Vincent Hogan meets Jamie Wall: You can say to yourself sometimes, 'Today was a s**t day, but I got through it!'
Three-and-a-half years on from being laid low by a spinal abscess that left him wheelchair-bound, Jamie Wall bids to lead Mary Immaculate College to more Fitzgibbon glory
He sees it before I do, a quartered, impressionist-style portrait of Springsteen on the cafe wall, outlaw eyes indifferent to the wisps rising from a live cigarette.
Does art have ears? Jamie Wall's just been talking about the song in his head, you see. The one he turns up so loud sometimes, it almost blows the windows out of his VW Scirocco. He escaped to it in Dangan down in Galway last year after the Fitzgibbon semi-final win over LIT and again in Salthill when they beat IT Carlow to retain the cup. Bruce's 'The Promised Land'.
In Dangan, he had the car to himself, roaring out every lyric as if the outside world was hard of hearing. "The Dogs on Main Street howl; 'cause they understand..."
In Salthill, he just told his selectors, Cormac and Dinny to cover their eardrums for three minutes.
"If I could take one moment into my hands;
"Mister, I ain't a boy, no, I'm a man;
"And I believe in a promised land."
What does it communicate? A song doesn't really have to say anything portentous, it just has to reach you. People ask him if he became emotional when Mary Immaculate kept the cup and his response is that he felt an obligation not to. He didn't want the story to be about him. He didn't want the focus to be a chair.
Jamie Wall, not yet 26, is too busy "getting on with the business of living" to make room for our clumsiness in the precinct of a broken young body. When he was going through the worst of it, coming to terms in Beaumont Hospital with legs that could not hear him, he read 'Engage', Paul Kimmage's extraordinary collaboration with Matt Hampson, the tetraplegic English rugby player.
Hampson's indefatigable humour had him laughing out loud at times when, around him, others were still floundering with his new circumstance.
He tells the story of a good friend, William Fouhy, coming to visit. Unexpectedly, Jamie's aunt, grandfather and cousin arrived to the room and, well, William excused himself. Said he'd be back up "in a while". It was only the following Christmas, at a family party, his aunt asked Jamie how William had been when he returned?
Turns out she found him "going through a box of cigarettes" outside the front door of the hospital, his composure completely sundered.
"She said she had to talk to him for about 20 minutes before he went back up because he was so shook from coming in and seeing the reality," Jamie recalls now. "But you know, he put the box of cigarettes back in his pocket and did come back up.
"And it nearly made me appreciate him more that it knocked him so much and he was still able to come back. Like he might have smoked 20 cigarettes before he did, but still he came back. That's friendship.
"When you know that, you know the people who care about you. Anyone with a brain in their head can see that things are different. They are going to treat you slightly differently, initially at least. They're afraid of upsetting you.
"It's funny because if people only realised it genuinely would have taken a lot to upset me before. But you'd do very well to upset me now (laughing). Because nobody's going to say a whole pile that's going to upset you more than what's happened like. An oul' word here or there isn't really going to be worse than what you've gone through.
"You can be a dick about it or you can just acknowledge that most people mean well."
* * * * *
It's Wednesday in Limerick, the mucky skies pitching pure spite down upon the South Circular Road and an icy wind howling through that could strip wallpaper.
He's running late. One thing to be training hurling teams in the depths of an Irish winter, another to be doing it on wheels. "The grass is a disaster," he smiles on arrival, acknowledging how Fitzgibbon's place on the calendar isn't exactly heaven-sent for his circumstance. No matter, Jamie Wall knows better than most how to distinguish between the inconvenient and the daunting.
It was June 2014 when a dull throb in his back accelerated within days into the calamitous diagnosis of an abscess crushing spinal nerves. He'd just played a Munster intermediate final for Cork against Tipp and, with inter-county hurling and football mileage on the clock at underage, Jamie mistook his future for an uncomplicated story. All changed within days, however, and he alone truly knows the dark place that summer took him to.
But sitting here now, in The Green Yard Cafe, you come upon a man pushing too intently forward to be pre-occupied with the past. A potted history of his life in management slips from involvement with Kilbrittain's U-21s in his first year out of hospital, if only to avoid the frustration of his parents' home at 7pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays, to a call to become a selector with Mary I and, subsequently, manager.
Funny, he'd first gone to the college with a head full of negatives, imagining his desire to be a primary school teacher might sound the death knell on his inter-county hopes.
If Jamie wanted to play senior for Cork, he reckoned he'd need the shop window of Fitzgibbon and Mary I couldn't offer that. Then suddenly, after being stuck in the Ryan Cup for the first 19 years of Eamonn Cregan's management, they won promotion to Fitzgibbon in 2012. And that was the day just about everything changed for the profile of hurling in the college.
Jamie was on the team beaten in the 2013 Fitzgibbon final, one year after which 17 county minors arrived in as First Years. And those minors became the core of the side Cregan would lead to that breakthrough crown in 2016.
Wall saw it coming too. He all but prophesised it.
It was David Reidy who reminded him of that when they finally had the cup. They'd been on a bus home from the 2014 tournament in Dublin, evicted after a heavy group defeat by UCD, when Wall issued a declaration that he planned on seeking some kind of Master's to pursue so that he could stay in the college until 2016. Why?
