'Cruciate is so prevalent - I'm just trying to help others'
Meet Paraic Sullivan, the Division 4 footballer who's charting his recovery to set an example
Published 25/04/2015 | 02:30
WHENEVER a GAA superstar goes down with a ruptured cruciate the snap seems to reverberate around the country but, for every Henry and Gooch, there is a handful of players like Paraic Sullivan.
When you ply your trade in the inter-county shallows of Division 4, few take the same notice when the Curse of the Cruciate strikes.
Men like Sullivan (29), at club and county level, face exactly the same experience - the initial dejection, the surgery and then the interminable, lonely, mind-numbing rehab - and harness similar dedication to battle back.
The Offaly defender had cruciate surgery a week ago, his second in eight years. It was the same knee and the timing couldn't be worse.
After tumbling so inelegantly from grace last year Offaly, under new boss Pat Flanagan, have made a mini-recovery, albeit in football's basement, and are headed back to Croker today for a Division 4 final against Longford.
Only last Friday, when he was under the knife, did Sullivan miss county training. He was back, on crutches, on Sunday and will travel with his team-mates today, hors de combat but still part of the team.
If that sounds obsessive you ain't heard nothing yet. His army career took him to Chad for nine months in 2009 and his efforts to keep his touch, in the middle of the Sahara, sounds like something from M.A.S.H.
"Ian Kilbride from Roscommon was also there and about 18 club footballers so we used to train together. We'd just announce 'Gaelic training' over the public address system and head off. There was a clay pitch and goalposts and we did whatever we could," he explains.
Army homecoming scenes - all those hugs and tears at Arrivals - always gladden the heart but Sullivan's was a bit different. His mother, as directed, had his gear-bag in the car and took him straight to club training with Rhode.
They had a county semi-final next day (he came on in the second half) and three weeks later he started the final against Clara.
"I know!" he chuckles. "The rest of the lads were thinking about Ayia Napa and Ibiza and I was going straight to training!"
But that, he stresses, was his choice and he wouldn't have it any other way.
Gaelic football is religion in Rhode and usually also dictates your holiday options.
Johnny Mooney, of Offaly's famous 1982 team, is an uncle of the Sullivans, whose three sons were all on the Faithful senior football panel last year. Shane (31) has since departed but Anton (23), also based in Athlone Barracks, is already a nailed-on starter.
Their generation may have had little inter-county success but the Sullivans have known ecstasy and agony with Rhode.
The club has contested 10 of the last 12 Offaly SFC finals and won seven. Sullivan captained them in his fourth Leinster senior club final last winter - he has lost all four.
His inter-county career has been stop-start for a variety of reasons. He played county U-21 for three years, broke into the senior panel in 2007, tore the cruciate that year and missed most of '08.
He got back on the panel in '09 but then did that tour of duty so it was 2010 before he made his championship debut, against Meath.
That was a rollercoaster summer. Offaly still haven't won a game in Leinster since beating Carlow in 2007 but they took out Clare and Waterford in the 2010 qualifiers and then gave eventual All-Ireland finalists Down an almighty fright in Tullamore, with just two points separating them.
Sullivan's career continued its syncopated path. He went travelling to Australia in 2011; a year later the squad hit the skids and had two managers. Emmet McDonnell took over for 2013 but didn't pick him until last season.
Like today's opponents, Offaly's fortunes fluctuate maddeningly.
Since 2011 every promotion has been followed immediately by relegation and vice versa. They reached the 2013 Division 4 final (lost to Limerick) yet suffered a catastrophic 22-point defeat to Tyrone that summer.
Why do they repeatedly slip back after gaining footholds? Sullivan believes that fewer numbers means injuries or player losses have more repercussions.
Repetitive losses can then lower motivation, fellas don't see a reason for sticking around and it becomes a vicious cycle. He believes their only hope is to set small realistic goals - "like winning all your home games in the league, making your home ground somewhere other teams are afraid of" - and to build slowly but surely.
That is exactly how he is approaching his second cruciate rehab. A touching 12-minute video about Colm Cooper's recovery has prompted him to write a fortnightly blog called 'OnlyTwicePlease' about his own painstaking recovery - he posted his second column yesterday.
"It (cruciate injury) is so prevalent, not just at county level but with club players too," he explains. "I thought if people could follow my recovery, step-by-step, in a blog, that maybe I could help others to get through it."
It is a generous, unselfish gesture from a man who says: "For me football is everything I do in life and I'm sure there's other lads out there in the same position."
Sullivan is no GAA superstar, just a loyal inter-county rank and file player who regards himself as an athlete and has no gripes about the lifestyle. It is second nature to him to pull the foil-wrapped chicken fillet out of his pocket at lunch and take whatever slagging comes.
He transferred to the engineering corps and started a four-year college course in Limerick this year, which means commuting up for county training three times a week.
His recovery will now further complicate those logistics, and before he throws away the crutches next Friday, he faces three days of exams.
Yet he remains unfailingly committed and positive, about his own injury and Offaly football.
"Yes, we're in Division 4 but you have to pitch yourself at the level you want to be. You must have the self-belief that you'll drive on and progress."
To follow Paraic's recovery see 'onlytwiceplease.wordpress.com' or @SullivanParaic on Twitter.