Saturday 24 March 2018

Eamonn Sweeney: It's not condescension, it's genuine admiration for a remarkable and truly inspirational man

Mary Immaculate College Limerick manager Jamie Wall. Photo: Cody Glenn/Sportsfile
Mary Immaculate College Limerick manager Jamie Wall. Photo: Cody Glenn/Sportsfile

Eamonn Sweeney

When Jamie Wall was paralysed from the midriff down in June 2014, he seemed a textbook example of the cruel and capricious nature of fate. Here was a promising young sportsman, just 21 years old, confined to a wheelchair after an infection led to an epidural abscess on the spine. You could only feel sorry for him.

Yet in the past couple of years Wall has come to represent something very different indeed. His life now seems like an example of how an indomitable spirit can enable someone to fight back against the cruellest of blows and not just survive, but thrive.

These days people are more likely to feel inspired by the man than to feel sorry for him.

Eight days ago the most remarkable chapter in Wall's fightback story was written as he managed his alma mater, Mary Immaculate College, Limerick to Fitzgibbon Cup final victory over Carlow Institute of Technology at Pearse Stadium. Managing a team to victory in the Fitzgibbon Cup is a fine achievement for any 25-year-old, and Wall was keeping pretty exalted company - his opposite number was DJ Carey.

He succeeded another legend of the game, Eamonn Cregan, having submitted a large dossier on how he proposed to do the job, created while he was in Cambridge for rehab.

The photograph in this week's Irish Independent of Wall in his wheelchair pitchside roaring at his team is one of the most powerful images of the ­sporting year, and also evidence of how far this remarkable young man has come. He may not be an inter-county player these days but Wall still had to tackle a gruelling training schedule, undergoing five strength and conditioning sessions a week as he fought for rehabilitation.

A trust fund supported by public donations has helped him receive the best possible treatment and to achieve a degree of independence in his personal life. The battle is ongoing and Wall abides by the motto, "Never give up, never let up".

I saw Jamie Wall playing quite a bit as a youngster. He was on Cork minor and under 21 football teams along with Castlehaven youngsters Damien Cahalane and Brian Hurley, whose progress I tracked with keen interest. Wall caught the eye - he was an athletic wing-back who never seemed happier than when joining the attack at pace. It looked a pretty safe bet that he would emulate his Kilbrittain clubmate Owen Sexton and make the Cork senior team before too long. Instead his life changed utterly.

It's hard for able-bodied people to avoid condescension when talking about wheelchair users. So I won't say that Jamie should be an example to others. It's easy for me to say that people who suffer serious setbacks like this should look on the bright side and blithely crack on with the rest of their lives.

But you can't blame anyone who doesn't have the strength for that. I don't think I would have. Who really knows how they'd react?

Perhaps it's better to look at Wall's story as that of one remarkable young man. One of the things which impressed me most about his victory was that afterwards he tweeted an apposite reference to Fr Ted Crilly's infamous Golden Cleric speech, something which suggests a resistance to either being lionised or sentimentalised. It displayed a neat wit and sense of the absurd which must be useful weapons in his battles.

On Twitter he is an independent and outspoken presence who you can't imagine settling easily into the role of secular saint.

There is an awful lot of love out there for Jamie Wall. I can remember when mention of his name in West Cork was usually accompanied by the words, 'The poor lad'. These days people are more likely to say, 'Fair play to him'. The word hero gets thrown around like confetti in sports journalism these days but I can't think of a better one to describe this remarkable youngster, who still hasn't given up hope that some day there'll be a cure. I hope that we're still near the beginning of the Jamie Wall story. Because it's the kind of story we're always better off for hearing.

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