'One phone call changed mine, my wife's and my children's lives. Just one little call'
David Corkery played for Ireland 27 times before being forced to retire at the age of 27. Behind the public image of an on-field warrior, a chronic lack of self-esteem and the suicide of his father contributed to a downward spiral of depression. He tells Vincent Hogan how a virtual stranger saved him
Published 14/02/2014 | 02:30
His Ma's house. When he walks up the stairs, David Corkery can still see him. Almost involuntarily, he will touch the step where his head rested, as if communicating a silent prayer. What is it he feels at that moment for his father? Guilt. Anger. Grief. A blur of everything.
He sits now, holding a mirror up to his own face. That, at least, is how it feels. Occasionally, the words that tumble out set him crying and you get a glimpse of the wretched journey he has travelled. Even hard men get broken up inside, society just tends to miss the signals.
Corkery reckons a simple phone-call rescued him. And it came from a virtual stranger.
Maybe the blackness was always there, a gentle tide endlessly pressing salt towards his eyes.
Because when he thinks of his life in professional rugby, he thinks largely of physical meanness and tears. It ended for him with two ruptured Achilles tendons inside six months and the paternal kindness of Declan Kidney. When Munster reached the 2000 Heineken Cup final, they brought him with them as part of the official party.
But that trip to London trip-switched all the wrong buttons in his head, suffocating him with self-pity. The night before the game, they had a group discussion subsequently described by Dominic Crotty as "as emotional as an AA meeting." It descended into something Kidney would have hoped to avoid and Corkery considers himself the reason.
With every player encouraged to speak, he found himself crying even before it got to his turn. "Three players away from me and I was already gone," he remembers. "Completely and utterly inconsolable. Part of me didn't even want to be there because I knew I wasn't part of it.
"So, when it came to my turn to speak... ah not a chance. It was bad, too much. I actually think I probably contributed to their downfall the following day (Munster would lose 9-8 to Northampton) because other people started crying then.
"I've had the odd remark since like, 'You lost that game for us...' Because as soon as guys saw me break down, they couldn't speak either."
He played 27 times for his country and was Ireland's Player of the Tournament at the 1995 World Cup. And David Corkery was hard. He tells a story from a brief spell spent with Terenure in the All-Ireland League and the fury triggered by an opponent's boot jolting down upon his chest.
"I just caught his ankle and turned it 360 degrees," he recalls. "Heard every bone crunch and didn't have any remorse while doing it. It was a win, win attitude. If I got split, just stitch me up and I'll go back out.
"I took injections to train, not just to play. I played with broken hands, broken fingers, broken toes, all of which I regret now. But people took that toughness for granted. Often before a game, I'd break into hysterical laughing. I'd know what I was going to do on the pitch, it was almost manic.
"Inflicting pain was the order of the day, that was my job. I was a ball-carrier and a tackler and, apart from that, there wasn't much else there. To be honest, it was nearly a godsend when the Achilles tendons went because the rest of me was in bits.
"I was only 27, but I had five compressed discs in my back and probably had 11 operations on my left knee with no cartilage left whatsoever."
They became the clumsy counter-point to Corkery's rugby story. When he was pack leader with Cork Con, just speaking in the huddle could set him crying. He thinks about that now and wonders what his team-mates must have been thinking.
Hindsight helps him make some sense of it himself. He suffered, he reckons, from a chronic lack of self-esteem. Remembers breaking a window as a child and over-hearing a close relative surmise that "that lad won't amount to anything good."
The words cut him deeper than he understood.
"I was wild as a child, but there was no malice in me whatsoever," he suggests now. "I was always very physical, climbing trees, jumping off houses, breaking the odd window. I'd fall of the bike and be cut or lose a tooth. Looking back, I was hyper-active. But I wouldn't say I was troublesome, I was never in trouble with the police or anything like that.
"But, yeah, I was wild I suppose."
The first real crisis would come with that loss of rugby from his life. He was ill-prepared for retirement and found himself wrestling with a virtual identity crisis. "Not being in that environment anymore killed off a big part of me," he reflects now. "That surreal rugby bubble was gone and nothing could replace it.
"I had to adjust to a whole new way of life and I was not prepared."
Depression stole Sean Corkery from his family in plain sight of a system that seemed to turn the other way.
