If you have the look of an athlete and are old enough to vote, odds are Niall Archbold has either chatted you up or will befriend you in the coming weeks.
The Dublin native and recent Bluffton transplant is the founder of the Bluffton Gaelic Football Club (GFC) and is on a mission to form a local team and introduce his beloved sport to the Lowcountry en masse.
“If you’re between 18 and 60 and have a pulse, I’ve met you at a Bluffton pub,” said Archbold with an endearing brogue largely intact despite being in the U.S. since 1986. “This is a dream of mine. And I just know that once I introduce it to folks, if they’re the least bit competitive or social, they get hooked.”
The 54-year-old resident of The Walk knows he has a bunch of strikes working against him. First, he started this quest right as COVID exploded. Second through 10th on the list: Very few in the U.S. have heard of Gaelic football.
“What can I say? I love a good challenge,” he said with a smile. “This isn’t just another newbie imparting my ways on others. This is a game that folks can play for life. It’s very social, it’s a community builder and, did I mention, it’s highly addictive?”
Bluffton GFC’s website has an intriguing slogan: “Come meet soccer’s older punk-rock brother.” It paints a picture, for sure, but if you’re one of the vast majority new to Gaelic football, think of it as a cocktail of many sports with heavy pinches of soccer and basketball. Players advance the volleyball-esque sphere up the field with a combination of carrying, bouncing, kicking, hand-passing and something called soloing – where you drop the ball and then toe-kick it into your hands. Points are scored by putting the ball over a crossbar, goals are scored by successfully angling the ball under the crossbar into a net.
The amateur sport is religion in Ireland, with county and national clubs vying to play in the All-Ireland Senior Championship – an annual event that trumps our Super Bowl with 83,000 rabid fans in attendance.
Archbold’s family was all about it – his father was part of the 1957 national team, his mother was an avid camogie player (the female version), and his brothers and nephews all play. Archbold played both semipro soccer and Gaelic football in Dublin before heading to the U.S., where he played for multiple teams in both sports while also helping turn the NYU men’s soccer program into winners as a coach in the late ’90s.
A back injury and operation when he was 29 ended his pro playing days, but the passion for the sport never faded. He continued to coach and launch youth programs around New York before moving to Raleigh, N.C., with his wife, Kristin, in 2012.
“I joined a thriving club in Raleigh and saw that there were pockets of clubs all around the Southeast,” he said. “When we first talked of moving to Bluffton, I started picking a lot of brains of these club leaders. I knew I wanted to start something here.”
That feeling was amplified when he met Savannah Gaelic Football Association founder Caleb Harkleroad. The two became fast friends and Archbold trained and coached a bit with Savannah before a conversation with Kristin ahead of Memorial Day in 2020.
“She told me, ‘Don’t give up on it,’ don’t let COVID stop you,” Archbold said. “A lot of these picked brains told me to just start it slowly, but I am bad with slow. I like to build things rapidly. But Kristin convinced me to have patience, and why do the 40-minute drive when you really want to do this here?”
So that’s just what the couple did. They had a meet and greet at Bluffton Trading Post a month later and that’s when the heavy recruiting began. And the all-important choosing of colors – the purple logo is an homage to his hometown St. Joseph’s club colors.
“I’d be out having a pint and I just kept telling people, ‘Come out and try it,” he said. “We had a dozen at the meetup, then about the same at the early practices. Maybe three or four of the folks were athletically ready, but I just want bodies. I like a blank canvas.”
Word slowly but surely spread, and the numbers began to swell at the weekly practices in the public park space near the dog park at Oscar Frazier Park. Archbold hoped to strike an immediate partnership with Beaufort County Parks and Recreation, but COVID staffing and meeting protocols created a roadblock.
“Hey, no worries. I’d get to that little patch of field 90 minutes before practice, bring dirt with me to fill any holes and get the space before any other clubs took it,” he said. Archbold recruited a number of fellow new residents at The Walk to join the club initially, and parkgoers and Bluffton Park residents quickly got curious as well.
“The numbers started to swell, men and women alike. They saw me teaching this odd thing and just wondered what we were doing,” Archbold said. “And my neighbor at The Walk, Morgan Crutchley, has been a godsend in finding recruits and building hype.”
One of the early converts was Corks co-owner Sean Ritter. The former pro rugby player was looking for a way to get back into exercising and found it with Bluffton GFC.
“I need to scratch that itch but life got in the way. I went to a couple practices and had never felt anything like it,” Ritter said. “I had never been so tired playing anything. It worked so many muscles and the group of people was so fun, I got addicted very quickly.”
Archbold was able to connect with Parks and Rec in January and found champions in BCSC officials Shannon Loper and Matt Watts.
“I can’t thank them enough. I told them we were looking to build community here in introducing this new game and they were just incredible,” he said. The club is now partnered with Parks and Rec, has scheduled weekly practice space at M.C. Riley Field and has formed the beginnings of a youth program.
“The ultimate dream is to have a bunch of 7-on-7 teams in Bluffton, have a rec league. And to really explode the sport with our youth,” he said of future plans.
As club numbers grow, so too does the athletic makeup of the club, which now resembles more of a CrossFit class than a couch potato club. After a year of teaching pure basics and fundamentals, Archbold has started making things more official.
The club has formed a board, has joined the U.S. Gaelic Athletic Association and, thanks to the support of local sponsors like Choo Choo BBQ Express, realtor Catherine Donaldson, Stretch Zone and official post-practice meetup Katie O’Donald’s, Bluffton GFC is about to order authentic team jerseys from Ireland ahead of their first scheduled scrimmage June 13 – against his old buddy Harkleroad’s Savannah club.
“We have made such strides, it’s so exciting to see. We have had such fun together, all these folks new to the area or new to the game. The social end is so great and I’ve loved coaching these players up,” Archbold said. “Someday, I’d love to join regional powerhouse leagues, play for a U.S. title, bring our team across the pond. But it’s baby steps and we are making them. Right now, just come to our Tuesday practice, see what’s it all about. I promise you’ll have fun.”
The team practices Tuesdays at 6:30 p.m. at the M.C. Riley Sports Complex. Visit blufftongfc.com for more information.
Tim Wood is a veteran journalist based in Bluffton. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.