American Dream Fulfilled: How Illinois’s Irish Kicker Made His Mark on the College Football Season

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As a child in Dublin, Ireland, James McCourt's favorite outdoor activity was kicking soccer and rugby balls

As a child in Dublin, Ireland, James McCourt's favorite outdoor activity was kicking soccer and rugby balls

Part of the American Dream isn’t falling into unconsciousness while buried beneath a dozen bodies and then awakening to find yourself on the Illinois football field. But for James McCourt, that’s the most recent chapter of this national ethos. McCourt was born in Ireland, moved to the U.S. at the age of 8, switched from kicking rugby balls to footballs, landed a late scholarship from Illinois, served as a backup kicker for three seasons and then made a field goal over the weekend to secure the biggest upset of the 2019 college football season.

It’s the football version of the American Dream. “We grew up in Ireland with that whole dream of what America could provide. It was the land of opportunity,” says Margaret McCourt, James’s mother. “We wanted to open up the world for our children. This is our gift to them.”

If you’ve been in a dark hole for the last four days, you might not know it, but Illinois beat then-No. 6 Wisconsin 24-23 on Saturday on McCourt’s 39-yard field goal as time expired. The Illini had lost four straight games, including one to Eastern Michigan, and were 30.5-point home underdogs. It was the biggest upset in a Big Ten game since 1982 and the biggest upset in college football in more than 24 months. It explains why, seconds after hitting the ball, McCourt legitimately blacked out at the bottom of a dogpile of his teammates. Back at the family’s home in Florida, James’s father and a neighbor celebrated the victory by sipping on a 20-year-old, previously unopened bottle of Irish whiskey, because of course they did—they’re Irish. The McCourts enjoy Guinness too and Bailey’s Irish Cream. In fact, inside Margaret’s refrigerator is a tub of Ireland’s finest Kerrygold butter, and in her cupboard is a box of Barry’s Irish breakfast tea. On a random night, you might find in her oven a half-baked loaf of Irish wholemeal brown bread. “They’re a good old-fashioned Irish clan,” says Tim Conrad, James’s longtime kicking coach.

Their second-oldest of four Irish-born children provided a struggling Illinois team a spark that, who knows, might even take the Illini (3-4) to bowl eligibility. Three of their last five games are against Purdue, Northwestern and Rutgers, a trio that currently combine for a 4-16 record. McCourt’s teammates, of course, shoulder some of the responsibility in this rousing comeback against the previously undefeated Badgers. His game-winner isn’t possible without receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe’s diving 29-yard touchdown catch with 5:53 left or defensive back Tony Adams’s interception on the next possession or running back Dre Brown’s 13-yard run in the final minute.

The latter turned a 50-plus-yard field goal into something more manageable. On the sideline, McCourt did the math in his head. We need three points to win. Meanwhile, back home in Florida, his parents were thinking about his 40-yard miss in the first quarter. “We kept thinking the significance of that three points all the way through,” Margaret says. “My husband says, ‘I think he might have another opportunity!’ It was a dream come true. All his life he’s just wanted to kick balls. At age 2, my photos are of him kicking rugby balls and soccer balls and footballs.”

Those photos were from back in their homeland. Margaret and Ciaran McCourt raised their children in Dublin, the largest city and capital of Ireland. In 2005, they moved to the U.S. for Ciaran’s job, then the CEO of an online dieting company. They were only supposed to stay for two years. Nearly 15 years later, here they are still in the U.S. In fact, their oldest daughter has started the process of becoming an American citizen. Margaret and Ciaran will follow suit soon and James says he’ll do the same. But America wasn’t necessarily so glamorous of a place to the McCourts early on. During their second month here, Hurricane Katrina made landfall in south Florida, and six weeks later, Hurricane Wilma roared ashore to cause $19 billion of damage to the region. And then came last year, when a gunman killed 17 people at Parkland’s Stoneman Douglas High School in the deadliest high school shooting in U.S. history. The school is located three miles from the McCourt’s home. The tragedy took the brother of one of James’s friends. “James sees life a little differently now. He knows he’s a lucky boy,” Margaret says. “That will always keep him grounded.”

