'Beating cancer made me more positive' - John McGrath beat the toughest opponent of all... leukaemia
Amhrán na bhFiann never sounded so good, music from the heavens blasting out over a field in north-west London on a spring afternoon in April 2012.
Facing the tricolour and standing to attention, John McGrath could barely contain himself as he breathed it all in.
He was back in the Wicklow jersey, united with his team-mates in their quest for promotion to Division 3.
A win over London, which was duly attained, would speed their journey out of Division 4 but, for McGrath, this was more than a routine league game.
A year earlier he was in an isolation ward in St James's Hospital, Dublin fighting leukaemia.
At the age of 24, life had taken a horrible turn and while his doctors were very positive about the outcome, there were days when he had doubts.
Twelve months on, he was back as an inter-county footballer and savouring every glorious second.
"That day in London will always be a special memory. I'll never forget the feeling while the national anthem was being played. It was so emotional, so personal.
"To be back playing with Wicklow having been lying in a hospital bed for three months the year before was incredible.
"It had taken a lot of hard work because I was starting from a weak position after all the chemotherapy but I made it, so there was a huge sense of personal satisfaction," he said.
His gruelling experience in the spring of 2011, which involved being in hospital from February to May, changed his outlook completely. He had a few days at home in between chemotherapy sessions but otherwise it was hospital all the way.
And with his immune system under attack, the risk of infection was high so he couldn't leave the room or even open the windows. "It was a very lonely place at times," he said.
The dramatic turn of events began when he didn't feel well in February 2011. It started with a toothache but that turned out to be the least of his problems.
He felt very tired after Wicklow's second league outing and missed a Sigerson Cup game later in the week. He was told to rest over a weekend before having blood tests on the following Tuesday, but decided to take his chance with Wicklow in their next game against London. It didn't go well.
"I just couldn't run - no energy whatsoever. So I put my hand up after 20 minutes to signal that I wanted to come off. I knew something wasn't right," he said.
A few days later, blood tests showed that he had leukaemia. He rang Carol (his then girlfriend, now his wife) and they drove to St James' hospital to begin a journey for which it was impossible to prepare.
"People will react differently to getting news like that. My doctor had written everything down for me, showing exactly what I could expect, but even then it was hard to take in. The first thing that struck me though was how positive everyone in St James's Hospital was. That was very important and helped me greatly along the way."
Nonetheless, the shock to the system was seismic. He had gone from lining out against London to being a cancer patient in a few days and was facing three months of intensive treatment. It was tough but, thankfully, all went to plan and he was released from hospital on May 24. By the August weekend, he was back playing for his club Baltinglass in a challenge game.
"I just couldn't be controlled. No way was anyone going to tell me to play in a certain position and in fairness they didn't. I just wanted to run and run, anywhere and everywhere. It was such an amazing feeling to be able to do it again."
A few months later, he got a call from Wicklow manager Harry Murphy asking him to rejoin the panel.
"I didn't know what to think. Is this a sympathy call? Is Harry just being nice? That was my initial thought but, no, Harry genuinely wanted me to rejoin the panel," said.
By the following spring, McGrath was back on the squad and remained there until announcing his retirement two weeks ago.
His last game was against Cavan in the qualifiers in June, thus completing a 12th successive season in the Wicklow colours.
He says the illness changed his perspective on life, giving him a better understanding of what's important.
"I have a completely different view on things. I'm not trying to sound like some guru but I just love the simple things now. When you're in isolation in hospital for three months and you can't leave your room, you're going to appreciate the outside world.
"I'm a much more positive person now and have a greater appreciation of everyone and what they do. We're all inclined to be judgemental and give out about small things. Now, I take the view that you never know what's going on behind the face. I probably wouldn't have that mindset only for what happened to me," he said.
McGrath remembers the Mick O'Dwyer days in Wicklow and regrets that more wasn't made of them.
'Micko' brought him into the senior panel as a 20-year old in 2007 at a time when excitement was running high in Wicklow.
By the end of the year, they had won their first silverware (Tommy Murphy Cup) for a long time and everyone was looking forward to the upward graph being maintained. And it was.
