'I wasn't in touch with reality. I was a horrible person' - Dublin hurler Ryan O'Dwyer reveals nightmare following vicious attack in England
"THAT'S when it hit home," Ryan O'Dwyer says, recalling one particularly grave moment in his recent ordeal.
"I knew it was serious," he continues. "But I didn't think it was a matter of life and death."
O'Dwyer has been reluctant to publicly tell before now, despite repeated and in some cases, over-zealous requests from various media outlets, both to him and his family.
But now, just a few days before returning to work for the first time since October 30th, the night he was knocked unconscious outside a Birmingham nightclub, he has as clear a sense of what happened as he's ever likely to.
His is the story of a very differently acquired brain injury. It goes like this:
O'Dwyer and Maurice O'Brien, his former Dublin team mate and fellow primary teacher, decided on a mid-term skite to the Rugby World Cup Final in Twickenham and set off by car for Holyhead the day before.
Upon landing, they deduced it too late to make London at any productive time and Birmingham was thus deemed a handy stop.
"Worst decision I ever made," O'Dwyer says.
He recalls every detail until the punch.
They arrived at around a quarter to midnight, found a Travel Lodge and booked in.
Hit the local. Stayed for one. Moved on.
Closing times being what they are in Birmingham, they were queuing for a nightclub after just one more.
The bouncer's parents, as it happens, was Irish - "mad for chat."
"Then," he says, "all of a sudden - bang - got a slap in the side of the head. I can't remember anything. Fell. Cracked my head. Unconscious."
Fractured skull. Broken jaw. Worst of all, massive bleeding in the brain.
Months later, when shown the CT Scan taken immediately afterwards, O'Dwyer "couldn't actually see a brain."
He laughs that failure to detect a brain in his head didn't require a CT scan, but adds: "you actually couldn't see one."
"It was a dark black."
O'Dwyer was brought to West Bromwich Hospital by ambulance, where he spent a week, but now recalls almost nothing of his time there.
Spare details hit Ireland of O'Dwyer's ordeal but the severity of his condition remained unknown. His brother and fiancé travelled over.
"Cliodhna, my fiancé, was in touch with Chris Thompson. I honestly don't think I'd be alive only for him."
Thompson has been the Dublin team doctor since Anthony Daly's time.
As it happens, his stint with the team finished after their victory over Galway in Parnell Park last Saturday week, due to a change in jobs.
"He was in touch with the specialist in West Bromwich. He said straight out to Cliona, 'when Ryan is ready to come home, when the hospital let him go' - and Ger Cunningham said it too - 'we'll get you back to Ireland.'
"The county board, I swear….you only realise when something like this happens, how good they are. The GAA is a family.
"I've always been treated well but the way I've been treated the last few months, between Chris, John Costello, Fiona Waters....they have been absolutely unbelievable.
"They paid for a taxi from West Bromwich to Hollyhead. I slept all the way there. I woke up to get on to the boat from the taxi and then I slept all the way back to Ireland."
This, he really only fully appreciates now, was not nearly the end of his problems.
"I was under continuous assessment."
"I was sleeping 20 hours a day. I wasn't in touch with reality. I was very irritable.
"I'd be getting cranky with Cliodhna. I was a horrible person."
Thompson, a well-liked and much-respected Endocrinologist in Beaumount Hospital, put O'Dwyer in contact with two neurosurgeons, Dr Donncha O'Brien and Dr Mark Delargy.
It was in a conversation with the former, where O'Dwyer's life or death quote from the top of this piece comes.
"They were being really positive at the start. But later, they also told me how serious it could have been.
"That they've seen situations like mine where people had speech problems or motor skills (issues) or worse."
As it happens, the only fatality is his sense of smell.
"Just looking back now, it was so f***ing scary. I remember at Christmas thinking I was OK then. But I wasn't. I just didn't know."
O'Dwyer has enough self-awareness to know some will draw a line of symmetry between this incident and his reputation for attracting/causing trouble on the hurling pitch.
"There was no interaction at all," he says, without hesitation.
"I'll say straight out. If I'm involved in something, people think I'm the aggressor. But - and maybe for the first time in my life - I was 100 per cent innocent.
"And I would say 'no problem' if I was involved. But I was totally innocent in this. And that's what kills me.
"This was literally, just having a chat and then - bang."
There is, it appears, a court case pending involving his assailant for an incident which happened only minutes beforehand.
"It was there, near Christmas, the nightclub rang me. They said to me 'do you want the CCTV? Do you want to do anything about it?''
"I said 'no'. I wasn't going to press charges. If I did press charges I'd have to be going over and back the whole time.
"And I didn't want all the attention. I didn't want it for me and I didn't want it for my family."
Naturally, he considered jacking in the hurling altogether, particularly given his prolific penchant for finishing a match stitched, concussed or both.
Yet he has decided to keep going for the same reasons others might quit.
"You value life. That's the reason you go back playing hurling. That's what life is.
"It did cross my mind to pack it in, just to make sure I'm here for my son.
"But I think my reason behind it all is, I only get to do this for so long. And I know that I have a very supportive team behind me.
"My family, my fiancé, at work, the Dublin county board, the team and management," O'Dwyer adds.
"You only really appreciate them all when something like this happens."