'I couldn't keep my eyes open' - Laois' Danny O’Reilly on vicious attack that left him fighting for his life
Like most young footballers, Danny O'Reilly dreamed of playing in Croke Park. In April, he made that dream a reality when he came on for Laois the Division 4 league final against Carlow.
However, 24 hours later he was fighting for his life in St Luke's Hospital Kilkenny after a vicious, unprovoked late night attack in Carlow Town.
It's been a tough couple of months for the young father but he has bounced back remarkably well and is now doing light training with the Laois footballers.
The incident occurred the night after Laois were crowned league champions and although O'Reilly's memories are hazy, it is a night that has left its mark.
"We have a family pub in Carlow called Dicey Reillys and we were all out after the win," explains O'Reilly.
"At the end of the night we went to the Foundry nightclub. My girlfriend Jade and I left the nightclub at half 12 because we got a call to say our baby Zach had woken up. So we went to get food and it was outside the chipper that the attack happened.
"Jade told me when she came out after me I was lying on the ground. I don't remember any details of the attack. She told me that it was lashing rain and there were taxi drivers covering me while they waited for the ambulance to come. I was knocked out. I had no idea what was happening.
"The guards asked me if it was football-related because we'd beaten Carlow but I had no idea." The ambulance came and O'Reilly was brought to the hospital where the doctors established that his skull was fractured in two places and he had three bleeds on the brain. The footballer was in critical condition, the next 24 hours were crucial.
He drifted in and out of consciousness for a couple of days as his family held a bedside vigil for him.
"When I woke up I was in terrible pain. I couldn't keep my eyes open, the doctors kept waking me up and letting me go back to sleep again.
"It was very hard for my family and for Jade to see me like that and not know what the outcome would be."
O'Reilly's story made national news and in the days that followed two men were arrested and subsequently charged over the attack.
Meanwhile, O'Reilly started to come around, and after six days he was well enough to go home but there were side effects from the attack to contend with.
"It took a while for me to get back to normal. When you have a bad injury like that things are fuzzy for a while. It's like a ladder you have to start at the bottom and try and get up to the top.
"My coordination in the hospital was bad, when I was trying to walk it felt I was wobbling everywhere but that improved. I had a lot of dizzy spells where it was like the ground was shaking underneath me. I had really bad headaches too but I was so happy to get home even if I couldn't lie on the back of me head where the fractures were. I had to sleep on the side of my face.
"I slowly tried to get some of my normal life back. I went to see friends and I went out with Jade and the baby for walks but it was hard.
"I needed to get into the mindset that I was at home and I was going to get better. I had to focus on that, that it was over now and I was going to get better."
As his recovery progressed, O'Reilly started to think about football, specifically when he would be able to return to playing again.
The first round of the Leinster Championship was looming and he was wondering if he would get back for that.
However, after a few tentative steps into training the 21-year-old quickly realised that it was a bridge too far and he had to reassess his goals.
A month after the attack he returned to light training and he was happy to be back with the squad.
He watched as his side beat Wexford in their opening game and this encouraged him to work hard to regain his health and fitness.
"At the start I did my own running because the team were preparing for Wexford so they were doing a lot of contact stuff and ball work so I was training away by myself.
"My girlfriend and my mother were very worried that I might fall and do more damage to my head but I was ok, I needed to be out doing something for myself.
"The first run was hard and my head hurt. But over time it got easier and I haven't had a headache in two weeks. I've turned a corner now. I'm doing some ball work with minimal contact, weaving and glancing."
Laois went on to beat Carlow in the Leinster semi-final and earn a spot in the final against Dublin.
Two months have passed since the attack and it's still difficult from him to comprehend what he has been through.
"It's hard to believe what has happened to me but I've come to terms with it. I'm not angry you never know what is around the next corner, there is no point holding in. I want to put it all behind me now and get on with life."
For him, that will start with another day in Croke Park, another chance to make his dreams to come true.
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