'Some lads are on the edge; they are suicidal and that's the truth'
Concerns that many former players are in trouble has sparked a new group into action, writes Damian Lawlor
It's been a difficult few years for Joe Kernan. In September 2010, his estate agent's business was declared bankrupt. It hit him and the family hard. Aaron, his son, was a company director and had six sessions of counselling to help deal with the fallout.
Any newspaper Big Joe picked up had his affairs all over its pages. Watching TV with his family one night, he saw the bankruptcy pop up as one of the lead news bulletins. He shook his head and reached for the remote.
"That was the lowest night," he says. "Our crime was simply that we bought too much. That was it. The business had run for years; it was successful. But we over-stretched ourselves and then the crash came.
"For two years we tried to plough through it, do the honourable thing, but you'd swear we were criminals with some of the treatment we received. I had always been good to the Irish News, for example, but they devoted three pages of coverage to the business going. I had never agreed with media bans in my time as a manager, I always co-operated fully with the media. And to get that? The night we saw it on the news was the worst point of it all. I was in a very dark place. I'm lucky the family is so strong."
Kernan is back on his feet now, involved in a new business and is managing Crossmaglen too. It helps that he is hugely popular.
Surely, such a well-known and liked family didn't have far to reach for help?
"I have met thousands of people in my life," says Kernan. "I'd like to think that I've helped hundreds in that time and I know I have. Apart from family, my life has been devoted to the GAA. But I couldn't name more than four people who were there for me. I couldn't fill one hand with the names of people I could turn to. But look, that's life."
Two-time All-Ireland winner Bernard Flynn is sitting across from Kernan. He interjects. "That is life and it's nothing personal, Joe."
Flynn continues: "I'm going through something similar now," he says, referring to part of his own business. "I had to get my hip replaced and I lost my business – all in the space of two years. I'm trying to fight my way out of it now, trying to do all the things I have to do – hang onto the family home, look after my wife and kids. Look, I was the only one who got myself into this mess, I have to get out of it."
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THE stories of Bernard Flynn and Joe Kernan are far from unique in the GAA, this much quickly becomes obvious as the pair break away to chat about other ex-players who have fallen on hard times.
Flynn is secretary of the Past Players Advisory Group, chaired by Tony Hanahoe and established by the GPA to look out for former players. Flynn estimates there are 24,000 former inter-county players out there at present. The committee, he says, is intent on setting up a benevolent fund to help those in greatest need.
And some of the stories of those in need are horrific, and though the committee is only in its infancy they have received umpteen applications for help.
"Absolutely gut-wrenching what's happening," Kernan says. "Bernard, you'll have to give the specifics; I'm not comfortable even talking about what's happening."
Flynn leans forward and lowers his voice. "I've literally had to pick men up off the floor," he says. "Strong men that I would have played against. I would have thought they were able to cope, but they've broken down in front of me. That's hard to accept. The cases are just cruel.
"One hurler from a Leinster county played for his team for 12 years and can't eat without help now. He needs €15,000 worth of work on his teeth which were destroyed during his hurling career. But he comes from a lesser known hurling county and doesn't know where to turn.
"Another ex-manager and player who applied for help has lost his sight and is in a wheelchair. The man's quality of life is dreadful and there is no money at home. They are proud people. That we can't come and help them is not acceptable.
"The applications range from those severe cases to one I got in the post last week with a well-known footballer of old simply looking for a hip replacement. That might seem straightforward but he can't get it done as he has no health insurance. The operation costs between €16,000 and €21,000 and he's caught."
Michael Duignan joins the conversation. He has recently been co-opted onto the past players alliance, which also features Seamus Darby, Kevin O'Neill, Colm Honan and Seánie Walsh. The Offaly man says the time has come to help those warriors who invigorated Gaelic games over the years and who cannot cope for one reason or another in difficult times.
"From my own experience, I found it such a wrench to leave Offaly hurling," he admits. "I had 15 years in the inter-county zone; in the middle of that I was married and had kids. You become a selfish person. If it's not the county you're obsessed with it's the club. You get married the day after a county semi-final and you're back from honeymoon for the final. I was living in Naas, working in Dublin and had a two-hour commute to and from training three times a week.
"When all that stopped, I didn't know what to do. There was nothing there and I was out beering to fill the void. I tried golf to fill the gap but the next thing is you're asked to present prizes and you're still out three nights, away from your family. You stay the night at the function and have a few pints. Trying to fill gap without knowing it. Maybe if there was something in place to help players ease into retirement it would be great. I know the GPA are looking at that now but it's something that the Past Players Advisory Group could really look at.
"The bottom line is we're addictive in sport. We have a sort of half-mad, manic drive to compete at the top level. Hence, some lads go off the rails when it all ends.
"It's grand for me. I've had my personal and business problems but I'm well known, I'm on The Sunday Game and my profile has always been high. But these days lads are being turned away from jobs because they are GAA players. Employers say they can't give full commitment. That's what's facing our current players. They are staying in college six or seven years, but they will come out of there, many of their careers will end before 30 and they'll be like us, not knowing what to do with themselves.
