Sunday 25 August 2019

Joe Brolly: You are unlikely to fall off a cliff if you stay grounded

Henry Shefflin: ‘I can’t imagine what it must be like for a professional sportsman or woman to retire and adjust to life after sport’. Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile
Henry Shefflin: ‘I can’t imagine what it must be like for a professional sportsman or woman to retire and adjust to life after sport’. Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile
Joe Brolly

Joe Brolly

Paul McGinley has been helping me with a fundraising project for a hospice. He texted me from California on Friday morning with stunning pictures of Cypress Point golf course as he played it, each image more beautiful than the last. "Amazing place Joe. I've played it before but was so caught up in preparing for my game and playing that I never really saw it. Never drank in the sheer beauty."

It reminded me of a conversation I had once with the great cyclist Paul Kimmage. We were cycling through the Alps, chatting and soaking up the wondrous views. I said to him that it must have been amazing to see the world from his bike. "Are you joking Joe? All I ever saw was the arse of the man in front of me."

Professional sports create this problem. Win at all costs is now the only thing that matters. It has become an exclusive demand, obliterating every other part of life. Obliterating the really important things in life, like building relationships, building a career, socialising, collaborating with other people and, of course, partying. In short, finding out who you are.

When the great Olympic heptathlete Denise Lewis retired, having won gold in Sydney, she said: "When I achieved it, there was an emptiness. A void. I just don't know what to do with myself now. I'm very much on my own. What am I going to do?" It is a common theme.

The absolute focus on winning removes the important things like joy, the value of participation and doing good for others. These are the things that make being human worthwhile. It explains why many professional athletes succumb to depression, become demoralised and cannot see why ordinary life is worth living. Because there is so much self-sacrifice during their formative years, they really are only able to think of themselves. As the Hall of Fame US baseball player Sandy Koufax said after he retired and found himself in the void, a life of professional sport is "a self-liquidating life". Statistical research carried out in the US makes for scary reading. The suicide rate among retired NFL footballers is six times the national average. The divorce rate for professional athletes across the board in the US is 70 per cent. Doping is now par for the course. Why wouldn't it be? When winning is the only thing that matters, then nothing else does. Long-term health, relationships, down-time, fun, all become irrelevant. The Olympic Games, pro cycling, etc are merely a showcase for the success of state-of-the-art doping techniques. When a player retires from a professional team, or is traded, he is nothing. That is because he or she was only ever a commodity. From nothing they come, unto nothing they return.

The bubble they live in is seriously unhealthy. It is why I have railed against what is happening with many county squads. Just last week, a squad member from one of the Ulster teams texted me on condition of anonymity, to say that the senior manager had called a meeting of the 'extended panel', that is a group of players not in last year's panel, who had an interest in playing football for the county. At it, they were told that they would not be able to play or train with their clubs until championship was over, they could not play university football, and they would have to be prepared to sit on the bench for up to three years. Add in the drink ban, the 24/7 training regime and they were signing up to a gloomy, all-consuming cult. His text ended: "Most of the sad bastards there were up for it."

Marouane Fellaini, the Manchester United player, was in the news last week. He is suing his boot sponsor New Balance for £2m, because the boots they provided him with were "uncomfortable" and sometimes "hurt his feet". The claim in London's High Court alleges that the boots they initially sent him had to be "steamed and stretched" by the club kit-man before they would fit properly. After missing three easy headers mid-week, perhaps he should sue the maker of his forehead. Maybe the United kit-man could steam and stretch it too?

I had many great years working with Paul Byrnes on The Sunday Game. He has since left RTE and has just written a book called At The End of the Day, in which he interviews retired sportsmen and women. The striking thing about it is the vast difference between the experience of the Gaelic footballers and hurlers, compared to the professional sportspeople he spoke with. The legendary jockey Tony McCoy summed up the experience of the professionals. He said: "I've heard that a sportsperson is the only person who dies twice. This is so true . . . When I get up in the morning now I just think what's the point, what has my life come to, how do I replace racing, with what? But the reality is it's not coming back." He is beginning to see that being legendary is a figment of someone else's imagination.

Contrast Tony with the greatest ever Irish sportsperson. Henry Shefflin had the perfect career. By any standards, it was flawless. Ten All-Irelands, three Hurler of the Year awards (spanning a decade from 2002-12), three All-Ireland club titles, 11 All Stars, and the highest championship scorer in history. Jimmy Barry Murphy said once that Henry was the greatest hurler he had ever seen, and he had seen Christy Ring playing. God damn it, the man has his own portrait in the National Gallery. But Henry's experience of retirement sums up the difference between the GAA and professional sport.

He told Byrnes: "Filling the void hasn't been a big issue for me at all, as I just went back to the club after retiring from inter-county. I've replaced 'the void' by spending more time with my family and focusing on my job with Bank of Ireland. Like most GAA players, you get up on Monday morning and go to work. I can't imagine what it must be like for a professional sportsman or woman to retire and adjust to life after sport."

I have had the great pleasure of getting to know Henry over the last two years. It is unlikely he will ever sue a hurley manufacturer because he missed some frees.

Slaughtneil's captain Chrissy McKaigue was interviewed on Off The Ball last week by Ger Gilroy, for me the country's best anchor. No ban on player interviews in Slaughtneil. In the course of a free-wheeling half-hour, he spoke openly about the manager's style and analytical approach, the way the team plays, and his own philosophy on the game. He was relaxed, fun and clearly enjoying everything about his club, community and adventure.

Chrissy is a fantastic underage coach, both with his club and school St Mary's, where I know he puts in an enormous amount of time after school with the kids. This is because he is connected to the world around him, traditionally the great strength of the GAA. Central to his life is the importance of community. He explained to Gilroy that no one leaves Slaughtneil to work abroad or away from home as they have a structure in place to make sure they look after their own. The local employers employ the locals. He said that he was the last generation who couldn't speak Irish, that with the advent of the Irish school, everyone coming up after him is a fluent speaker. He talked about the satisfaction of living in such a vibrant community. When he retires from the games, he will continue to teach, a job he loves, coach the youngsters and in due course the adults in his own club.

Like Henry Shefflin, Chrissy will not fall off a cliff into the void. Tomorrow morning, no matter what happens in today's Ulster final against Cavan Gaels, he will go to his work as normal. This is the real beauty of the GAA, the prospect of playing the games we love as part of a balanced life, where our young men and women don't end up on the scrap heap. A life where we smell the coffee every day, and don't spend the best years of our lives staring at the arse in front of us.

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