He worked as a maintenance-fitter with Beamish and Crawford, a happy, sociable man, full of fun and mischief. At work, a few of them plumbed a pipe from one of the vats to the back of a locker so that they could sample the stout at will. Drink, occasionally, traced an irascible side to his personality when he'd arrive home from work and, while it was never physical, never threatening, it did persuade his middle son against ever tasting a single drop.
David was playing professional rugby at Bristol around the time the nightmare started.
To begin with, Sean might miss a day from work, but those absences quickly multiplied and, soon, a day became a week, a week turned into a month. "He was breaking down at work and would have to come home," remembers David. "As a family, we were very ignorant about depression. We just took the medical advice. 'Put him in here; put him in there; we'll try him on this drug; a stronger dose maybe...'"
Sean's free-fall into the blurred world of medicated turmoil seemed to accelerate. He would lurch from extreme highs to long stretches of inability even to pull himself out of bed. Living in England, David felt he was watching the shutters slowly come down on a man quite literally crying out for help.
"He was pumped with drugs and it rotted him from the inside out," he remembers. "The pace that he went downhill was shocking. We'd go to visit him and just to see the way he'd be bent over coming down the corridor... It was the drugs that killed him in my mind. I don't care what anybody says, they just rotted him.
"In the end, he would do silly things like putting a rope around his neck, saying he was going out the back to do something stupid. It always seemed that it was a cry for help, a cry for someone to give him the attention that he needed. But he just sank deeper and deeper and we didn't know what to do. I'd be like, 'C'mon, would you just get up out of bed. What's wrong with you?'
"It was heartbreaking to see the way he went. He just deteriorated, shrivelled into an old man who could barely walk. He became paranoid, thought his room was bugged. I remember these little air vents in the seats and he thought they were microphones. He was hallucinating.
"Looking back, it wasn't him. The medication was stealing him from us, but we didn't know any different. He'd hold your hand and wouldn't let go. He just needed someone who understood what was happening to him. Because we didn't understand."
The day it happened returns now as a blizzard of jagged images.
He remembers settling down to watch a Tri Nations game on the TV and choosing to ignore the sound of his mobile ringing in another room. Then, instantly, the shrill of the landline and a lurching sense that somebody, somewhere needed him urgently.
The voice of a neighbour on the line, "Quick, get up here, your father..."
He remembers the ambulance looking as if it had been parked drunkenly across the driveway, the medics working frantically on the stairs. And he remembers the slow realisation that, just a single day after being released from care, his father was gone.
"Unfortunately, one of his cries for help went too far and he passed away in a manner that will live with us all forever," recalls Sean Corkery's middle son.
Dead at 58.
All his life, David Corkery has been a glass-half-empty type of guy, a prophet of his own misfortune.
As a player, he was dominated by worry. What if my form goes? What if I break a leg? What if the moon falls out of the sky and I'm standing underneath? His nightmare was always of the fairytale coming to an end and being reduced to walking down that quay in Cork into the dole office behind his late father's workplace.
And that's exactly what came to pass, an old voice from his childhood goading " ... that lad won't amount to anything good".
The detail of the fall is, perhaps, best kept private. Suffice to say that after five years as a Development Officer with the IRFU, Corkery went into business with his older brother only for the economic crash to trigger a parting of the ways that brutalised him emotionally.
If his dad's death left an intimate hurt, this took pain to another place.
"It was like being smashed with a hammer," he says now. "It had a bigger impact on me than my father's passing."
That impact revealed itself to have a serrated edge. All the tiny signals pointing to a depressive personality now became blaring sirens. Out of work, he would stay in bed, quietly heartbroken when the twins – Anna and Ava – came in with a good-morning kiss on their way to school.
Jobs were difficult to come by, though hindsight tells him he was looking in all the wrong places.
He cried with his wife Eimear the morning a letter arrived confirming his acceptance for a management position at Tescos in Douglas, but – emotionally – he was still spiralling downward. Corkery would stay in that job a year, meet a lot of good people that to this day he considers friends, yet find himself wishing his life over.
He remembers one day especially, having just returned from 10 days of sun-splashed privilege as an over-35 player at the Bermuda Classic and spending three hours stacking milk in an aisle.
"To me, the place became a concrete prison," he reflects now. "I don't know how you describe having a nervous breakdown, but I'd say I had about 20 in there, just crying, then the sweats.
