Jim Coyne remembers boyhood trips to Gunning Park in the 1960s to watch Irish immigrants play Gaelic football. The son of Irish immigrants himself, Coyne fell in love with one of that country's most popular amateur sports.
Now Coyne is 53, and after more than four decades playing the game, he is managing one of the most successful Gaelic football teams in the country, the St. Jarlath Gaelic Football Club.
One of two clubs in Cleveland, St. Jarlath plays in the Midwest division of the North American Gaelic Athletic Association along with Cleveland's St. Pat's Gaelic Football Club and teams from Detroit, Rochester and Pittsburgh.
But despite the team's two national championships and seven Midwest titles since 2000, including last year, St. Jarlath is having trouble finding players. Coyne already recruited nephews Mike, Chris, Dan and Kevin Pap to play for St. Jarlath after they finished years of high school and college soccer and basketball.
Without the push from Irish immigrants, Gaelic football's popularity in Cleveland is waning. So Coyne is targeting high school athletes who are looking for an ultracompetitive sport.
"Soccer and basketball is the perfect transition," Dan Pap says. "It's the strategy of spacing and mindset of soccer but with the hands and timing of [basketball] rebounding."
Played with 13 people per team, the game uses a heavier version of a soccer ball. Teams get points for scoring goals in a soccer-style net or for punting the ball through a set of uprights over the goal. Players move the ball by running and then punching or punting it to teammates.
"It's probably the most athletic sport you'll ever see," Coyne says. "You use everything: your hands, feet, vision, strength and speed."
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