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McGrath braced for pitch battle after fighting the biggest challenge of his life


John McGrath is hoping to help Wicklow overcome Offaly this evening and extend their Championship run. Photo: Matt Browne / SPORTSFILE

John McGrath is hoping to help Wicklow overcome Offaly this evening and extend their Championship run. Photo: Matt Browne / SPORTSFILE

John McGrath is hoping to help Wicklow overcome Offaly this evening and extend their Championship run. Photo: Matt Browne / SPORTSFILE

Leukaemia threatened to thieve Wicklow footballer John McGrath of his physicality but it failed utterly to rob him emotionally, spiritually or mentally.

That unquenchable spirit has, undeniably, rendered him a survivor, not a victim. Nevertheless, every breath he takes is freighted with the knowledge that others have not been so lucky in the cruel roulette wheel of life and death.

Gaelic football, 27-year-old McGrath states unhesitatingly, helped to save his life by alerting him to the perils of the disease that could easily, as its indiscriminate grip on so many others demonstrates daily, have taken it.

Hence, obstacles that may have seemed wearying in their presentation at one time are now blithely accepted with sanguine grace.

McGrath stifles a chuckle when you ask him how he is. It is an Irish trait to be overly squeamish with survivors such as he. Diagnosed with Burkitt's lymphoma in spring 2011, he was clear of the disease after a torturous recovery process just five months later.

So, how is he? A heartwarming smile. He speaks of a groin operation in February that, he reports with unconscious irony, "ruined him". Then, after a heavy weekend's training with the county footballers, he developed an Achilles problem which jarred on the May Bank Holiday in a charity game designated specifically for survivors of cancer in O'Moore Park.

"You deal with it," he shrugs. "Everybody has problems. I spent every night for a year in the gym. People who complain about injuries know that far worse could be going on in your life.

"You wouldn't change the hardship in football for anything else. There's always the next game. Always look ahead."

It's what has driven him these past few utterly life-changing weeks, months and years.

When he lay in his hospital bed, at once contemplating the best of things but acknowledging the ever-present possibility of the worst, he thought of his final significant football game; a losing county final against Rathnew in 2010.


For many, his would be an illogical motivation; for him it was demonically prosaic.

"Pure ignorance!" he laughs when you press him on just why he deemed it so necessary to fulfil a target of returning to his Baltinglass club colours and, today, he hopes, to championship football with Wicklow against Offaly.

"I didn't think of the logical part of it. Just the thoughts of remembering that as the last game you played. It wasn't something that settled easy with me. It was always an option for me when I got better.

"And there was no way in my mind that I wasn't going to get better. It was part of me getting back to normal. I got back quicker than I expected, five months after the diagnosis.

"I knew we had a match against Kiltegan and amazingly we'd never played them in my time. I didn't want to miss out on it."

He would not.

If Gaelic football unwittingly unmasked an inherent weakness within him, the wider community encapsulated a formidable strength.

Whether it was uninvited messages from stars of the game he'd never met, or cards from the fiercest of local rivals, the sport bathed him in medicinal support.

"Without the people around me, there's no way I would have got over my illness so strongly and so quickly," he acknowledges.

"The doctors told me that mentality can be as good as any medicine. The negative attitude can make your immune system weaker. The support of family and team-mates was so important.

"Getting back to playing football was so important for me because I knew that basically playing football had saved me in the first place.

"Without football, I knew that I was tired and fatigued, but other people mightn't feel it until it was too late. So I was thankful for it in some ways.

"Some people play football because it is their life. You might give out about it, it's a love/hate relationship at times. But it all comes back to the game ultimately.

"It doesn't matter whether you just want to play to succeed or play to be fit. It was the driving force to get me back to full health again.

"It's something I would have taken for granted, the bond within the GAA. Obviously the support from close people, you expect. But then your rivals start sending messages and visiting. People I wouldn't have known.

"Peter Canavan was a hero of mine and he came to visit me. Paul Galvin and Sean Cavanagh sent me messages and I'd never spoken to them before in my life.

"The GAA is so tight and even if you're a young lad from Wicklow, everyone knows everybody. That's the community that the GAA is."

We part with thoughts on this evening's All-Ireland SFC qualifier clash with Offaly in Aughrim (7.0).

"Maybe it's the battle to avoid being the second worst team in the country but we've eyes on gettng to the next round. Neither of us can afford to hold back. It's our All-Ireland. The message to the home crowd is we're not going to lose," he reasons.

And while few outside the competing counties will care much about today's outcome – to paraphrase Malachy O'Rourke, many, many millions of Chinese people couldn't give a s*** – its meaning to those involved plants the occasion at the centre of their universe.

And what about the qualifiers? McGrath pleads not to be cut loose, even if they are now unfit for purpose.

"It doesn't suit the weaker teams, the stronger counties will rarely lose a game they're not expected to. Being cut adrift won't work.

"It should be about working your way back up, not being beaten down all the time."

Which, one suggests, is a particularly apt philosophy for this remarkable man to deliver.

  • To support the treatment of cancer patients, please text MATCH to 50300 to donate €4 to St Luke's and St James's hospitals or purchase a jersey

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