"I'd literally be talking to someone, feel it coming on and have to get out of sight to the toilet. Hide myself away for a while, then end up drying my shirt with the hand-dryer.
"The alarm clock in the morning felt like the start of a death sentence, it was that awful. When I hear that sound even now, it makes me nauseous. Going down the escalator into work, I used take a deep breath. It was like going under water. I just felt I was a worthless number on a payroll.
"It got to the stage where everything I had done was now worthless, I was worthless. If that sounds like jumped-up s**t to some people, sorry but that's how I felt at the time.
"I had no control. It's a dark, dark hole, a desperate place to be. The demons at night were frightening. I'd wake up in a cold sweat, the sheets literally wringing. I never did anything stupid, but it got to the stage where I questioned if my family would be better off without me. I couldn't see any purpose to me being on this planet anymore.
"I'm ashamed to say I even started thinking that it would be a relief to be told I had a terminal illness or maybe to crash on the way to work. That, at least, would offer me a tidy ending. I just had such a sense of worthlessness."
It was then the phone call came.
He is telling his story now in the hope that there might just be other Hugh O'Donovans out there.
The point is they didn't know one another, at least not beyond the odd, superficial exchange when they'd meet at games in Con. Hugh just happened to notice something. A gentle giveaway in the way Corkery would shrug and instantly wheel away from the simple query, "How are you David?"
A life-coach by profession, he sensed someone broken from the inside.
"To this day, I don't know why he rang me," says Corkery. "I didn't even know his surname at the time. Hugh just saw something. Invited me over to his house and we spent two and a half hours chatting. I poured out my soul to him. I remember he said to me, 'What do you think is going to happen?'
"My answer was, 'Hugh, I have to believe that I'm going to win the lotto. That something good is going to happen because of all the bad.'"
O'Donovan pulled open the blinds on all the innocence and self-pity. Corkery was inclined to lament how none of his old Munster and Ireland rugby team-mates ever bothered to make contact now. "How many of them have you rung?" asked Hugh. The question needed no answer.
O'Donovan's essential message was that, even at their blackest moments, everyone still has choices. There could be, though, no magic wand to wave, just the therapy of talking.
Corkery did, eventually, get professional help, too, and was put on medication that brought almost instant improvement. But, given his father's experience, he chose then to wean himself off the tablets again as soon as he felt sufficiently strong.
Most of the blackness is behind him now, his motivation for speaking being the simple hope that his story might help anyone for whom this narrative carries a familiar, personal echo.
"Hugh gave me a phrase and it's one I live my life by now," says Corkery. "It goes, 'If you always do what you always did, you'll always get what you always got.' That reverberates in my mind every single day. It's changed my life.
"He made me realise that the golden ticket doesn't exist just because of what you've done in the past. To an extent, I thought the world owed me something. I was waiting to win the lotto or get cancer. To me, it would have felt like one and the same thing, that's how bad I was. But I was too proud to admit I was in trouble. I'd played for my country, I was a big man, a hard man, all this.
"I could beat any problem, I tackled Jonah Lomu for f**k's sake!"
He left the job he didn't enjoy and, taking a roundabout route, eventually settled into one he loves, selling sports medical devices with Vivomed. He kept writing his column with the 'Evening Echo' too, albeit his candour would come at the cost of some old friendships. And, after previous spells with Con and (unhappily) Midleton, he went back coaching rugby at Sunday's Well.
Then, in getting himself fit for another trip to Bermuda, Corkery even got sucked back into the bullpen.
Some weeks ago, he played AIL for the first time in 14 seasons. The Well were down on numbers so, at 41, he played against Midleton, then Suttonians. They won both games.
"There's going to be a lot of people stunned when they read this interview," he says. "But the point I want to make is how one phonecall changed mine, my wife's and my children's lives. One little call."
If it hadn't come, where would he be now?
"I honestly don't know," he sighs.
Still married to Eimear?
"If I wasn't, it would probably be my choice, not hers," he says quietly. "Because of the pain I was putting her through, I knew she wasn't enjoying life. I could be a real a**hole, almost wanting her to suffer because I had to. I knew it wasn't a healthy environment to be in. We never came close to that (splitting) ever and I don't think she would have ever jumped ship. She's not that type.
"She's been a massive, massive part in getting me back to where I am. But I would probably have left for her sake. And if I had done that, it would have been the end of me."