Aer Lingus Classic: huge success for Tech and Ireland

Photo courtesy of Danny Karnik

Despite the cloudy and drizzling conditions, thousands of Irish citizens showed up to Aviva Stadium to witness the sixth college football game played on Irish soil. Joining them were a large contingent of Americans that travelled over the Atlantic to see the game and visit Ireland.

About 10,000 Tech fans made the trip and largely outnumbered their Boston College counterparts. The locals in Dublin took note of the event and lent a welcoming hand to visitors. There were welcome and gameday signs in almost every pub and shop. It would have been hard pressed to walk around downtown Dublin for two minutes and not see a Tech fan or hear “Go Jackets!”

Ireland has a population of 5 million, smaller than the Atlanta metro population. While small, it is steeped in a rich athletic tradition. From sports played worldwide like soccer to local favorites such as hurling and Gaelic football, the Irish consider such events integral to their culture.

Gaelic football and hurling are unique to Ireland, first played in 1670 CE and 1272 BCE, respectively. The hurling national championship actually took place the day after Tech’s game.

While American football has yet to reach stardom in the Emerald Isles, the National Football League has developed a considerable following over the last decade. Travelling to the stadium, hundreds of NFL jerseys could be seen, including Rob Gronkowski’s New England Patriots uniform to the New York Giants No. 13 that Odell Beckham, Jr., dons.

Attendance at the game was 40,562, and the locals who attended got to see a fantastic ending that captured what college football is all about. After a sluggish first half with very little scoring, the second half was full of drama. Although it was not always in support of the Jackets, the Irish local thoroughly enjoyed the excitement and sudden swings.

Down 14-10 with 2:45 left on the clock, the game looked all but over with Tech needing 19 yards on fourth down to keep their chances alive. In that moment, redshirt senior quarterback Justin Thomas recaptured some of his 2014 magic that propelled Tech to an 11-win season. He connected with sophomore A-back Qua Searcy on a 22-yard pass to keep the team’s chances alive.

Tech had not scored a touchdown since their opening drive, but after that pass, the momentum shifted.

Pure willpower by the Jackets led them to the game-winning touchdown. Against one of the top defensive sides in college football, true freshman B-back Dedrick Mills dove into the end zone with 35 seconds left to give the Jackets a 17-14 victory.

As Mills lowered his shoulder to gain leverage on a diving Boston College defender and scored the final points of the game, the crowd erupted.

The Irish didn’t know much about either team, but they could see the pure emotion and joy on display on the Tech sideline once Tech took the lead. Many Irish citizens probably left the stadium wondering why Tech didn’t pass the ball more.

On the opposite side, the heartbreak of Boston College was noticeable. Both teams combined had a single ACC win last year, so this was a monumental game for both sides. Boston College Head Coach Steve Addazio was quite shaken after the game ended. Boasting one of the best defenses in the country, he was still in shock from Tech’s fourth and 19 conversion at the end of

Many came not only for the game but also to see the pageantry that happens during college football games. Both teams took their marching bands and cheerleaders and performed before kickoff and at halftime.

This is fairly typical to the American audience, but the culture is very different than that of Irish sporting events. To many locals, the game was akin to a theatrical performance.

“It was a whale of a time,” said John, a fan from county Tipperary in the province of Munster. “I’m in town for the hurling match but wanted to see the [American] football game. The cheerleaders and bands were great. I couldn’t believe how many people came. Georgia Tech fans were everywhere.”

Social media feeds and idle walks around Dublin yielded hundreds of excited fans, many of whom made up for their lack of football knowledge with infectious enthusiasm.

The atmosphere of the game was noticeably different. It felt similar to a bowl game, given that it was at a neutral site and a tourist destination. However, it was far more of a showcase.

The Tech fans that were there proudly represented their school. The fight song and Budweiser song were sung with more emotion, and some of that could be attributed to the thousands of pints of Guinness that were consumed at the game. Alcohol is not allowed in most college football stadiums, but many Tech fans later joked that Bobby Dodd Stadium should get Guinness on tap.

As for the trophy that Tech hoisted at the end of the game, it was additional proof that the game was more than a typical season or conference opener. It was an achievement for a team that had waited for ten months to taste victory, a team that had yet to notch a win since the Miracle on Techwood Drive against Florida State.

More than 80 Tech players had never left the country before this game. They understood that the game was different and because of last season understood the importance of getting a win and impressing some of the denizens of another continent. The team was very happy to leave with a win  and all of the players at the postgame press conference enjoyed
the trip.

“I think Ireland is a beautiful country,” said sophomore linebacker and Tennessee native Brant Mitchell. “We got to take a bus tour of Dublin. The people are awesome here and very welcoming, and I enjoyed my time here.”

Many dignitaries were present at the game. The President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, and the Lord Mayor of Dublin, Brendan Carr, were in attendance.

Joining them from the United States were Tech President G.P. “Bud” Peterson, Mayor of Atlanta Kasim Reed and Georgia Governor Nathan Deal. The Aer Lingus Classic was definitely not just another college football game.

The future of American football in Europe remains a murky one. While periodic ventures by the NFL and NCAA have yielded enthusiastic crowds, it is unclear whether these patrons will accept this sport as anything more than a novelty.

News broke out that Tottenham Hotspur Football Club in London is planning to build a new football stadium that they hope will attract a NFL team to come to London.

Given the number of fans who have attended college football games in Ireland over the last five years, America’s favorite sport has serious growth potential across the Atlantic Ocean.