Thursday 22 March 2018

Everyone's a winner as cancer survivors face off

Off the Pitch: Ronan Rocks

Former Derry footballer Ronan Rocks
Former Derry footballer Ronan Rocks Newsdesk Newsdesk

In the midst of the excitement of tomorrow's All-Ireland quarter-finals, a match will take place in Parnell Park at 5.0 where - in the truest sense - everyone's a winner.

Under the respective management of Clare icon Anthony Daly and former Hill 16 darling Charlie Redmond, two teams will battle it out for the second annual Professor Hollywood Memorial Cup between St Luke's and St James's Hospitals in aid of the cancer units in each.

Participants in the game are former cancer patients and the primary objective of the event is to deliver the important message "there is life after cancer".

One player lining out is former Derry footballer Ronan Rocks.

In the winter of 2003, Rocks was celebrating an Ulster club championship title with Loup. While preparing for the All-Ireland semi-final against Caltra the following February he noticed a lump on his neck. In a classic male fashion, he simply ignored it.

"I had a sizeable lump, about the size of a small mandarin orange, on my neck but I was flying fit and didn't pay a blind bit of notice to it," he says.

"In the run-up to the All-Ireland semi-final I started to get night sweats and bouts of tiredness. But it was only after we lost the game that I decided to go to the doctor to get checked out.

"It was April 1, 2004 when the news was broken to me that I was suffering from Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma; it was like a sledge-hammer across the head. I can't even remember travelling home from Magherafelt that day - I was in a complete state of shock."

An operation to remove the lump was followed by intensive chemo to try to reduce two lumps the size of closed fists which had developed beneath his chest.

"It was grim, but the mental battle was almost worse. I mean when you are in getting your chemo you'd be talking to a guy one week and the next time you were in he'd be gone and I was wondering 'has he died, am I next?'," he recalls.

During his treatment, Derry manager Mickey Moran did something which Rocks has never forgotten, something that really helped his battle with the disease.

"When my treatment started Mickey came to see me," he explains. "He said 'you're a Derry player, you are a member of our panel and we want you to attend our training and games with us'.

"Derry got to the All-Ireland semi-final that year and I made it to every game bar the quarter-final. It was a great inspiration to me to be with the lads during that time and I think it helped them as well, to put things in context.

"We all like to be passionate about football but when you look at poor Aaron Devlin, that tragedy puts the ups and downs of the Championship into perspective."

Rocks made a full recovery and returned to football the following year. He appreciates how lucky he was and is keen to "give back".

"When we played this Professor Hollywood game for the first time last year it was incredible the bond that we felt lining out - everyone had faced that awful news at one point and was fortunate to survive.

"Needless to say it didn't stop the lads getting competitive -you had the likes of Marty McGrath, Cork hurler Joe Deane, Ronan Hamill and Jason Hughes in the mix.

"While raising important funds, the game is also about raising awareness of male cancer and the importance of early detection."

The Professor Hollywood Cup match takes place in Parnell Park tomorrow at 5.0. Admission is €7 (U-12s free). Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh will commentate.

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