GROWING up, we all had our sporting heroes and it’s often been said that you should never meet them in person.
Nine times out of 10 you may well be very disappointed, those heroes never measuring up to your expectations of them.
There are exceptions, of course, something that I found out to my delight all of 20 years ago now.
Back in the 1960s, as a small child, I travelled regularly to the big GAA games around Munster, the old Cork Athletic Grounds, Tom Semple’s field in Thurles and the Gaelic Grounds in Limerick.
In those days Tipperary ruled the hurling world with a team containing some of the greats of the game.
Even though I was a young, fanatical Cork fan, one player stood out for me and that was Jimmy Doyle, somebody that I just loved watching and marvelling at his skill and craft and his wonderful scoring ability.
He was a thorn in many Cork teams but that did not diminish the admiration I had for him watching him in action.
I never got to meet him during those days, but years later I plucked up the courage to ring him and ask him if there was any chance I could interview him about his career.
The answer was, no problem at all, can you come up to Thurles?
Off I went one Saturday afternoon, very nervous at meeting somebody I grew up admiring, a sporting icon.
Hayes’ Hotel was the meeting point and from the moment we met, after a firm grip shake of the hand, I was completely at ease.
Here I was in the company of one of hurling’s true greats and he was just a very ordinary man, a very humble man as I discovered immediately.
For the next hour and a half or so he spoke about everything, particularly about his battles with Cork and the players that he came across.
He acknowledged the great rivalry that was there, sometimes maybe a dangerous rivalry, but absolutely stressed that once the game was over it was forgotten.
He spoke in revered terms of Christy Ring and the admiration that he had for him and the friendship that developed between them.
How the great man from Cloyne would call to him in Thurles and it was a friendship that endured to the untimely passing of the greatest one of them all.
Jimmy told me that some of his best friends were from Cork, great players like Tony Maher, Willie Walsh, Denis Coughlan, and so many more.
He loved coming down to Leeside for Munster championship clashes and of meeting up with old Cork players.
Willie Walsh, a great player himself, being one of them, fondly recalls that friendship.
“Yes, we were great friends, I was at his retirement ‘do’ many years ago. He was such a wonderful man, such a humble human person.
“We got to play together for Munster, got a trip to the States out of it and myself, Jimmy, Noel Dwyer, and John O’Donoghue went pucking around with each other.
“I remember the three of them going into goal and I was taking shots at them.
“Jimmy was a very good goalkeeper too and he’d just put out his hand and stop my shots, saying to me, Willie you will have to do better that that.
“In 1966 I went to Croke Park for the Railway Cup final of that year just to see him play, he was a master craftsman, some of the scores that he got were unbelievable, a lot of them against Cork, but that’s the way it was.
“Tipp were very good then, you had the full-back trio of Kieran Carey, Mick Maher, and John Doyle, thank God they were gone before I started.
“I was proud to have been able to call him one of my great friends and when he died I was left without a very special man as a friend.’’
Tony Maher remembers him too. “I got to know Jimmy back in the ’60s and ’70s and we developed a great friendship. He would come out to the Barrs when he was down for a big game, he had great friends here and he idolised Ringy.”
Such sentiments would be expressed by so many whose lives he touched.
He was truly one of the greats, his record speaking for itself, six All-Ireland senior medals, nine Munster titles, seven national league medals and eight Railway Cup medals.
In the year of 1957, he played minor and senior for Tipperary on the same day in Croke Park, something unprecedented and something that will never happen again.
People went to games just to see him alone play and it was their privilege.
That Saturday afternoon in the home of hurling it was my privilege to meet him and in all my years following sport I can safely say without fear of being contradicted that it was one of the most uplifting experiences of my life.
To be in the company of one of your sporting heroes, a man of such talent but, above all, of such humility was special.
And it proved one thing, meeting one of your heroes can be a positive and not the negative some people say.
Jimmy Doyle was one of the greatest hurlers of all time, somebody revered as much outside of Tipperary as inside it.