Wicklow beat Kildare in the 2008 Leinster Championship and a year later enjoyed their greatest championship run when beating Fermanagh, Cavan and Down in the qualifiers. McGrath was on the panel but didn't make the starting team, having had his season disrupted by a collarbone break in their last league game. The Micko years were special for Wicklow but they didn't last.
"Everyone wanted to be part of it with Micko. He was golden and everyone wanted a part of him. Everything was coming through him and maybe people forgot about what was going to follow with development squads, schools etc.
"If we had used him in a more positive way, with the development squads and the youth, I'm sure we'd be in a different place today. He was used perfectly as a manager, but as a county we should have been more forward-thinking and got more out of him away from the senior team. I'm sure he would have been happy to do it."
Ask him where Wicklow football currently stands and he'll tell you it's in "a hard-working place".
They are showing positive signs at underage level, but there's a problem on the senior scene which certainly wasn't there in the Micko era.
"We're not getting all our best players. Over the last five years, an average of 13 players have left the panel every year. That's unsustainable. Others don't want to play in the first place. Imagine a player in Dublin being asked to join to the panel and saying 'no'. It just wouldn't happen."
As Wicklow's GPA rep for the past five years, he knows what's going on in other counties too and the feedback is not encouraging. Many are in the same unfortunate situation as Wicklow, unable to convince all of their best players to commit to the county scene. "Even Meath don't have all their best players now. Counties like Wicklow are looking at them and thinking, 'if those problems are there, what chance have we got?'"
McGrath believes that a Tier 2 competition for the so-called weaker counties is essential.
"You have to have something to aim for. Wicklow and other counties like us aren't going to be No 1 any time soon but they could aspire to being No 17 (winners of Tier 2). We just have to have a secondary championship but Croke Park seems more interested in getting the best teams playing each other more often," he said.
McGrath believes that unless greater incentives are provided for lower-ranked counties, more players will opt out.
"If that happens, it won't be the GAA as we know it. Some counties could end up like Kilkenny (football).
"If you're losing players year after year, it's obvious where it's going to end up. And if the kids have no one to look up to, they won't be interested in the county game either when they grow up."
He can understand why some players won't commit to the county scene, but it's not something that ever crossed his mind.
"I was always proud to wear the Wicklow jersey. And I'd be an optimist by nature too, so I always thought that with the right draw, reaching a Leinster final was a realistic goal.
"I'd never be jealous of players from successful counties. I'm a Wicklow man, it's my county and that's all that matters to me.
"All I ever thought of was trying to improve. I know that winning Tommy Murphy Cup and Division 4 medals might not look like much to others but they certainly mattered to us."
Still, the realist in him knows that Wicklow - and indeed many others - can never compare with Dublin or the other super-powers when it comes to the financial resources required to fund a modern-day operation. "It's like comparing Shelbourne with Manchester City," he explained.
While McGrath believes that a Tier 2 championship (a decision on whether to introduce it will be taken by Central Council next Saturday) would be a positive start, there needs to be a more radical overhaul.
"I would like to see eight groups of four, with one county from the four divisions in each group. Play it off as a round-robin with the top two in each going into the Tier 1 knock-out championship and the bottom two going into Tier 2. It's neat and simple and well worth a try," he said.
McGrath despises negativity. He's concerned that it's too prevalent in Wicklow, although he's optimistic that an improving underage scene offers hope.
"Something is obviously being done right there. But at other levels there's too much negativity.
"I don't like supporters giving out about players, almost as if they want to see things go badly. I don't like to see county boards fighting management and players. We all need to pull in the same direction," he said.
Now that his inter-county playing days are over, he intends to devote all of his playing energies to Baltinglass.
"It's a fantastic club - so many top-class people there. They were great to me when I was ill. So too was the whole town. I'll be doing my bit to try and move things on over the next few years."
Living in Dublin, where he works in procurement with John Paul Construction, the journey to Baltinglass can take up to one hour and 40 minutes on a busy evening but despite a few approaches, he would never contemplate joining a city club.
"Absolutely not. Travelling back home to train and play with the club you love is not a hardship."
And beyond that, is management on his agenda? "I'd certainly like to get into coaching and management. Looking after a group is an incredible skill when it's done right. I'd like to have a go at some stage," he said.
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