball off the artificial playing surface at one of University College Dublin’s practice fields and into his left hand. Meanwhile, in a balance drill, Mangiro swiftly moved across 15 yards with his ball perfectly balanced on his hurley while his smaller, more agile teammates struggled around him.
“Look at Ang! He’s sick!” senior guard Miles Dieffenbach said.
At the other end of the practice complex, Barnes put on a show for the Experience Gaelic Games coaches. A shirtless Barnes had little trouble kicking the soccer-sized ball up to himself in a Gaelic football drill. Afterward, Penn State coach James Franklin yelled out to the Gaelic games coaches and asked them which of his players they’d consider signing if they had to build a Gaelic football team.
“I’m serious! Which one?” Franklin called.
Two coaches pointed at Barnes, who gave a bow and shook their hands.
Much like hurling without the stick, Gaelic football is Ireland’s most popular sport and has taken on added meaning for Penn State players.
They’ll play Central Florida on the same field — Croke Park — where many Irish fans have never set foot except for in the stadium’s bleachers.
“It’s a dream,” Georgina Caraher, co-owner of Experience Gaelic Games said. “You’ve got to understand, for us, for Irish people, you play your Gaelic sport at your community level. You don’t pick or select a club. You play locally. You’re born to your club. No trades. No transfers. None of that.
Then your club is aligned to a county so every county has a team that can represent them, so all the best club players go to play for county. And if you get picked that’s a huge honor. You’re an elite player. And the dream of any Gaelic player is to play in Croke Park. And it just doesn’t happen for very many people. It really doesn’t. A lot of Irish people will be very envious of these guys stepping out into Croke Park on Saturday. Because that’s what they’d love to be doing.”
Irish fans are eagerly anticipating this weekend’s Gaelic Athletic Association semifinals. Kerry will play Mayo at the Gaelic Grounds in Limerick on Saturday while Dublin will play Donegal on Sunday at Croke Park. But there is some reservation about the Kerry-Mayo game, a rematch scheduled after the teams played to a draw last week. Players and coaches for both teams feel the game should be at Croke Park and not in Limerick, a stadium with nearly 34,000 fewer seats than Croke Park and considered inferior to hold a game of this magnitude. After the site for the rematch was announced, both teams protested the location to no avail.
The Croke Park Classic between Penn State and UCF has been scheduled for more than a year.
“People (would) love for semifinals to be in Croke Park because that’s our national stadium,” Caraher said. “But I think the vast majority of Irish people realize that this is something that’s very good for the country. It’s very good for opening our eyes, but also for exposing our games to this kind of an audience as well in our stadium. So it’s fantastic. They’re very happy from that perspective.”
For nearly two hours, Caraher, along with 16 coaches from Experience Gaelic Games, got to do what they’re best at — exposing Ireland’s most sacred games to those foreign to them.
She admitted she has never seen a collection of athletes this big. She easily proclaimed Penn State’s 6-foot-5, 335-pound offensive tackle Donovan Smith was the biggest man she’s ever seen with a hurling stick.
“I’ve got to say, this is a pretty unusual group for us to have, but pretty spectacular,” Caraher said. “It’s very nice to be in the stands with a bunch of 120 big-muscle lads.”
The idea to put Penn State players through hurling and Gaelic football practices came about after members of the Nittany Lion front office traveled to Dublin earlier this year for a site visit.
They met with Caraher and her team and got the full presentation and got to practice themselves.
“I think they were so impressed with the games that they really wanted to introduce the team to the whole concept and give them this, yes as an activity, but also as a piece of culture,” Caraher said. “This is Ireland. This is what we do on a daily basis.”
Franklin and his assistant coaches watched from behind a fence, occasionally hollering out to their players every one of whom participated in some form.
“It’s super. Look at this, just enjoying, taking part. We’re bowled over,” Caraher said. “We’re also bowled over by the fact that they just joined in immediately. There’s no sense of, ‘Ugh, I don’t want to do this. I’m tired.’ They’re full on, they’re into it, they get it immediately. And it’s a privilege for our trainers to train elite athletes. It’s fantastic.”