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Carey was a gift from heaven

ONE of the most magical rides in hurling history has ended, but this is far from being a sad time. In fact, it's very much the opposite.

After an 18-year championship career which yielded 34-195 in 57 games, Denis Joseph Carey accepts the hunger isn't there anymore. But when he put his head on the pillow on Thursday night, he would surely have slept soundly.

DJ owes us nothing; in fact, he gave us everything and we can celebrate his glory. In a little island of four million people, his is a retirement of Michael Jordan and Georgie Best proportions. Like them, Carey came back from an initial retirement, but unlike those superstars, he reproduced even better form, especially under Brian Cody. The fact that Kilkenny are practically guaranteed a Leinster final appearance this year and stand five games from another All-Ireland didn't entice DJ, so we're left to hope that Eoin Kelly and Henry Shefflin fulfil their destiny and join him and Christy Ring as legends of the game.

Tributes to his talent have dominated the past few days, but off the field, Carey suffered as the GAA's first gilt-edged superstar, playing in a news-hungry era much different to Ring's. Stardom must have had a great buzz at first; DJ never spoke ill of anyone, seldom demanded his worth and was co-operative and articulate; he didn't drink or smoke and played golf, but it wasn't enough, begrudgers scorned his success and he was besieged by all sorts of rumours and gossip. Yet he never stopped co-operating with the Irish media and never shied away from his charity work. The self-effacing Carey was always available to answer a call or give a quote. Maybe that was half the problem: he was too available.

He first edged towards the retirement home in 1998 when he quit for six weeks before returning after receiving 25,000 letters. Now that he's gone for good, the postmen around Gowran and Monkstown must be dreading these next few days. After a car crash in 2002, we again thought we had seen the last of him, but he stormed back in a blaze of glory to win an All-Ireland medal and successfully captain his side to victory a year later. This time there will be no return of the King, despite 3-15 in two games for Young Irelands last month. He broke the news to Cody on Tuesday night. Cody wanted him to remain in an 'impact sub' role, but Carey wasn't interested.

"The wrong time to quit was after losing to Galway last year," he said. "I wanted to play the club matches to see if the serious drive was there, but it wasn't. I'm busy work-wise and with a lot of other stuff, I've been playing ok with the club and enjoying it, but I wouldn't have the real appetite to commit to going back. That's a totally different pace," the 35-year-old added.

Hurling will be quieter without him; the game has lost its John Lennon, a true genius who relied on talent, creativity and innovation. DJ was the one GAA player that your non-sporting partner could name. What other hurler could have hired an agent (Barbara Galavan), who spent 17 years working with U2, to be his manager?

'The closer he got, the less idea you had where the ball would go. All he had to do was flick those wrists'

Damien Fitzhenry The video of his life and career is the best-selling sports video of all time in Ireland; he's on first name terms with Tiger Woods, Pádraig Harrington and Colin Montgomerie and has journeyed to the most poverty-stricken corners of the world with GOAL to raise awareness of the plight of the underprivileged - showing kids how to hurl along the way. All of that, along with a job that required him to drive 75,000 miles a year and a training schedule which took four nights out of his week. He helped launch the GPA and was Kevin Moran's first GAA player on his Proactive sports agency books. From the age of 22, DJ was big business and, for a time, no one really knew how to handle his interests. His separation from his wife, Christine, was unfortunately a high-profile one. "At the end of the day my marriage had broken up," Carey said. There were rumours of papers offering money for stories about him. "I found that mind-boggling," he said at the time. "Imagine billion-dollar corporations going after a small fry from rural Ireland because he has a profile in an amateur sport." Cody approached him in training, reassured him that the whole panel was supportive and somehow he hung in to win a fifth All-Ireland that weekend. Life should have been so much simpler, because all he wanted to do was hurl. Born in Gowran in 1970 with three brothers and three sisters, Carey grew up on a diet of 1970s hurling when Eddie Keher, Noel Skehan and Billy Fitzpatrick were kings. Hurling was in his blood - his aunt Peggy won four All-Irelands with Kilkenny and his granduncle Paddy Phelan was an iconic hurler of the 1930s, selected on the team of the century as well as on the An Post Team of The Millennium. Carey missed out on that accolade; a strange decision. As a kid, DJ loved to visit woods in south Kilkenny to look for ash trees to make hurleys and has always used a 35½" stick. By the time he retired last week, he had broken every finger in his left hand, while pins hold his right thumb and fingers together. His nose was broken hurling for St Kieran's and he lost the sight in one eye for three weeks after almost breaking his jaw. Despite all that suffering, he was never booked in his Kilkenny career. There were no shortage of appreciations last week. "I don't think anyone will really understand how brave he was," said Liam Dunne, who had great battles with him over two decades. "Any time he came in against the Wexford backs, he knew he'd get hit, but God gave him the gift of speed which allowed him to get away. The only thing was: he was never afraid to come back into us again." Brian Whelahan maintains he is the greatest Kilkenny hurler to wear the black and amber jersey, while Johnny Dooley insists he was the best player of their generation. "He'd beat any team on his own," Dooley said. "In and around the 21 he would just put his head down and go for goal. Going out to hurl Kilkenny, the number one priority was to stop DJ. He was their main man for 16 years." Eddie Keher described him as the most complete hurler he has ever seen: "He mastered every skill in the game and contributed enormously since he came on the scene." Wexford 'keeper Damien Fitzhenry played against, and worked for, Carey. "I worked for him in DJ Carey Enterprises for two years," recalled Fitzhenry. "He wouldn't talk too much about hurling at all. I rarely saw him because I was based down in the south-east and he would be in other regions. "As a goalkeeper, I dreaded him. DJ was a former 'keeper himself and knew exactly where we didn't like the ball to go. The closer he got, the less idea you had where the ball would go. All he had to do was flick those wrists." Of course, every genius is flawed. Carey played in nine All-Ireland finals and failed to score from play in four of them; in two other finals his tally was one point from play. Before the 2000 final, only one of his 28 championship goals had come in an All-Ireland decider. And so the theory unfolded that he wasn't able to do it on the big day. "They say that on the big occasion I didn't play well," he said. "We had an All-Ireland quarter-final against Galway in 1997 and were nine points down; I scored 2-7 in that game, that's as big as you can possibly produce. In the 1992 All-Ireland final, I think I scored 1-4." He scored 1-4 again in the 2000 drubbing of Offaly, and fired 1-6 against Clare two years later. Cork, though, can be satisfied with their displays against him. They held him to just two points in four finals. And in the past couple of seasons, he has been nowhere near his best, depending on placed balls, hooks, blocks and passes to keep him in the mix. "Back then I would have let the criticism get to me," he said. "I learned to live with it. A certain amount of people won't like you. It's hard to get used to. When we weren't winning all the time I was always blamed." But we're just nit-picking. His legacy is safe forever. If hurling is a game for Gods, Carey was a gift from heaven.