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Thursday 19 October 2017

‘It ended up being a gift’: All-Ireland winning footballer Enda McNulty on the farming accident that changed his life

Former Armagh defender Enda McNulty places a high value on the power of positive thinking and people. Photo: David Maher / Sportsfile
Former Armagh defender Enda McNulty places a high value on the power of positive thinking and people. Photo: David Maher / Sportsfile

Claire McCornack

Before every big match, every difficult boardroom meeting, every personal challenge, Enda McNulty looks down at the jagged scars across his right arm and says “Jesus, Enda, pick yourself up”.

Although the marks have faded over the last two decades, their significance has deepened with every passing year.

Today, he looks at them as a gift.

An All-Ireland senior medallist with Armagh in 2002 and now a sports psychologist and author, Enda was just 17 when it happened.

He was at home in Lislea, south Armagh, a tiny farming community on the foothills of Slieve Gullion — the mountains where, according to mythology, Cú Chulainn played as a child.

The promising athlete was due to start at wing half back for his local club, Mullaghbawn, in an upcoming championship semi-final and had an important training session that evening.

Armagh's Enda McNulty (right) clashes with Paddy Bradley of Derry as tensions rise during a SFC Qualifier in Clones
Armagh's Enda McNulty (right) clashes with Paddy Bradley of Derry as tensions rise during a SFC Qualifier in Clones

But first, Enda, his brothers Paul and Justin, two cousins David and Ciaran, and neighbour Donal had to bring home a load of hay to his uncle’s 200-acre beef and dairy farm.

“We wanted to get the daily farming rituals done in time for training. We decided to get our friends and cousins on to the trailer and drive to Killevy to take in a load for bedding.

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“We headed off. I was driving as hard as the old-school Ford 4000 would go. All the guys in the empty trailer behind like careless, naïve teenagers.”

The craic and banter was mighty on the banged-up trailer. The boys were singing along to the radio, eating sweets and waving at girls passing by.

They got to the field, stooked up the hay and started to load bales on to the trailer.

“A wise farmer would have taken one look at the load and said ‘no way are you getting on top of that’ but on we got, I hopped behind the wheel.

Enda McNulty
Enda McNulty

“I could hear all the craic they were having on top, laughing and waving at cars. I was getting jealous because I was sitting in the cab on my own,” he says.

Enda pulled into a shop and protested for someone else to drive the rest of the way. For fear they’d be late for training — their father Joe was the coach — Justin jumped into the tractor.

Thirty seconds later, they took a sharp turn at speed at a junction.

The boys were thrown from the load, sent into the air and over the top of a ranch fence. Enda went through it.

“I wrecked my arm. I pierced it through the fence and it went up the size of my thigh. I said ‘holy shit, I’m in major trouble here’. I remember looking around and seeing the boys’ bodies lying around me — it was complete panic and shock”.

Although the rest of the group suffered minor injuries, paramedics were very worried about Enda’s arm when they arrived.

He was taken to Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast to get treatment from doctors who dealt with bomb injuries.

“The bones were smashed, literally, into smithereens. There were multiple fractures, no neural control in my arm or fingers, no power, no strength.

“The surgeon said ‘young fella, you’ll never use your right forearm again’. I was totally distraught. We were having a laugh bringing home a load of hay, and now it ends up that I’m looking at no football, not going to be able to write,” he adds.

In the month that followed, there was little progress.

“There was no sign of even a micro movement in my fingers, arm or wrist. I was sitting in a sling, they hadn’t much hope. I was told to start writing with my left hand.”

Enda was devastated.

“One day, a teacher saw me completely despondent, pessimistic, lacking in morale, energy and motivation — my  self-esteem was dipped, so was self-worth and self-confidence  because I really enjoyed having a really active life.”

The teacher told Enda to remove the contraption and springs holding his fingers in place and to try to move his arm.

Despite his initial resistance, Enda understood what the teacher was trying to do — he was helping him develop a positive mindset and grow his mental strength to overcome the injury.

He advised the youngster to meet an occupational therapist.

“She started by trying to get me to move a penny coin on top of a desk using my index finger. At the time, I literally couldn’t move it whatsoever, but I persevered until we got a little glimmer of movement in the tiny finger.

Perspective

“Thankfully, eight months later, I had full control of my hand, full strength in my forearm,” he said.

With a new perspective on his mental toughness, and slight modification to his GAA technique, Enda went on to become a leading member of the Armagh senior football team from 1996 to 2010.

He won an All-Ireland medal in 2002 when they defeated Kerry, and was awarded an All Star for his displays that season.

After qualifying with a degree in psychology, he is now one of the country’s foremost sports psychologists in the game, with national, international and Olympic achievers like Brian O’Driscoll, Seán O’Brien, Johnny Sexton, Annalise Murphy, Paul Galvin and David Gillick dedicated to his mental training.

Speaking to the Farming Independent after a busy session at his Donnybrook-based clinic, the author of new book Commit! stresses that he wouldn’t have achieved as much if it were not for his farming background, and falling from that load.

“100pc my farming background stood to me in life,” he says.

“I believe firmly that sport and farming are a big character-forming experience whether it’s learning to sell cattle,  learning to sell contracts to global corporates or dealing with being dropped from a team and fighting to get back.

“But it’s not just in the recovery of my arm. My accident has been a really positive thing in life because it’s not about what happens, it’s about how you react to the difficulty.


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“It made me stronger, more resilient and more determined,” he says, praising the great strides made in farm safety since his childhood.

“It ended up being a gift. In a way, it’s a constant reminder of the adversity that I faced and therefore the adversity that I can face going forward,” he adds.

He still drives by the fence where the accident occurred when returning home to Lislea where his brothers are involved in the farm. In the kitchen, sits a photo of the youngsters boarding the tractor on that fateful day.

“We still talk about it a lot. But I believe strongly in gratitude, all I have to do is look down at my arm to remind myself that I am very lucky. If we’d got up on the mountain that day and the same thing happened, we’d have fallen down 30 or 40 feet. It would have been a disaster and could have ended all of our lives with a little less luck.

“It was a critical part of my character formation, no question,” he says.

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