Strength in adversity for Fermanagh footballers
A boundless spirit makes Marty McGrath a true inspiration
On a heady Thursday night in the summer of 2008, Marty McGrath went for a walk on the family farm. It was something of a dual exercise. Earlier that afternoon he'd been informed that he had cancer and he wanted some fresh air to clear his head. But he was perturbed, almost equally so, about something else.
"I'd lost my miraculous medal," McGrath explains. "And that medal meant a lot to me. I was annoyed to have lost it and frustrated too. Earlier that day the doctors had told me I had testicular cancer but would you believe, I was half okay with that. Obviously, you would prefer not to have received such news but the diagnosis was good because the medics had caught it so early. I was hopeful I was going to be alright. It's funny, losing the medal stuck in the craw a lot more."
He packed the gear bag and went training with Fermanagh that evening. "Anything to distract the mind," and on the following Saturday he played against Derry in an Ulster semi-final, kicked a late point and helped steer them to victory. Being one of Fermanagh's main men he took punishment that afternoon as word of his cancer hadn't gone public.
The hits were both frequent and fulsome. Only his immediate family, his fiancée, and team doctor Tom Kiernan knew about his illness. The Fermanagh management only found out about it after the game when McGrath informed them that he 'might not be around for the final.'
Of course he was. He delayed the operation and played on. In fact by the time news of his condition became public, McGrath had been crowned Ulster Player of the Year for that campaign.
"There would have been no real sympathy out there on the pitch anyway in terms of shying back had players known," he says. "And I would be fine with that."
After the championship ended he underwent surgery and a fortnight on from the operation, with the scars still fresh, he went for Ireland trials for the 2008 international rules series and featured in the second Test win over Australia in Melbourne at the end of October.
He had garnered a reputation for himself by now. Softly-spoken, gentle giant off the field. Fermanagh's bionic man on it.
While the cancer had been a huge shock, McGrath's troubles had started two years earlier in 2006 when he was forced to undergo two heart procedures inside six months to correct a cardiac defect.
The first procedure lasted two-and-a-half hours and didn't work, the second was five-and-a-half hours. For the first one the doctors went through his groin to get to work, the second time they channelled through the shoulder. McGrath didn't shrink from either. "It had to be done, simple as that," he nods.
In 2007, he fractured his skull when he was involved in an accident - or in more blunt terms - hit square in the jaw by a JCB.
"Looking back, you think you can last forever, no bother," he recalls. "The operations did take their toll in terms of the body but you just get on with it."
Although his body still hums with arthritic pain from a series of on-field injuries he collected along the way, McGrath has no regrets whatsoever. In fact he feels he is blessed in many ways as he didn't have to undergo chemotherapy unlike so many other cancer sufferers.
"Early diagnosis, I cannot stress the importance of it," he muses. "That's why it's so important to speak up and speak out about this because a lot of young men who are diagnosed don't feel comfortable speaking about it. I like to think I have moved on with my life and I don't like looking back but for this purpose I have no problem revisiting my story. When men get a lump, younger men especially don't necessarily follow through or do anything about it, even talk about it. I'm here, I suppose, to show that there is no big deal in people speaking about stuff like that."
Last August, McGrath played in a unique charity fundraiser between two Dublin hospital teams who competed for the Professor Hollywood Cup. He couldn't believe the energy that the sides, all cancer sufferers and high level GAA players, exuded. The event was such a success that it is set to become an annual fixture. As long as McGrath is fit to lace his boots he will be involved, you suspect.
"Some of those lads that I played with and against in that cup went through a hell of a lot more than I did," he says, "but the spirit they had was boundless. They were hopping around and I really loved it. I'm playing again next weekend."
This year's game takes place at Parnell Park on August 8 and Charlie Redmond will manage a St Luke's Hospital team against an Anthony Daly managed team from St James's Hospital. It's not just a game for the aesthetics - last year's fixture raised €44,300 for the two hospitals' oncology units with a host of inter-county stars taking part. McGrath says the competition will only raise awareness and that's to be welcomed.
"People like Joe Deane (Cork), Ronan Rocks (Derry), Ronan Hamill (Antrim), Martin Sherry (Down), and Aidan Shevlin (Louth) will all be playing and of course Noel McGrath, who recently underwent treatment for testicular cancer, will all take part. Meeting these lads shows you how resilient people are.
"When you get news like this you are kind of dazed, but I don't think I really comprehended how bad it could have been because I was lucky. But to anyone who gets bad news I would say there are plenty of role models out there who can demonstrate what can be achieved. Always look to them to help you."
Despite his mass protestations, he's a real role model himself. Out of the three life-threatening incidents that he has met on the journey through life he says he can finally laugh at the digger episode, albeit neither he nor his father Anthony were smiling when he was dashed to hospital after coming into contact with the JCB.
Whilst laying down an electrical cable on the home farm he initially thought the driver had thrown him an apple for lunch. It proved to be a bit more serious than that.
