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Interview with Tom Furlong

by Dave Hannigan was published in the Irish Echo on Monday the 1st of September 2003

Offaly's Tom Furlong was on the verge of an American football career when injury cut him down.

East Durham, N.Y.—The walls of his pub bear eloquent testimony to the sporting passions of Tom Furlong's life. Here, a freshlaced 17-year-old stares down from a sepia print off the Offaly minor team that won the 1960 Leinster football championship. There, an animated shot of him six years later, in the uniform of the Atlanta Falcons, his right leg fully extended having sent an oval ball spiraling skyward. Everywhere, in this little corner of the Catskill Mountains, the paraphernalia of four decades steeped in the games of two countries compete for prominence.

A smiling picture of Babe Ruth jostles for space with a photograph of the Cavan and Kerry footballers on the steps of New York City Hall in 1947. A football that burst during the 1971 All-lreland final nestles on a shelf, deflated and faded brown, the signature of Willie Bryan just about still legible. The classic portrait of Rocky Marciano's fist distorting Jersey Joe Walcott's face in their fight for the heavyweight title hangs inside the door of a' place where every weekend the wonder of satellite technology beams in Gaelic football and hurling from across the ocean. From home.

As he begins sifting through the minutiae of his past, the outline of Furlong's own career only hints at its richness. Between Furlong, his older brother, Mickey, and his younger brother, Martin, one of the Furlong siblings played for Offaly in five successive decades stretching from the 1940s to '80s A minor prodigy himself, he was dropped by the seniors tor the 1961 All-lreland final loss to Down at 18, and effectively retired from intercounty football not long after turning 21. A couple of years later, he strolled into Yankee Stadium one Tuesday moming in late October to audition for the job of place kicker with the New York Giants of the National Foothall League.

"A fella called Eddie McDwyer from Daingean got me the trial," Furlong recalled. "He was working in Jim Downey's Bar on 44th Street and Eight Avenue. A few of the Giants used to go in there and he heard them talking about the trouble they were having with their kickers. He told them he knew a fella who could solve all their problems, so that's how I ended up down at Yankee Stadium at eight o'clock in the morning, watching them take the tarpaulin off the field just so I could take a few kicks. I had a good workout. I converted 24 out of 28 between the 20 and the 50 yard-lines, but they didn't know what to make of me.

"The head coach, Allie Sherman, brought out the kicking coach, Ken Strong, and asked him what he thought. 'I haven't a clue,' said Strong. See, they had never seen a soccer-style kicker before.
All their kickers used a square toe and kicked with the head down in those days. Taking one of my kicks from 40 yards, I slipped and ended up on my knee when I was kicking it and it still sailed over. The Giants had only four games left in the season and were in a bit of turmoil. Half of them wanted to sign me, half didn't. In the end, I ended up being put in the taxi squad, which was what they called players who trained with the team all week but didn't play."

Members of the taxi squad took home a handsome $200 a week. Nice work if you could get it. But when the season ended, the Giants spent money on a big-name kicker from the college gridiron scene and Furlong realized his future lay elsewhere. Having secured a leave of absence from his job with the New York Transit Authority, he wrote letters to 14 clubs. Nine responded and after two try outs with the Atlanta Falcons, he was invited into a room for contract negotiations. Guiding an oval ball between two posts was a lot easier than swimming with the management sharks.

"There were no agents back then,"Furlong said. "They brought me in and said: 'We're going to sign you for ten thousand.' I knew that was the minimum wage, so I told them I wouldn't settle for that. 'We'll give you twelve thousand so,' they said. I thought to myself at that point that I'd better not argue any more in case they tell me to feck off. I settled for that and it turned out be $800 per game. Micheal O'Hehir had been out here doing a couple of games and he asked me to keep him informed of developments. I rang him and told him that I was one of the lowest-paid players in the league and he says to me: 'You're getting $800 a game, Denis Law is the highest-paid player in England and he's only on £200 a game.'

"But nobody in Ireland really understood American Football or what it was I did. They couldn't understand that I was being paid to sit on the sideline, then come on to effectively take a free before going off again. They couldn't grasp that I could he sitting there in Green Bay for two hours, freezing my arse off in 20 degree cold before getting called in for 10 seconds with the game on the line. When the guy snaps the ball back, you've only 1.4 seconds to hit the ball and basically with the opposition coming at you, you have to raise it eight feet in the air by the time it travels the first six yards or else it gets blocked ."

Ah, 1.4 seconds. The amount of time it took for Furlong's NFL career to be shunted into the sidings just when he was building up steam. His first preseason with the Falcons had gone especially well. Five kickers arrived competing for one place that year and at the finish, the Tullamore man won out. After several exhibition games, he was counting down the days to the first NFL match of the campaign when a colleague fumbled a routine snap in training. Furlong ended up kicking fresh air with such ferocity that he blew his knee out. Even in America, surgery wasn't advanced enough at the time to repair all the damage and the Falcons' lack of sympathy for his plight caused reality to bite.

