Roy Curtis: 'Even if they never reach the summit, Mayo will forever own a slice of Irish sporting glory'
IF the instinct in the human spirit you find most admirable is an absolute refusal to bend in the face of crushing disappointment and unpromising odds, then Mayo are bound to forever own at least a small corner of your heart.
A group of men that ought legitimately to be weighed down, ground to powder, by an inhuman accumulation of championship baggage and late summer heartache, yet, here they are, on the road again, facing down their ghosts.
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Still chasing the rainbow's end.
Four All-Ireland losses since 2012, three by the cigarette-paper width of a single point are among a box-set of agonising near misses extending their wait for deliverance to 68 years.
And still not broken, believing that sunlit September evening in the Croke Park uplands can be theirs.
Lee Keegan and Andy Moran recoil from pity or any patronising painting of their efforts as those of heroic moral victors.
Paddy Durcan and Aidan O'Shea have no appetite for sympathy or conspiracy theories or curses.
Here are serious, driven athletes who, even if they have been pitilessly and continuously spat from the upper slopes, retain the conviction that they are equipped to plant the green and red flag on Everest's summit.
It amounts to the post powerful declaration of fundamental grit, of the human urge to forever chase the stars, a capacity to keep squeezing long after others might have accepted the tube of hope had been emptied of every last blob.
Even if it never happens, Mayo have assured themselves of another kind of glory.
They have so uprightly explored the outer limits of their potential, and year after year, have oozed competitive character, representing their tribe with a powerful amalgam of pride, defiance, resilience and courage.
That is something so much more substantial than a moral victory: it fulfils the ultimate criteria for any competitor, that which asks only that he pushes himself to the limits of his capabilities.
The deep connection they have made with their audience is evident in the great mass of wayfaring humanity who have joined them on their annual summer pilgrimage, their lives enriched by the camaraderie of the Great Pursuit.
For Mayo people it has become something close to a spiritual journey, a part of their essence: a sporting equivalent of Reek Sunday.
Almost certainly, they will not get to see their team lift Sam Maguire this year.
It is difficult to present any thesis built on foundations of logic that would see the 5/1 outsiders delivering the kill-shot to Dublin's five-in-a-row pursuit this Saturday.
James Horan's crew fell in Connacht to a Roscommon team the Dubs pummelled by 18 points just over a fortnight ago.
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And where Mayo averaged just 16 points in their two Super 8 games against A-list opponents (and were clinically dismantled by Kerry), Dublin had a 32.5 points per game return in the pair of round-robin fixtures where they lined out with their preferred starting XV.
Gavin's record against Mayo suggests something close to a master and servant relationship: played 14, Won 11, Drew 3, Lost 0. In their most recent meeting, February's league game, Mayo managed just seven points as they were brushed aside in a more than double scores humiliation.
But then, logically, the odds favoured Donegal last weekend.
Mayo's most unique trait is their ability to rise or fall to the level of their opponent. So where they can struggle to put down some proletariat opponent in a low-key qualifier, they are capable, almost as if by flicking a switch, of finding the intensity and ferocious physicality to go toe to toe with the bluebloods.
Most teams arrive for a late summer date with Dublin armed only with a combination of terror and resignation that might be expected from a cattle herd facing the slaughterhouse stun-bolt.
Not Mayo. Six Championship meetings since 2013 have produced two draws and three one-point cliffhangers. Only in the semi-final replay four years ago, when the Sky Blues broke free to win by seven points, has it not gone to a photo finish.
What is certain is that Mayo will bring feral desire and powerful momentum to a heaving Croke Park.
It might be insufficient to satisfy the crazy yearning, the elemental, madcap pursuit of Sam.
But there are different kinds of sunlit evenings. And by refusing to bend, in keeping on keeping on, in pushing Dublin in a way no other opponent has consistently dared, Mayo have brought a blaze of warming sunshine to the endless seasons of Saturdays and Sundays.
And taken residence in a corner of so many Irish hearts.