Finding courage in adversity
A freak accident dashed a Tipp hurler's dreams but it gives a stark reminder of the importance of wearing helmets, which becomes obligatory from January 1, writes Jackie Cahill
THERE'S an old profile of William Maher in 'Sidelines', the magazine of Waterford IT GAA club which used to be circulated on campus.
It dates back to September 1998, when Maher had the hurling world at his feet as a long and distinguished career in the game beckoned.
By then, he had already achieved a lot, having captained Tipperary's minors to All-Ireland glory from midfield in 1996.
That same year, the Ballingarry native had also helped famed Kilkenny academy St Kieran's to All-Ireland colleges glory.
Maher recalls that Henry Shefflin was on that team, Mick Kavanagh too.
Jimmy Coogan, Aidan Cummins, Sean Dowling and David Carroll, son of the late Ted Carroll, who won All-Ireland medals with Kilkenny before serving as county secretary, were other well-known stars.
Life was good and the graph continued in an upward curve for Maher when he moved on to Waterford IT, with whom he would win two Fitzgibbon Cups.
His course there was Leisure and Recreation Management and the 'Sidelines' profile asked the usual questions -- favourite food, favourite actor/actress, honours to date, ambitions in life and sport.
For the most part, it was breezy, light-hearted stuff but beside the heading 'Advice to young players', Maher put forward his view that "you only get out of the game what you put into it."
He also urged anybody playing the game to "always wear a helmet."
After a memorable stint at WIT, Maher decided upon a HDip in Education at UCD, in order to become a secondary school teacher.
By that stage, he was already the proud holder of a National Hurling League medal with Tipperary's seniors, as a sub in the 1999 success.
The game dominated his life but it was to deal him a cruel hand on a damp February afternoon in 2002.
Maher was teaching nearby and on his way to grab some food before afternoon lectures, he came upon a training session in progress on one of Belfield's many pitches.
He had some gear in the car but scanning the front and back seats, he realised that he had no helmet with him at the time.
But this was just a training session, surely the risk of injury was minimal and Maher, for the first time in his life, decided to take a chance without the protective headgear.
The consequences were catastrophic and his tale is a salutary lesson to any player who might feel hard done by or thinks he's being forced to wear a helmet next year against his wishes.
A stray belt caught him flush on the left eye, literally smashing his socket.
He recalls: "The ball stuck in the ground, the lad pulled but the ball stayed where it was. He pulled again and I was right behind him and was caught at the top end of the pull.
"It was a complete accident. If I was wearing a helmet, I would have been fine.
"The second I got the belt I knew I was in serious trouble."
Pointing to his just below his left eyebrow, he adds: "If I was hit there full belt I could have got 10 or 20 stitches but there was not much blood, I think I got two stitches, so I knew that I was in trouble."
Luckily, St Vincent's hospital wasn't too far away and Dave Billings, who Maher is hugely grateful to for his support throughout the ordeal, made sure that he was moved there quickly.
"I was perfectly conscious and I can remember lying in a bed in St Vincent's.
"The pain was excruciating. I couldn't even begin to explain it."
That stroke of terrible misfortune fundamentally changed Maher's life.
Up until then, hurling and everything to do with the game dominated his thinking and shaped his days.
Major surgery followed in an attempt to repair his shattered left eye but just 10-15pc vision eventually returned.
"First of all the eye had to be put back together some way, because it was completely crushed," he recalls.
"There were two or three operations to save as much as they could. Then it was a case of lying on my side or my front for a couple of days to let the retina attach again.
"I was at home for a month or two to recuperate but I had to get back on the horse again and try to get a job, which I was lucky enough to find."
Without hurling, Maher decided to take his life in a new direction.
Fiercely competitive and hugely optimistic by nature, he decided that secondary school teaching wasn't the road for him and duly set new challenges.
He explained: "I rang Richard Stakelum (former Tipperary captain and current Dublin U-21 selector) and found out that he was a sales manager with Bristol Myers Squibb, a pharmaceutical company.
"I interviewed with Richard and was lucky enough to get the job, which meant another big shift and it made me do something else."
Maher eventually moved on to Amgen, the world's leading biotechnology company, and life has never been better for this softly spoken 30-year-old who accepted what came his way, dealt with it and moved on.
Maher found the buzz in the ultra-competitive world of pharmaceutical and biotech sales intoxicating while running and other physical activities kept the body fit and the mind fresh.
But once his life returned to some semblance of normality following the injury, he always craved some sort of on-field closure from the game he loved.
A decision to help out his beloved Ballingarry, a few years after he had last picked up a hurl, afforded him that opportunity.
Maher reflected: "It was a big risk to do it but I needed to say look, that's it.
"We played a Munster league final I think it was, against Na Piarsaigh down in Fermoy.
"I came on and I was very nervous. When the first ball dropped, I pulled but I didn't know where I was pulling.
"I wasn't used to guys around me, and doing things like that.
"It was very different -- when you're young you don't think about things but I was thinking about exactly what I was doing and the risks associated with that."
Since then, Maher has forged a promising coaching career and two years ago he was involved with Dublin's minors while he also spent two years managing Ballingarry's minors while living in the capital.
Working with his home club, Maher got to run the rule over a host of Tipperary's most promising young players and his bank of knowledge will stand him in good stead when he works alongside Ken Hogan with the county's U-21s in 2010.
Maher's never looked back in anger on that fateful February afternoon almost eight years ago and his courage and humility in the face of adversity provide a shining example to those who may find themselves in a similar position.
He's always looked on the bright side, grateful that he can walk, talk and run while his father Martin, mother Anne and his four younger sisters have provided constant love and support.
He's also getting married next year to Linda Caulfield from Wexford Town, the former Ireland Ladies hockey international team captain who retired with 151 caps to her name.
So the future promises good things for William Maher, whose boundless enthusiasm for life is thoroughly infectious.
He knows that he could still be hurling at the top level alongside and against some of the greats he rubbed shoulders with in his teenage years but he rarely, if ever, thinks about that now.
He smiles: "Life is tough enough and lots of different things happen.
"There are lads I was in school with or played with at club or county level and they're only getting better.
"But it's about moving on -- we can never dwell on negatives. "It's not worth doing -- you'll get nowhere."