He could see the calibre of those First Years.
"Ye're going to win the Fitz in 2016," he told Reidy, "and I'm going to move Heaven and Earth to be hurling with ye!" Reminded of it now, he smiled wistfully as they headed towards the celebrations. "Well, I didn't get to pull on the helmet, but we got there in the end..."
The college is under his skin now. "I'm awful fond of the place," he says almost impassively.
And here's the thing. Cregan began managing Mary I's hurlers the year Jamie Wall was born (1993). Taking up the mantle was, in many ways, a shot in the dark. Now he's part of its history.
In the hotel the morning of that 2016 final, Cregan had told his management team, Gavin O'Mahony, Shane Nolan and Jamie, that this would be his "last one", shaking their hands as he said it. Nobody dwelt on the news too long. There was a game to win.
But it was over a quiet, celebratory drink in The Old Stand afterwards that wing-back, Seán Linnane, first put the thought of succession in Jamie's head. "Well, are you going to take over now?"
"A few of us were talking about it..."
There and then, the two of them pulled out their phones and began trying to assemble a team that would still be eligible for 2017. Eventually their eyes met. "Jesus, we won't be too bad!"
So he took himself away to a summer of rehab in Cambridge and began formulating an application. Home that June, he arranged a meeting with Mary I Sports Officer, Ciara Cregan, and Gaelic Games Development Officer, Joe Redington. He'd printed out and bound copies of his ideas for the job, wanting - above all - to communicate the seriousness of his interest.
Then he travelled with friends to the Euro finals and was actually on his way home from the France-Ireland game in Lyon, a car full of hurlers for company, when his phone rang, Joe's name flashing on the screen. An exchange he'd desperately hoped to have in private now unspooled before an audience of grinning faces.
"Are you still interested in the job?"
"Yeah, I am Joe!"
"Well, if you want it, it's yours. We'd love to have you!"
"Great Joe, thanks!"
Then the phone going dead and the boys in the car cackling like hyenas. "You sneaky hoor ya!"
* * * * *
The truth is that only total strangers see the disability now. Those who encounter Wall every day and those he goes to war with recognise in him the edge of a fierce competitor.
True, the chair can be restrictive. Even the mechanics of making himself heard on the far side of the field from a seated position are less than simple. But he has a life to live and refuses to wait meekly for science to change his world. Thankfully, hurling still takes him to places he needs to be and he has agreed to work alongside John Brudair with Kilmallock this year as well as manage the Cork U-15s.
And Wall doesn't shy away from the idea that he might aspire, down the line, to managing Cork seniors some day. He's just wary of enslaving himself to a trajectory that might, in time, feed anxiety or impatience.
He sees so much about the senior inter-county world that is healthy and admirable, yet so much else that seems prescriptive and deadening too. Even at Mary I, he recognises young players caught in the bubble, slaves almost to the incontinent fetish for training, like the nonsense of county U-21 hurlers coming together in December to prepare for games in July. Sometimes, he feels like telling them that "maybe it'd be more in your line to be in the library".
He shares a house in Caherdavin with four others, two of them current Clare footballers. One, Eoin Cleary, is a garda, often working nights. To facilitate this, Cleary is supplied with pre-cooked meals that clog the communal fridge. "I was looking at them the other day, thinking, 'This is depressing, how would you eat this?'" he says, chuckling.
"But it's nearly more depressing watching him cook because the food he eats is so bland. Boiled potato, boiled broccoli, boiled rice, boiled chicken. Ah go away and have a curry Cleary!"
He's laughing as he says this because, of course, Wall isn't silly. He knows the best players are the ones who keep raising standards, questioning things, listening. His year as a selector under Cregan, he found himself initially wondering how on earth he could be expected to offer counsel to inter-county men like Ronan Maher and Cian Lynch and Colm Galvin.
Then a penny dropped. They were inter-county hurlers precisely because of that humility to listen.
So, tomorrow, Mary I go in search of a scarcely credible three-in-a-row with an opening test against last year's beaten finalists, Carlow. "No soft entrance for us," smiles Wall who has lost all six of last year's starting backs.
His teaching ambitions are on hold and, possibly, "slipping away" now as he finds himself more comfortable addressing a dressing-room than a class. That wasn't in anyone's script, but he is honest enough to reflect: "I'm a small bit worried that I mightn't be able to do it as effectively as I would have been able to do it on my feet".
An omnivorous reader of books, he is currently dipping in and out of Alex Ferguson's 'Managing My Life' and saw Manchester United beat Stoke at Old Trafford last Monday. Life can be good, if never perfect.
"You know what?" he says, "every so often you have to give yourself a small pat on the back. Not a big one. But you can say to yourself sometimes, 'Today was a s**t day, but I got through it!' I might have had to literally haul myself out of bed; the shower might have been a bit tougher than normal; dressing myself might have been a small bit harder...not that these things on their own are any big deal.
"But add them all up....if you don't have something good going on in your life... it'll get to you quick enough. You wouldn't be human if it didn't.
"So if you've had a bad day and you've got through it, you might be getting into bed saying, 'Well done on getting through today!' Because not every day is going to be like that. Others will be great.
"It's like that line from 'The Shawshank Redemption'.
"Get busy living, or get busy dying."