Brave Connellan has faced tougher challenges than Dubs
Ray Connellan pinpoints the first day on his road to recovery. It didn't happen overnight, but this was the watershed moment for a young man at breaking point.
The Westmeath footballer is 26 now, fit and healthy and delighted to embrace the ultimate sporting challenge - a date with the Dubs in Portlaoise tomorrow.
Back then he was a fifth-year student in Athlone Community School and the walls were closing in.
"I used to miss a lot of school, through maybe not sleeping very much. I'd an awful problem sleeping. Just worrying over everything. Little kinds of inconsequential things would drive me up the wall at night," he explains.
He needed to tell someone. But who?
Joe Fallon, of Athlone and Westmeath football fame, was a friendly face on the teaching staff and would have been the obvious candidate. Except Fallon was too close; Connellan couldn't face the embarrassment.
"I went to a teacher that I had absolutely no relationship with. I needed to tell a stranger," he explains.
"I asked to go to the bathroom in class one day. Walked through the corridor. And I just got really overwhelmed. I was walking past the chaplain's office and I just turned in and I was like, 'I'm in f****** bits here, I really need help.'
"And that was when it was addressed. And immediately then I didn't have to pretend that I was okay."
The challenge facing Connellan and his Westmeath colleagues this weekend is beyond daunting; as much psychological as physical. Dublin, the team that cannot lose in Leinster, are coming to O'Moore Park as 1/500 favourites to open the Dessie Farrell championship era with another routine victory.
Connellan was a rising star in 2015 when Westmeath lost a Leinster final to you-know-who by 13 points. One summer later, in his last outing before departing for a new adventure in Aussie Rules, he broke his leg in two places; in his second-half absence, the Dubs shattered Westmeath's initial resistance to win by 15.
Tomorrow will be his first SFC appearance since that 2016 Leinster final. Now the Athlone clubman is back from Melbourne, back in college - and back playing county football.
He remembers hearing an interview with Gavin before that 2015 decider. "He kind of earmarked myself, Kieran Martin, (John) Heslin and (Paul) Sharry - and I was kind of thinking, 'Oh Jesus, that's like a compliment.'
"Then I went out to play and I had James McCarthy following me around - literally. I remember getting a ball back in the half-back line, hand-passing to our corner-back, turning to run, and just being met by James. And that happened over and over and over again."
Yet the thought of renewing acquaintance with Dublin doesn't leave him in a cold sweat.
"You want to perform at the highest level you can, so I think that's what drives you," he says. "I love that we have Dublin in the first round.
"That's an opportunity for every individual Westmeath player to go out and play against what's deemed to be the best player opposite them in the country. So, for us, I'd be looking at that Dublin game more as a performance standard. How do you hold up against the best? The result will come secondary after that."
"From 16-19 I struggled to breaking point with depression and anxiety. I missed school/exams/ sport - all because I couldn't handle my own issues. Once I opened up to people around me, a weight was lifted. There was no pressure to pretend to be okay anymore. If you're reading this and struggling, let it be the trigger to go to someone you trust and open up. Life gets so much better once you do." @ConnellanRay
This tweet - posted on World Mental Health Day, October 10 - was the first clue for this reporter of the battles faced by Connellan in his late teens. When we meet, he exudes the openness and positivity of someone at peace with himself and at ease with the world.
Opening up about his problems wasn't easy for the younger Connellan. He couldn't have done this interview five or six years ago. Nor could he have gone back to his old school and spoke to sixth-year students about mental health. But once you do it once it gets easier.
He traces back his own issues to an 18-month period. In September 2009 one of his good friends, Karl Ashe, died suddenly in his sleep. The previous evening, a Friday, they had been on opposing sides in an under-age local derby between Athlone and Tubberclair. Connellan played a soccer match that Saturday morning and, coming off the field, he was told the devastating news.
Then, in a relatively short time, he lost his three surviving grandparents. For a teenager, this confluence of sad events got on top of him.
"I kind of got used to being a bit glum," he recounts. "And then I started to realise that I was getting quite anxious in school …And I'd just start having panic attacks. For a long time that was just happening up in my room, and I wouldn't say anything to anyone. And it gradually got worse, to quite a serious point where I had to leave school and I didn't sit any of my fifth-year exams.
"I could have recognised it earlier but didn't. And then, all of a sudden, it floored me."
Breaking his silence didn't "fix the problem" or make it go away, but if lifted the corrosive veil of secrecy. The chaplain approached his parents, Paul and Mary, and this "made it easier for me then, it opened up that conversation."
From there on, whenever he was feeling bad, he could tell his parents. Even still, all through sixth year was a struggle. At one point he was prescribed anti-depressants; he appreciates they can work for some people, but not him: "I used to walk into school feeling like a zombie. It was like they just drained all the life out of me."
By the end of sixth-year he was feeling "pretty positive". He sat his Leaving Cert and then, in the autumn, made his way to UCD.
"I was staying in digs, just past Stillorgan on the N11, and I remember there was nights there just having full-on panic attacks.
"I rang my parents about four o'clock in the morning one night. I was freaking out. And Dad drove straight up to Dublin."
His parents were "worried sick"; he was worried himself. He spent the next year living at home
At which point, John Egan became the unsung hero. Egan was an Athlone teammate and the families were close; he was the type who "walks into our house and goes straight to the fridge!"
Connellan expands: "John just started saying, 'Do you want to start coming to the gym with me?' And at this stage I was 18, I had never lifted a weight … I was going to the gym with him every single day, and I started realising that I was just feeling better."
Being active and exercising: for Connellan, it works. It's not the only thing. "Recognising triggers" that cause anxiety or stress is key.
Safe to say, sport is in the Connellan genes. His father Paul, a native Dub, played League of Ireland soccer with Dundalk. All four children have excelled in sport. David, the eldest, spent several years playing Pro D2 - the second tier of French club rugby. Eimear represented Westmeath in ladies football.
His older brother John was parachuted onto the Westmeath senior team in 2006 and made waves in another code: a schoolboy soccer international coveted by many across the water. Ray remembers a slew of letters from Premier League and Championship clubs; he was on trial with Liverpool, Celtic, Wigan, Charlton and Arsenal.
"I always looked up to John as this superstar big brother."
Much later, they shared a few precious years in the same Westmeath dressing room. He wished it could have been longer: "John has been injured forever! He would say that himself." Yet they were both on the Croke Park pitch in 2015 when Westmeath completed that epic, history-making comeback against Meath.
A year later, the Ray's career took another turn. He had already agreed a rookie contract with St Kilda before that Leinster final mishap in 2016, but he recovered quickly and set about trying to prove himself in an alien sport.
All told, he spent three years in Australia but never got to make the elusive AFL breakthrough.
He still doesn't regret the move, even while believing he "fell short" of his potential.
Connellan came home for a few months but was determined to give it more one go. He signed semi-pro terms with Essendon's VFL side, tempted by the carrot that, in 2019, there would be a mid-season AFL draft for the first time.
After five or six games he was "absolutely buzzing" … and then, about five weeks out from the draft, he ripped his hamstring. Disaster. Now in his mid-20s, holding out for the "slim maybe" of a 2020 contract no longer seemed like a viable option. He spoke to Essendon and told them straight up: "I need to go back and sort out life at home now." And that's how he now finds himself back playing for Westmeath.