As the ambulance arrived at the hospital, McGrath was met at the door and brought for immediate scans. His father Anthony took the miraculous medal - they had found it on the farm three days after his cancer diagnosis - off his neck, clutched it tightly in his hand and prayed while his son underwent tests. Thankfully he was fortunate yet again, he came home and from there his durability became the stuff of legend.
He knows enough, though, never to get too relaxed about the road he has taken and the road still ahead. Throughout our chat he prefaces his words with phrases like 'touch wood' and 'please God'.
McGrath gave 13 years to the Fermanagh shirt but has seen enough in both life and sport to make a hardened 70-year-old sit up and take note. Both his family and sporting life met with sadness once more in 2012 when he lost his brother-in-law and county team-mate Brian Óg Maguire in an industrial accident. At the summit of that year the big midfielder had been close to retiring but wanted to pay tribute to Maguire's memory and that became the motivating factor for his return to duty in 2013.
In the back of his head he feels he could still be out there treading Croker's lush sod today, the watery sun hitting the back of his neck and the buzz of a summer's championship game electrifying the city. Perhaps his role could have been tempered - maybe he could help the younger bucks acclimatise to playing in front of 70,000 against the best team in the land. Being one of only three Fermanagh men to win an All Star and representing his country at international rules, McGrath's experience was colossal. It is still sorely missed.
It is easy to forget what he brought to battle, mind. By his mid-20s he had figured in four consecutive McRory Cup finals with St Michael's, Enniskillen, captained two consecutive Sigerson Cup final teams for Queen's University and for back to back seasons Fermanagh reached All-Ireland quarter-final weekends, making the semi-finals of the 2004 season in one of the greatest underdog tales the GAA has ever seen.
He has an irrepressible spirit - one that could well be influential in today's quarter-final. Indeed when Pete McGrath took charge of Fermanagh he lamented how he was missing a few players and doubtless this number eight was one of them. Would they have taken him back this season? Bet your bottom dollar they would.
The decision was made to stay put, though, and instead the former Down boss plotted away with the 14 new players he has blooded as lingering speculation that McGrath could rejoin the squad this season ultimately came to nothing.
"Don't get me wrong when you see the boys readying themselves to play the Dubs in HQ part of you is itching to be there," he admits.
"But when you're gone you're gone and me coming back wouldn't be the right thing for the team. For me neither. I think I might still be good enough but I'm not sure whether I'd be a 70-minute man or anything like that. You are never as good as you were"
He feels that the underdogs will push Dublin hard and says his old teammates will set out their stall to make life as difficult as they can for their opponents.
"Dublin are the best footballing team in the country but they don't always win games they should," he says. "The first thing is to push up on the (Stephen) Cluxton kick-out and then set out our stall. We will have to be on the edge, no point in saying otherwise. Dublin like to run free and if they are let they will kill you off.
"At the start of the year we would have taken consolidation in Division 3 and maybe a win over Antrim as progress and we would have been happy with that. But Pete comes from Down, the traditional kingpins of Ulster football and they are a confident breed, with belief in themselves, arrogant in a rightful way. Pete has brought that steel to us and we are a county that maybe wouldn't always believe in ourselves as much. But Pete has been speaking about us playing football in August for quite some time and it has obviously spread into the players. He has a way of thinking and Fermanagh has taken to him. The people have taken to him."
While he won't be on the pitch this afternoon, McGrath will be busy behind the scenes, being an integral part of Club Eirne, the county's official supporters club. Other former players like Niall Bogue and Colm Bradley are all part of the new Club Eirne committee and are tasked with raising funds for county teams.
Off the field there is far more energy being pumped into the Fermanagh football set-up these days than in recent years. The buzz is akin to when both Charlie Mulgrew and Malachy O'Rourke were sitting behind the steering wheel. They are more streetwise too with the current manager shifting from the 15 on 15 style he engaged last season in favour of the more soulless, but necessary, blanket that you need to survive in the modern era. While Seán Quigley has been the focal point for much of the spring and early summer, Tomás Corrigan has also demonstrated that they are more than a one man outfit.
"Whatever happens today the real breakthrough would be an Ulster title and we constantly need to build towards that," McGrath points out.
Their recent progress has certainly been significant. It's only three years back that this team were dogging it out against Kilkenny, playing in front of 87 spectators at Freshford.
Now they take on the Dubs in their own backyard. McGrath may again need his miraculous medal to outdo itself. It could be a task beyond even that great relic, but he is positive his county will represent themselves well.
"Look, the medal owes me nothing," he shrugs. "I still have it, only replaced the chain on it the other week and I place huge trust in it. You never know," he smiles.
On a route not widely travelled it has certainly kept the big midfielder, Fermanagh's quiet warrior, safe and sound, surviving more than a few setbacks along the way.
The 2015 Professor Hollywood Cup final is on Saturday, August 8 at 5.0 at Parnell Park in Dublin. Tickets cost €7, with under 12s free. You can also donate €4 by texting MATCH to 50300. More details available on Facebook.
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