"I wasn't out here that long and in many ways, I felt like I was the only Irish person in the city of Atlanta," Furlong said. "If I knew then what I know now, I'd have been better equipped for it. I felt that I wasn't accepted on the team, either, because I was foreign. I'll give you an example. All these guys I played with had gone to college and in the match program, it would list your height and your weight and your school. Mine was down as foot 1, 175 pounds, but for college in my slot, they had written 'none.'
"I went to the public relations guy and I complained that the program was making me look like I knew nothing, that I'd never been to school. I told him I'd been to school in Ireland with the Christian Brothers, so the next home game, he puts in the program 'College: Christian Brothers.' Christ, I said that looks like a brandy or a wine, there's a drink over here called Christian Brothers' wine or brandy. Anyway, I decided I couldn't win one way or the other."

His rehabilitation wasn't helped by the fact that he had to fight hard to get money he was owed by the Falcons, his standard contract not figuring for such complexities as career-threatening injuries. He recovered well enough to find work kicking for a couple of semi pro teams, the Akron Vulcans and the Brooklyn Dodgers. The wages were a quarter of what he earned with the Falcons and the injury had taken about seven yards off his average kick. When he realized he was treading water, he rang Danny Gilmartin, the Sligo-born union organizer who was holding his job for him at the Transit Authority and gave up on the dream.

"My only real regret is that I chose Atlanta when I could have gone to the Patriots in Boston," Furlong said. "With the Irish thing, I reckon I'd have a better chance up there; down in Atlanta, I felt they were anti-foreigners in many ways. They didn't want to see non Americans playing the game. I wanted to be a wide receiver and I told the coach in Atlanta that I played Gaelic football not soccer and that I could use my hands. I had good speed and I wanted to go out and catch balls. I really wanted to play the game, but I suppose our attitude might be the same if we had an American trying to play Gaelic football."

Furlong spent a couple of years toiling with the Offaly exiles team in New York, but the debilitating effect of the injury began to frustrate him. He played for New York in a couple of National League finals, and his wife, Yvonne, still wears his winner's medal from the 1967 victory over Galway around her neck. Eventually, his inability to perform at the standard he'd set himself all his life caused him to pack it in, his premature retirement at 27 not diminishing the quantity of memories he took from the game.
"I remember meeting Sean O'Neill one time in San Francisco," Furlong said. "We were sitting in the hotel and I was asking him if Down had a game plan going into the '61 All-lreland against Offaly. So, he starts telling me about their elaborate tactics with the halfbacks overlapping centerfield, centerfield overlapping the half-forward line. I'm listening to him and I'm thinking back to that day in the Offaly dressing room. Just before the team went out, Mick Mclntyre, a selector from Cloghan opens the door of the dressing room and he shouts, 'Leap into them boys, they can't beat ye.' I said to Sean, 'How in the hell did we run ye to one point ?' "

Not all his reminisces come tinged with such good humor. In the spring of 1964, Tom Furlong Sr. read about his son's plans to emigrate when a line in the Evening Herald mentioned how Offaly would miss Tom's influence from their forward line in the forthcoming championship. After more than one run-in with the county board chairman, Father Vaughan, he'd become disillusioned with football and decided to go to America to seek his fortune. The decision came easier than the courage to tell his father. Thirty-eight years later, Furlong opens his bar in East Durham, N.Y., from May to November, spends his winters in the warmer climes of Florida, and does a neat line in tales from another era. Life in exile has been good, but the history of his family's dealings with Fr. Vaughan is the story of the GAA ban in microcosm.
"This priest just seemed to have it in for us," Furlong said. "He suspended my brother Mickey for being at a rugby dance and he missed the '52 Leinster semi final against Dublin. He suspended Martin from the Offaly minors in '63 for playing a soccer match. Martin missed a championship match against Westmeath and they had Turlough O'Connor, a youth soccer international, playing center-forward for them. Offaly were beat and Westmeath reached the All-lreland final that year.

"He suspended me from an Offaly county final the same year for being in the soccer field in the town. The soccer field was right behind our house and the GAA field was a mile away from us, so myself and Martin used to go into the soccer field to kick around and play the game three goals gets in. I appealed the suspension to the county board. I went in and said to Fr. Vaughan: 'I'm a practicing Roman Catholic and you're a Roman Catholic priest and I will swear on the Bible that I didn't play any soccer match.' 'No,' he says, ‘We take the word of the Vigilante Committee.' 'Fine,' says I. 'You're some priest'. The after taste of those rows didn't stop him traveling back several times during the successful All-Ireland-winning years of 1971 and '72 to watch Martin beget his own goalkeeping legend. He laughs aloud when he remembers the day in Croke Park in 1982 when his mother was one of the first people on to the pitch to celebrate her baby's part in that Famous victory over Kerry. Margaret Furlong was a spritely 74 at the time and had been watching her boys play for Offaly since Mickey's debut in 1948. Every yarn Furlong spins seems to reek of history.

This fella brought me out a seat from the old Cusack Stand, so I got steel supports built to mount it, and I've another seat from Ebbets Field where the Brooklyn Dodgers played baseball years ago," Furlong said. "All I have to do now is get the two of them bolted to the floor in front of the bar. The lads that come in here will get a great kick out of sitting in them." And the Juxtaposition of the relics from the different sporting meccas will be somehow fitting.

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