Christy O'Connor: Road back from injury in elite sports like GAA is brutal

'For all the heroic stories, there are thousands who have endured the lonely days of rehab but were just mentally and physically worn down'
Christy O'Connor: Road back from injury in elite sports like GAA is brutal

Ciarán Sheehan of Cork gains possession ahead of Limerick players Tony McCarthy, Iain Corbett, and Robert Childs during the 2020 McGrath Cup final. Picture: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

WHEN the pain hits, the fear is normally framed around one tiny detail, a sharp but audible sound. A pop.

Most players hear it, some don’t. When a player or athlete tear their cruciate knee ligament, some describe the sensation and acute pain like their leg being separated from between the shinbone and knee.

Others don’t feel any pain at all but, as soon as the red flags fly up, or are put up by a physio or doctor, the trepidation and fear of having suffered a dreaded cruciate knee ligament can be terrifying.

It’s even more horrendous for those who have already suffered the injury. Denial is often the first refuge of hope, but that infamous sound soon confirms the reality.

“I knew straight away it was the cruciate again, I heard the pop,” said Tadgh de Búrca after tearing his cruciate for the second time in just over a year during last year’s All-Ireland final. “I was weak after it.” 

De Búrca knew that he was facing another long, lonely and arduous slog. Those who know de Búrca say he couldn’t have done any more to get himself back on the pitch in 2020. And now he has to do the same all over again.

De Búrca missed Waterford’s opening championship match at the weekend against Clare but he’s already on the comeback trail, diligently working away on his own in the gym, on the road or on the pitch, trying to reach and surpass small targets with each passing week.

Tadhg de Búrca of Waterford is fouled by Ben Conneely of Offaly. Picture: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Tadhg de Búrca of Waterford is fouled by Ben Conneely of Offaly. Picture: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

Days can feel like weeks. Weeks can feel like months. 

In an amateur game, it can be easy to forget, or dismiss, just how much players go through as they try to get their bodies ready to play again.

Loneliness is often a constant companion along that journey. Hope can be false. Enthusiasm can feel like an impostor. Setbacks are inevitable. Any small shreds of positivity are still largely governed by an unmistakable vulnerability.

That is often what elite sport is – brutal and so unforgiving that it can chew players up and spit them out on the pavement. For all the heroic stories told of players who do make it back, there are thousands who have endured the lonely days of rehab, but who were just mentally and physically worn down because their bodies couldn’t reach the standard required and, increasingly demanded. Others jumped every hurdle but were still cast aside by a manager who felt their day at the top level was done.

For many though, the endgame is just a silent admission that it’s all over, and they can’t put their body through any more.


Only last week, Ciarán Sheehan, confirmed the end of his inter-county career with Cork, due to a persistent knee injury. After suffering a meniscus tear in the first half of Cork’s league game against Clare, Sheehan was forced to close the book on his career on the eve of championship.

Sheehan was a brilliant player, but injury decimated his career. While playing AFL with Carlton, Sheehan had six operations in the space of two and a half years – three hip surgeries, two knee surgeries and an operation on a badly broken nose. Sheehan also had serious hamstring injuries.

Sheehan couldn’t have done any more but that is what players do as they chase their dreams. Many are advised to pack it all in, but acceptance never comes easy. If anything, the pain and torture is the fuel which drives players on to reach their goals and fulfil their ambition.

For every Ciarán Sheehan, there is a Brian Hurley. After ripping four inches of his hamstring clean off the bone in the summer of 2016, Hurley went above and beyond the call of duty to get back, before suffering a recurrence the following spring. The medical advice Hurley received at that point was to pack it in. At 24. He didn’t. He couldn’t. Now Hurley is back and buzzing again.

There are heroic people with inspirational stories in every walk of life, but sporting comebacks are often the most uplifting because of the challenges involved in elite sport in the first place.

In 1976, Niki Lauda, one of the best Formula 1 drivers of all time and then reigning World Champion, was leading the German GP when his Ferrari crashed and caught fire. Lauda suffered severe burns to his head. Toxic gases entered his lungs and blood before he could be pulled out of the car. The Austrian went into a coma after the accident. Lauda was given the last rites in the hospital.

Lauda lost most of his right ear. His face was severely scarred from burns, but Lauda was somehow back on track just six weeks later. 

Lauda eventually lost the 1976 title to James Hunt by just one point, but he returned to win his second World Championship in 1977.

Lauda’s story revealed a different level of determination, but GAA players have also shown some of the most incredible willpower and mental strength imaginable. In 2003, gifted young Wexford hurler James McDonald was rolled over by an articulated lorry in a hit-and-run accident, suffering catastrophic leg injuries. The top surgeons in the country said McDonald would never walk properly again, let alone run. Five years later, McDonald won a county senior hurling title with St Martin’s.

Most GAA players never have to undergo that level of trauma – mental and physical – experienced by McDonald. But GAA players, especially those at elite level, sign up for the hardship and quietly go about that manic pursuit, doing everything possible to get back when serious injury strikes.

Because that’s how much representing themselves, their family and their county on the GAA field means to them.

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