Monday 9 December 2019

'When I was sick it's then you realise how much you love it' - McGrath raring to go after cancer trauma

Wicklow’s John McGrath. Photo: Garry O'Neill
Wicklow’s John McGrath. Photo: Garry O'Neill
Michael Verney

Michael Verney

Getting back into the slog of winter training and O'Byrne Cup matches isn't exactly what most inter-county footballers dream of but when that's all taken away from you in an instant, as happened to John McGrath, you quickly learn to love it.

McGrath hadn't been in top form and complained of a toothache for a number of weeks before his Wicklow side hosted London in a Division 4 NFL clash in 2011 but when the ball was thrown in he quickly realised it was much worse.

The attacker was visibly struggling - he couldn't track his man - so for the first time in his career he gestured towards his manager, Kerry legend Mick O'Dwyer, saying that he needed to be substituted.

Within days his whole world had been turned upside down as he lay in a hospital bed undergoing excruciating chemotherapy after being diagnosed with Burkitt's lymphoma, a strain of leukaemia which is fatal if untreated.

Every sort of emotion possible was felt during recovery as his chiselled figure wasted away, with each day bringing different challenges but each day also brought him one step closer to recovery, one step closer to getting on the field of play again.

Last summer he had his final check-up out of remission and got the 'all clear' to continue life as normal - and making up for lost time with the Garden County footballers is something he relishes.

Many would walk away but his experiences have offered him a different perspective on life and when the first ball of 2017 is kicked in Pairc Tailteann on Sunday against Meath, the 29-year-old hopes to be right in the thick of things again.

"The thoughts of missing out on that, I'd hate to step away," the Baltinglass man said. "It's only when it's taken away from you as it was in 2011 for me, when I was sick for a while, it's then you realise how much you love it and how you'd hate to have to sit back and think 'jeez, what would I do if I couldn't play?'

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"Every year I think I'll keep going back until my legs say 'no'.

Despite their status in the league's bottom tier, McGrath is as positive as ever about Wicklow's prospects for 2017 under Johnny Magee. And after everything he's overcome off the pitch, there's no place he'd rather be.

"I'm probably too optimistic, thinking I can win this, that and the other. I still haven't given up the hope of playing in Croke Park on Leinster final day," he said.

"I know that'll be laughed at throughout the country but if you're not reaching for those levels then why bother?"

• Roscommon legend Karol Mannion has called time on his St Brigid's career after nearly two decades of service. Mannion picked up the man-of-the-match award in their 2013 All-Ireland club SFC final triumph.

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