James’s extended family remains overseas, and the McCourts visit each summer. Over the last few days, his phone has been flooded with congratulatory messages, some of them from friends in Ireland he hasn’t spoken to or seen in 15 years. On campus and even around town, he’s been recognized. On Sunday morning at a Champaign gas station, a man pulled him aside and told him, “Great job!” James admits while laughing, “It’s been a little weird.” James’s Irish accent is all but gone. The McCourt’s four children lost their accents within a few months of their move to the U.S., a natural and also purposeful move. After all, the kids no longer wanted to stand out in class. They began talking like everyone else. Margaret remembers the family’s first trip back to Ireland. “They were joking that I had four American children,” laughs Margaret.

James is proud to be Irish American. He doesn’t hide his heritage. The banner on his Twitter page is a photo of Irish golfer Rory McIlroy, who is a hero to James, an avid golfer himself. He’s a 9 handicap. “In Ireland, everyone golfs,” James says. That includes his grandmother, a local club champion. The McCourts have a deep history in sports. Margaret’s mother actually played in Wimbledon in the early 1950s, and her father won his college rugby championship in 1948. On his father’s side, James’s grandfather was a successful gymnast. So it makes sense why he took so quickly to “sport,” says Margaret in her Irish accent, not sports.

James’s passion for kicking led him to Conrad’s kicking camp as an eighth grader, which led him to join national prep powerhouse St. Thomas Aquinas in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. As a senior there, he made 19-of-21 field goals and regularly boomed kickoffs through the end zone. “We knew right away he’d be good because he had these big, thick strong legs,” Conrad says. If there is a theme to McCourt’s kicking career, it is patience. He didn’t assume starting kicking duties until his senior year in high school, and he waited three years as a backup at Illinois behind Chase McLaughlin, the 2018 Big Ten Kicker of the Year who’s now with the Chargers.

McCourt didn’t even step on the football field his first two seasons, and he only kicked off once last year. The first field-goal attempt of his college career—from 30 yards out—came just eight weeks ago. He missed it. His second attempt came the next week from 53 yards. He made it. James has made six of his nine field goals this season. He’s made all five of his attempts of 45 yards or more. The 39-yard game-winner was his first make inside of 45 yards. It’s a bizarre stat that he can’t really explain. As of last week, he was only one of two kickers nationally with three or more field goals of at least 50 yards. It’s been worth those three long years of waiting. “I’d be lying if I didn’t say transferring didn’t come into my head,” he says, “but I fell in love with this university.”

Before his game-winning kick, black silence filled his head, he says. That goes back to an item he writes daily in a kicking notebook, a diary of sorts. Elite level focus. The three words can be found on nearly every page. “I was back there and felt so confident,” he says. “I missed one earlier in the game. I had to repay the team.” Conrad watched the kick from a bar in the Atlanta suburb of Duluth, where he now resides. He nearly got into a brawl at the local dive when trying to get management to switch from a game involving local team Georgia Tech to Illinois-Wisconsin. He was sequestered to a small, 12-inch TV in the corner of the bar. “Who the hell cheers for Illinois? That was me,” he laughs. “When he made it, I turned around and yelled, ‘That’s my kicker!’”

Back in Parkland, Margaret, her husband and their youngest son, 17-year-old Marcus, watched the game alongside the family dog, Rory, named for James’s golfing hero. After the kick split the uprights, Margaret needed get out of the house. “There was so much tension in there that I brought the dog out to walk and I bumped into a neighbor,” she says. The neighbor had just received a call from his son, also in college, about James helping Illinois pull off the biggest upset of the college football season. The two exchanged pleasantries before Margaret returned to her home. “About 10 minutes later, the neighbor arrived at our front door,” she recalls, “with a 20-year-old bottle of Irish whiskey.”