No other sport can match the family ethos amongst a panel of GAA players. We often grow up, attend school and work alongside our team-mates. The bond that develops is huge and, like brothers, we look out for each other on the field.
Last year I had my first taste of playing alongside an actual family member -- an experience I'll never forget.
As the game got going I found myself looking around and checking on the brother. He was at corner-back for his first taste of adult football. He was fresh out of minor, an absolute machine. I'd never seen a faster player, he'd an engine on him like a Toyota Hilux and by God was he fit. He was marking Chopper Smyth, an ex-county player with a reputation for being a thug. His speed had gone and his arse had grown, and he was now about as quick as a wet Monday. He tried to make up for this with sly digs and verbal abuse.
It was a strange feeling; every time the ball went into the corner I found myself panicking. You always look out for your team-mates, but this was different. Blood is thicker than water. I remembered Mammy's words as we'd left the house an hour earlier, "Look after that gosson."
A high, floating pass was launched into the corner. Chopper managed to manoeuvre himself in front after some tactical jersey-pulling and reached out to make the catch. The brother was now riding him from behind as the ball approached, one hand in the air and one hand across Chopper's neck.
I thought, 'Jesus, don't give him an excuse to . . . '
Bang. Just as the referee's whistle sounded to award him a free-in, Chopper sharply delivered the butt of his elbow with military precision, onto my brother's nose. Both players were surrounded in an instant.
"Has to go ref."
"He didn't touch him, get up you coward."
"Did you see that ref?"
I didn't care if he'd seen it or not, I'd seen it. As I sprinted from midfield towards the melee, I lost all awareness of where I was. I'd never been so full of rage and I gritted my teeth as I bounded down the pitch. I was like a bull -- if there'd been a wall on the '45 I would have gone straight through it.
Out of the corner of my eye I spotted the brother. He was kneeling down in the middle of the skirmish with his hands over his nose trying to stop the blood; he'd be grand, he was a trooper. It was a pathetic enough row it has to be said. There were a few lads holding each other's collars and sticking their chests out, handbags at best. Well, it was about to get a lot more heated.
"Smyth, you fat bastard, you're a dead man. Come here and do that to me!"
I didn't stop running as I roared at him. I brushed off the weak attempts by both sets of players to stop me. The red mist had set in. I swung like Tiger Woods going for the green in two. Smyth had his back to me but spun around just as my clenched fist got acquainted with his jaw. I'd never put more effort into anything in my life. His legs crumbled beneath him and he dropped like the price of a South Dublin house. I ended up on my arse. I sprang to my knees and turned around to see Smyth star-fished on the ground.
"Now you cowardly . . . "
A terrible pain shot down my forearm as I was smashed with a kick from the right-hand side.
"You little bollox!" was the cry from our manager as he lunged in the direction of my assailant. More and more bodies joined the huge ruck as I sat on the ground clutching my arm and offering some words of encouragement.
I turned to look at my brother, the only other conscious player on the field not involved in the cloud of flailing arms and legs. He was standing up now; holding his jersey around his crooked nose.
"According to that nose of yours, it's nine o'clock."
"Shut up. You're some gobshite. Dad is going to lift you out of it. Smyth's out cold over there."
"I was only looking out for you lad."
"Is that . . .?"
I could only watch in amazement as the local postmistress made a beeline for the brawl, merely a week after celebrating her 80th in the local pub. Things were getting serious.
* * * * *
Two weeks later, I was up before the CCCC and facing head-on into a hefty ban. I'd been identified by several people as the catalyst for an incident that had resulted in four concussions, a shattered jaw, countless broken ribs, a dozen lost teeth and a cracked hip (the postmistress had fallen over on her way to join in). I sat in silence outside the meeting room with our club chairman, waiting to be called in.
"You're looking at six months here, best-case scenario," he said quietly. I was sick to the stomach. It was only dawning on me now that I was in real trouble. Six months without football? I couldn't imagine it.
The conference room door creaked open in front of us and a bearded man in a suit called our names. I caught my reflection in the mirror on the way in, I was sweating and the make-up on my collar from a wedding the week previous was worryingly obvious. I pulled up my tie as we walked into the room. There were two empty chairs at the end of a long table, around which sat the referee, his umpires and a handful of spectators, some still sporting black eyes and bruised lips. At the top of the table were the stern-looking provincial board members, sitting either side of the chairman who had the top chair. "It couldn't be?" I whispered to our chairman.
Sitting in the president's seat was none other than Ciarán Browne, an ex-teacher of mine who had coached our college team to win the provincial title just six years earlier. We made eye contact. Browne remained stone-faced, but gave the slightest tip of his head.
As the meeting started, I relaxed and stared out the window with a smile on my face; day-dreaming about kicking points in Croke Park and the banter at training the following day.
"I think we're being very harsh here gentlemen . . ."
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