"Some fellas will inevitably fall on hard times and I've seen lads struggle with addiction, alcohol and personal stuff. We're all great to talk, but I can't see why we can't help now. We have a huge past players' network but we don't seem to help each other. There doesn't seem to be a system. The GPA has set this group up but what are we trying to achieve? Why don't we say, 'You played your heart out, you filled grounds all over Ireland and you gave your life to the game – let's help you now that you're in a hard place'."
The point is made that the GAA has opened lots of doors for all three men – All-Ireland medals, All Star trips, media work, and glory days. At a time when so many people in the country are finding things hard, why the big deal just because you were once an inter-county player?
"That's a fair point, none of us here can argue with that," Flynn says, "but what about the small farmer from Carlow, Louth or Kildare who gave all – if not more than us – and got none of the above? We gave our lives to the GAA and the GAA gave back but there are thousands of others who totally neglected their own education and left school with the aim of making the county team and nothing else.
"Those lads – and I am one of them – are totally unemployable at the moment. They are looking at going back to college at 40 and 50, and again that applies to me. But we are constantly fundraising in this country anyway; there are four or five fun runs every weekend, so what's wrong with one day a year focusing on a drive for past players?
"It's not as if the GAA, and GAA players, don't help charities anyway. For four years out of the past six, we have ran the GAA Legends golf tour and we have raised close to €300,000 in that time. That's not going ahead this year so we have to try something else. We're not criticising anyone for not getting behind us – this is just something that needs to happen now. Those 20,000 former players should come together as one."
Kernan adds: "Those golf trips only opened a door to the bigger problems that lads have. We are not saying we can work miracles, but let's do something. My son, Stephen, has been told he could end up in a wheelchair before he is 40 if he keeps playing, for example. We need to hear about these issues and pre-empt things."
Duignan agrees. "The rugby lads help each other and not a word about it. We are different type of players in the GAA – guys are quieter and shy. And so we don't always get to hear about their problems until it's too late."
To ram home the point that former players deserve help and support, Flynn produces an actuary's report based on the career of an inter-county player between the age of 18 and 34.
"It shows that a player could lose up to €120,000 in that time, as a result of their commitment to hurling and football," the former Meath player says. "That includes loss of overtime, shift and bonus payments, promotional prospects, depreciation on car, wear and tear on bodies, tax variables. It's something that needs to be considered."
Multi-All-Ireland winner Seánie Walsh, whose son Tommy is playing in the AFL with the Sydney Swans, says that while the Past Players Advisory Group is in its infancy, the role it can play in the future is colossal.
"I've only seen lately the great work that goes into player welfare and issues like that," he says. "So there's no reason why the same can't apply to former players who are struggling. I'm involved because it's something I care about. My own hip had to be replaced years ago but I was lucky to have it covered by private health insurance. That's my biggest worry – that so many people can't afford that cover. I feel we have to do something to help."
The first major fundraising drive will take place at the Phoenix Park on September 19, 2014. "We're holding a 15k walk and we're encouraging 5,000 people to raise €200 each," Flynn says. "We'll have a website running soon and we hope to get as many past players – and their wives and families – on board as possible. We all do fun runs and walks anyway, so why not support our own? We've received support from Minister for Arts Jimmy Deenihan and big music acts are lined up. The aim is to raise €1m over the next 18 months, and this event will be the focus of all that."
Duignan says the money will be spread around as much as possible to where it's needed, and they are going to great lengths to make sure of that.
"Apart from the executive, we hope to have a leader in every county with a sub-committee of four to five people," he says. "That way we get to hear about problems on the ground. We'll have adjudicators and trustees – hopefully including representatives from the GAA and GPA who will decide whether to administer financial support and other support, such as counselling. Everything will be properly administrated and transparent. Lots of our own people don't have a shilling so why not help? We shouldn't be ashamed."
Kernan says the first goal will be to assure people that there is somewhere to turn, including for business advice. "Christ, if I'd have had those structures in place I would have filed for bankruptcy years earlier. The day I was declared bankrupt, it was like two weights were lifted off my shoulder. I think I could see a chink of light by that evening. We're back up and running again now, we've turned it around. Some people just need to be pointed in the right direction. The likes of Oisín McConville has turned his life around after a gambling addiction. Oisín amazed me how he played football with all that in the background. He hid it well – from both me and his family.
"We knew he had a problem but we didn't know how big. He was lucky; he had a good family behind him and I would say Oisín has done more than anyone in Ireland to help others. I've given his number to hundreds of people and he should be used more by the GAA. We have all been in dark places, and we don't know if there is light. There's an embarrassment factor if you're in debt, gambling, or drinking or just in trouble. If we even helped one person, this group would be a success."
Flynn is not afraid to say that former hurlers and footballers falling on bad times has now reached epidemic proportions.
"This is not a blame game," he says. "We all did what we wanted to over the years and I just wanted to play with Meath. But we're starting to see more and more families hit a brick wall. It was the spirit of Seán Boylan, Colm O'Rourke, Robbie O'Malley and those lads that has helped me in my darkest days but what we are seeing now on this committee would bring tears to a stone.
"I've made mistakes but that's life. You make your bed and lie in it. I'm a big boy and I'm in the middle of trying to get out of it. I've won All-Ireland medals and All Stars but the hardest job I had was going home and trying to be a good dad.
"But some lads are on the edge; they are suicidal and that's the truth. We have to sit these lads down, give them help and expertise and put them on the right road."