Wednesday 13 December 2017

Alan Quinlan: Nothing can prepare you for the fact that part of your life is over

Niall Quinn pictured outside Flanagan's Funeral home in Dundrum. Photo: Frank McGrath
Niall Quinn pictured outside Flanagan's Funeral home in Dundrum. Photo: Frank McGrath

Alan Quinlan

Last week I sat down to read an article about Niall Quinn and his plan to help ex-professional footballers adjust to life once their career ends.

Admitting that he struggled emotionally in the aftermath of his own playing career - and conscious of the alarming statistics which highlight the difficulties former footballers have adjusting to the sporting afterlife, Niall has launched a programme called 'Catch a Falling Star', with the intention of educating players about the pitfalls of the post-retirement world.

That nearly one in two go bankrupt within 10 years of their career ending, prompted Niall to see if he could do something.

"There are so many ex-players who inevitably become a pale shadow of their former selves," Quinn said. "Sports stars don't want to tackle retirement issues early. The fact of the matter is they should have prepared far better and far earlier for the end of their career."

And it got me thinking about rugby. Compared to soccer, professionalism is in its infancy in our sport. You're talking about 21 years versus 120. And yet, even though rugby is newish to the world of professionalism, it still seems better structured than most sports to help their players adjust to what comes next.

Credit IRUPA, the players' union, for this. They've been in and out of dressing rooms for years. "Get educated," they told us when I was playing for Munster and Ireland. "Upskill."

As players, we were given mentors, access to job placements, a support network.

All this struck me towards the latter part of this week when I landed in Spain for a 10-year reunion with my former Munster colleagues who were part of our 2006 Heineken Cup-winning side.

We're all doing well post-retirement. Some are still in rugby. Others are in business. No one - thankfully - is struggling.

But emotionally? Well, that's a different story.

I'd be surprised if there is any professional athlete who doesn't miss their sport when the call comes and you get told your time is up.

I know I do. And it hits you this time of year, the time when finals are on, when the season ends, when you read newspapers and discover that Ian Humphreys is finishing up his career.

So too Denis Hurley. When you hear about Fionn Carr being released by Connacht, you think back to the career you had and your own professional insecurities.

Being a rugby player was the best thing in the world. And - in a strange way - the worst. What I mean by that is that you knew you had it perfect. You'd lived in the real world, working - in my case as a mechanic for five years - before the call came to sign for Munster.

Then you found yourself in an environment where the men sitting next to you in your new workplace were friends as well as colleagues, all on a mission to conquer Europe. Together, we walked into some of the biggest arenas in the world and played in front of 80,000.

How do you describe that feeling? I can't. But I know a man who can. In a book, 'Voices from Croke Park', DJ Carey - five years after he retired - said: "I was born to hurl and for me the ultimate adrenaline rush came on Championship days, when I got the ball on the end of my stick and ran. In those brief seconds of perfection, I got this buzz. I can't describe it now. All I know is that I never got it from anything else. I miss it. Miss it terribly."

I know what he means. I was no DJ Carey but I remember those adrenaline kicks, I remember the dressing room, the building of friendships, the knowledge that the men sitting around the room from me would watch my back once we stepped onto a pitch.

I remember the tension on the week of big matches, the challenges those friends sitting around me would pose to me. I remember searching for ways to improve.

And then, on days like last Saturday, when a province came to Edinburgh to support Connacht, I remember the feeling I had on the day when our team bus pulled into Twickenham or the Millennium Stadium.

Add in the sheer enjoyment of playing - and then, in 2006 and 2008, the elation of winning - and you have the ultimate high.

Yet for every sportsman, you can't stay at that height forever. You have to come back down. Time catches up on you - as it has for Ian and Denis this week - as it did for me in 2011, as it did for Niall Quinn in 2003.

That's the worst thing. The knowledge that it is over forever, the knowledge that you'll never walk out into a packed stadium again, will never play for Clanwilliam, for Shannon, for Munster, for Ireland ever again.

You talk about a void. The void is in your heart. Once you retire, you re-enter normal society because when you're a professional sportsman, it must be like going to jail, in the sense that you are detached from the rest of the world.

Now, people will say, 'Pity about you' - and they're right to. No one forced us to enter this world.

No one should sympathise with us for having difficulties adjusting to the real world. They, after all, have been in it while you were being paid for playing a game. Yet it's a reality you can't get away from.

Still, years pass. Life goes on. Work comes in. Before retiring I had a plan. IRUPA and Declan Kidney helped me with that. Without their advice, I may not be in the place I am in now.

And yet, and yet, and yet. Nothing can prepare you for the knowledge that a part of your life is over and won't ever come back.

Old baseball players called it a little death. I know what they mean.

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