Saturday 17 February 2018

'I didn't want to go back. Too many bad memories'

At the launch of the Concussion
Awareness Video Campaign
yesterday were, from left,
Eoghan Quinn, age 9, Armagh,
former Fermanagh footballer
Mark McGovern, Sean
O'Connell, age 9, Tipperary and
Mark Bailey, age 9, Dublin
At the launch of the Concussion Awareness Video Campaign yesterday were, from left, Eoghan Quinn, age 9, Armagh, former Fermanagh footballer Mark McGovern, Sean O'Connell, age 9, Tipperary and Mark Bailey, age 9, Dublin
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

The first anniversary has passed, but for Mark McGovern the task of picking up the pieces and putting as many parts of his life together as he can continues.

Sitting in front of the 23-year-old Belcoo man, it is harrowing to realise the impact one devious off-the-ball blow on a football field can have on a life.

Last month he returned to San Francisco for the first time since that almost fatal Saturday night, June 25, 2011 when he played his first match with the Ulster club on just the fifth day of his summer odyssey to the Pacific Coast.

When he returned home last October it took a four day trans- American train journey, a seven-day Atlantic boat crossing to Southampton, a drive through England and another boat from Hollyhead before he eventually made it home.

This time, though, he was able to fly with a stop-off in New York.

It was a trip to for medical assessment and to catch up with the many people he can now call friends, who were so supportive through his trauma.

The intention was to have the summer that was thieved from him by that near fatal blow. He wanted to coach and he wanted to help out with the same club he and two friends had linked up with less than 12 months earlier. But it was cut short as the painful memories of what had happened came flooding back in so many ways.

He couldn't return to San Francisco General Hospital where he had spent six weeks in an induced coma. He struggled to sleep and eventually he couldn't bring himself to walk the streets of San Francisco for fear of bumping into his assailant. So, he cut short the trip and returned home. The trauma was too much.

"I was actually going to stay over for the summer and help with coaching and training of the team," McGovern recalls. "I didn't get a summer out of it last year. I wanted to experience it. I went back and I was kind of glad that I didn't stay. Even three weeks was long enough. I wasn't fit to ... too many bad memories. Sleep at night wasn't great."

"The doctor asked me to go up to the General Hospital where I spent most of the time in a coma. I refused. I didn't want to go back up there. I had too many bad memories. I'd been scarred, I suppose. I was always kind of wide going around the city in case I would bump into the guy who did it.

"I went back to the Rehabilitation Hospital. I met the doctors and nurses. It was a happier time there, it's where I did my first talking and walking, that's where I took my first steps again. The Ulster club was brilliant. They were having a 25th anniversary gala. I met them and they sorted me out. They were amazing. Joe Duffy, Seamus Canning. Seamus deserves most of the credit. He was brilliant."

He hasn't ruled out returning again some time. His assailant is the focus of a police investigation now. "I don't know, maybe time will heal it. At the minute I am happy to be home," he says.

At home the impact is even more pronounced. He admits that relationships with family and friends have all changed as a result of the blow.

"Relationships have just gone. Everything has just left me. My relationship with my family just isn't the same as it was, obviously. Friends obviously had to see me as ... to try to rebuild me as a person, because I have changed a bit.

"My girlfriend and I have just grown apart. We have broken up because of this. So many things have happened because of it."

The frustration of not being able to do what always came naturally to him may never leave him.

He accepts the word of so many doctors that he should never play football again. But that doesn't make it easier. "I've accepted that now. I'm now coaching, I'm still involved," he says.

The Fermanagh manager Peter Canavan got him involved -- he had played McKenna Cup football in January 2011 before cutting ties with the squad and travelling to America.

On Sunday last he was a 'Maor Uisce' as they made their exit from the championship.

"That's the frustrating side. Knowing that you can play football, but your head is that fragile that you can't."

Still, one positive note is that he is getting his driving licence back next week, which will restore more independence.

Doctors have told him that 95pc of his capacity has been restored and that eventually he will make a 100pc recovery.

He can still struggle with short-term memory, cognitive thinking and word finding.

"If I was trying to say a word it might take three or four words to explain that word because I can't find it," McGovern says.

He can't be sure if his rate of improvement is ahead of schedule but he knows that those who treated him in the weeks after the incident, which bestowed injuries to his head commensurate with a 60mph car crash, were "amazed" when they saw him walking through the door.

"It's been said by many doctors that it's a miracle. I'm just glad I'm here today to be honest."

• Mark McGovern was speaking at the launch of a video on concussion in sport in Croke Park to promote Acquired Brain Injury Ireland's concussion awareness campaign.

Irish Independent

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