How do you sum up a football career like Brian Dennehy’s?
In 14 seasons, he played in 11 Bowls and won 8 of them, making him the most successful IAFL player of all time. . . for now. But it’s more than just those numbers – his actual contribution to the teams he played on was bigger than you can imagine.
In 1994, the Dublin Tornadoes traveled up north to play the Knights in the final – I was there as a spectator. Losing 15-14 with a couple of minutes on the clock, they faced 4th and a mile. Rather than slinging a hopeful pass, they gave the ball to Brian on a Sweep and he took it 50 yards for the winning TD, breaking three or four tackles along the way. I was 16 at the time and I had never seen an individual effort win a final in that way… and I’ve never seen anything like it since.
At this stage, Brian is the Jim Brown of the IAFL. You hear the stories, slightly exaggerated over time, and maybe see some grainy footage of his later years. When people talk about some promising youngster, the older guys will roll their eyes and say: ‘He’s no Brian Dennehy’.
Brian aged well as a football player. He started out as a whippet-skinny speedster. His trademark spin move was unstoppable. By the time he joined the Rebels, he was already pretty fat and a lot slower. Still, his vision and balance allowed him to use his extra bulk to batter the shit out of defenders. But probably his best attribute was that he had a ‘head for football’. I mean that literally. His mallet-shaped head, and complete lack of neck, was a weapon of mass destruction. He could carry the ball 50 times a game and headbutt someone on pretty much every play.
He did have a great football brain, though. By the age of about 22 he was already coaching Shamrock Bowl-winning teams and gradually changing the game of football in Ireland. He was the driving force behind the early evolution of the Rebels offense away from the standard ’31 Dive/24 Lead’ type plays that everyone else used (and maybe still uses). He was an innovator and a great communicator… but most of all he was a motivator who led from the front. How could you not be inspired by a guy who gets smashed 50 times and keeps asking for the ball?
When Brian joined the Rebels in 2001, there was a bit of bad blood because me and him were on a flag football team called the Dublin Pirates who were way better than the Rebels. But it didn’t take long for the Rebels to accept him as their own. It helped that he scored a shitload of TDs that season – one special teams TD per game, including returning the opening kickoff of the Bowl to the house. He topped that off by throwing a TD on the last play of the first half. We went on to win that game for the Rebels first ever Bowl. And we were both accepted into the Rebels family… as long as we never mentioned the word ‘Pirates’.
The other reason there was bad blood is that Brian’s a bit of a dick. Now, some people will say he’s a loudmouthed, arrogant, obnoxious hooligan… But anyone who knows him well knows that can also be self-centred and mean. Why did he get 50 carries a game? Because he was calling the plays and he just wanted to give himself the ball. When I eventually took over as play caller, all I could do was keep calling handoffs to Brian – I didn’t know how to do it any other way. As a result, he got 180 yards and a TD in an MVP performance in 2003… the Rebels second Bowl. That year, Brian scored 126 points in six games – that’s an average of 21 points per game.
We eventually managed to develop a bit of a passing game. In the 2004 Bowl, with the Knights putting 9 in the box to stop the run, we knew we had to pass. So… we started by passing to Brian! We put together 16 unanswered points, including Brian’s tippy-toe endzone TD catch and the 2-point conversion run that eventually won the game for us. On that run, he headbutted two Knights at the same time while crossing the goal line.
The 2005 Shamrock Bowl was the best and worst day of my own career. We came from behind in the 4th quarter… again… we got the ‘threepeat’ and I was given the MVP award. After the winning touchdown pass, Brian ran in the 2-point conversion. I didn’t know at the time, but that would be the last handoff I’d ever give him. During the post-game speeches, he dropped the bomb: he was done. Retired. I’d played flag football and kitted football with my bro for about 15 years… and it was over. We started throwing a ball around our garden when I was 8 and joined a flag football team when I was 12. We had won three flag football championships and four Shamrock Bowls together.
Such a mix of emotions. I was so happy about winning the game but immensely sad about the end of something special we had always done together. But what a way to go! It was so fitting that he crossed the goalline on his last ever carry.
Back when I was a teenager, I’d go out to watch the Dublin Tornadoes play every Sunday… then come home and watch NFL on telly. Every night they’d show this week’s amazing Barry Sanders moment, where he juked and jinked and span and fell over but didn’t quite go down and disappeared into a pile and somehow popped out the other side at full speed… To be totally honest, Brian looked like Barry Sanders with a football in his hand. When he was turning 4th downs into championship winning TDs, I couldn’t tell the difference… and I got to see it live all the time. I was his biggest fan and I ended up in the huddle with him every week. I’m so glad that I got to share the field with such an incredible player, friend and brother for so many years.
It’s a great honour to be able to present to you all this year’s Dublin Rebels Hall of Fame inductee – the Greatest of All Time: Brian Dennehy.