‘Without the helmet, I wouldn’t be here’
A fractured skull left Eoin Murphy fighting for his life last April, yet he still has designs on playing a part in Deise’s quest for All-Ireland glory
As he lay on the field in Cappoquin, he closed his eyes tight and listened to the voices. People talked over Eoin Murphy as if, suddenly, he'd become something abstract or inanimate.
There was no doctor in the ground and panic began to form crystals in the vacant space. The right side of his head bellowed out with pain and closing his eyes offered a tiny comfort.
But this comfort was the act beginning to ferment terror now.
"They were saying 'Don't go to sleep on us!'" Murphy recalls. "I think they were afraid I was going to slip away.
"So, all I could hear was 'Wake up, talk to us, move your hand...'''
It is Wednesday evening in the kitchen of his home in Ballinacurra, outside Midleton and he retrieves an A4 size page from under a pile of magazines. The hospital scan of his fractured skull is brutal in its starkness. A hole has, literally, been punched in the right side of his head.
Murphy runs his fingers through his hair, describing it impassively as "just a ridge" now. They offered to "panel-beat" it back into shape for cosmetic purposes, but the surgery would have forbidden him from driving a car for six months.
He told them to forget about it. Unless he loses his hair, nobody will ever notice.
The blow was accidental and, from a small mountain of 90-plus texts left on his phone in the days that followed, he came upon one from the Abbeyside player whose hurley had done the damage. Immediately, he dispatched an appreciative and reassuring reply.
Sometimes bad things happen without any bad intention.
"My first thought was that something serious had happened," he remembers. "Just this sensation of bones breaking inside your head. When I went down, I deliberately stayed motionless because I wasn't sure what had actually cracked.
"I remember people rushing in -- some of them might have had a First Aid course done, but you just don't know. Everyone was saying not to move me."
And, in the midst of the trauma, a little sunburst of comedy. A selector standing above him, thinking only crisis management.
"Tell Pat Murphy warm up there ... "
Pat's nickname is 'Bobby' and, in the Shamrocks dressing-room, he resides as one of Eoin's closest friends. But he is also 42 now. "So, I'm lying there, thinking 'Ah Jesus, you can't bring Bobby on'," Eoin recalls, laughing now. "I'm going to have to try and finish this game."
He lay for maybe 20 minutes on the field, different voices dipping in and out of his pain. Leona's, especially, was freighted with terror. She'd brought their six-week-old daughter Aoibhinn to Cappoquin that day, but now had to hand the baby to a sister of Eoin's and wait with her husband for the ambulance.
Eventually, they carried him to the referee's room.
"I knew things were getting worse," he recalls. "The pain was terrible. Just a thumping in the side of my head. So, it's half eight at night on a Bank Holiday Friday and I know that people don't like the look of me.
"After a while, someone said 'He's out (unconscious).' And I said: 'I'm not out, I think I'm okay. But I've a terrible pain in my head'."
By the time the ambulance pulled in, the game had been abandoned. The paramedics gave him oxygen immediately and, on the journey to Waterford Regional, he threw up twice. In the A&E department, they grilled him on every small detail of what had happened and how he felt.
Then they gave him paracetemol and put him into a bed.
"All I wanted to do was go asleep," he says. "I felt at least sleep would help me go into another world and get some relief from the pain. Then I could wake up in the morning and go home. But there was no relief, no great sleep Every time I moved my head, I felt terrible."
The nurses spent all day Saturday setting him little cognitive tests, but, it being a Bank Holiday weekend, it was Sunday before he saw a consultant. And he was immediately sent down for a scan.
"I was back in the room about 10 minutes when two doctors came in and closed the curtain around me" he remembers. "When they did that, I said to myself: 'F**k it, this isn't good!' Because, in the back of my mind, I knew that something just wasn't right.
"And that's when they told me they were moving me to the neurological ward in Cork (University Hospital). They said I had a fractured skull with some swelling and bleeding on the brain."
He asked one of them to ring Leona, for he was too shocked to make the call himself. And so, the next week would be spent under observation in a ward where his troubles seemed trivial compared to many of those around him.
The fact that he hadn't suffered a fit or seizure in that first, critical 48 hours had been a good sign. There would be no need for surgery, they concluded.
Just a long bout of convalescence at home.
You ask, what if he had taken that blow without the protection of a helmet?
"I wouldn't be here," Murphy says unequivocally. "The helmet saved my life."
HE WAS HOME MAYBE A WEEK when Davy Fitzgerald called.
Since 2001 Murphy has been a virtual ever-present in Waterford's defence and, through all the fulminating glory and turmoil that became that team's signature, he's held a calm and temperate status in defence.
His first full year as a county hurler, Waterford won their first senior Munster title in 39 years.
There is a picture in the family home, taken moments after that '02 final defeat of Tipperary, of Eoin climbing the wire in Pairc Ui Chaoimh.
And there in the background are the clearly identifiable faces of a clutch of neighbours from Knockanore. Only now does the emotion of the moment fully connect with him.
"I probably dwell on that more now than I did then," he smiles. "Like, 39 years, Jesus. You think of the amount of people who had come and gone in that time and not seen Waterford win Munster. What they wouldn't have given to be there. I mean, I'll never forget getting off the bus that night to walk across Youghal bridge."
He got them to stop, too, at the Walter Raleigh Hotel, where he spotted his aunt Mary and uncle Edmund on the road. Just one minute to exchange handshakes and bear-hugs. "And Jesus, my uncle gives some hugs!"
Eoin Murphy was just 23 then. A stranger to hardship.
The years under Justin McCarthy became epic and beautiful, yet -- ultimately -- frustrating too. They were hurling's best-loved team, a side that hurled with glorious freedom. Justin rarely invested in tactics. "Just go out and hurl," he'd say. And, when Waterford did, the rest of hurling got goosebumps.
But they never made an All-Ireland final, let alone won one. And in the mid-season of '08, the marriage had curdled beyond rescue. Why? Maybe management and team just grew tired.
"Justin was an outstanding coach and a pure hurling man," says Murphy. "Things might have finished badly, but, for me, I played nearly every single championship game during his time with us. I've nothing but respect and gratitude for the man.
"People said we were a bit naïve in the All-Ireland semi-final of '02 and, maybe, too tired in the semi of '07. But I think, for too many years, Waterford looked for too many excuses, instead of just getting on with it. If we had to cycle to Croke Park to play in an All-Ireland semi-final, it shouldn't have made a difference to us.
"Some days, you just have to look in the mirror and ask yourself 'Did I put enough in?'."
They won three Munsters under Justin, before Davy stepped in. He got them to the '08 All-Ireland final where they ran into the propellers of a Kilkenny team reaching the zenith of its power. The carnage blinded many. Hurling in September hadn't been what everyone envisaged.
But, slowly, Fitzgerald put a different stamp on things. As the great personalities declined, Waterford needed a job of dramatic reconstruction. Last year, he guided the county to only its ninth Munster title in history. Their hurling was an ode to discipline and tactical adherence in the two finals against Cork. They'd parked the spontaneity.
Not everyone was happy.
For Murphy, though, the victory brought a fourth Munster senior medal, one more than even Waterford legends like Tom Cheasty and Frankie Walsh had mined.
"There are other ways to win," he says impassively. "Davy looks at things differently. It mightn't look pretty, but when you bring home silverware, I don't think anyone can be giving out."
He has palpable affection for Fitzgerald albeit, on that first visit after hospital, he knows for a fact that Davy lied.
"You're looking well," he said to the patient. Weeks later, when some colour had returned to Murphy's cheeks, Davy finally came clean. He'd been shocked by the gauntness of his corner-back's appearance.
"Jesus, Eoin, you looked absolutely brutal!"
Murphy's employers, Abbott Laboratories in Citywest, have been wonderfully supportive too. His job requires extensive driving and, while he is now back at the wheel, he has been advised against lengthy journeys.
Still, he hopes to return to work on Monday week and, if there has been a consolation to the trauma, it is that he has been at home with Leona and Aoibhinn, essentially, for two months now.
Leona says the incident in Cappoquin led to "a horrible few days." But they know their blessings.
HE TRAVELLED TO THURLES ON
the team-bus for the semi-final against Limerick and he will be with them again in Cork tomorrow.
Murphy won't be allowed full hurling contact again until mid-August, yet doesn't rule out an All-Ireland semi-final return. In the meantime, Davy has encouraged him to show his face at training and impart what little wisdoms he can to the youngsters coming through.
"I feel that if I can even contribute 1pc then it's worth doing," he says now. "So, I was delighted when Davy said he'd like to have me around. I mean, it's been a way of life to me anyway for 10 years now and I was missing going in.
"All I want is for Waterford to win an All-Ireland. Whether I'm playing or not, if I can help, that's what I'll do."
His first day back was last Sunday week, a sun-splashed morning session in Dungarvan. He felt almost euphoric driving in the gates, glimpsing so many familiar cars and faces.
As he went to get his gear from the boot, a couple of Davy's backroom staff came across to say hello. And that was when Eoin Murphy discovered the absence of his best friend.
"Oh b****x," he said, turning away with a smile. "You won't believe what I just forgot!"
The helmet was at home in Ballinacurra.