Remembering a star who ticked all the right boxes

Maybe he wouldn’t still be playing for Tyrone now.

Of the minor team he captained to an All-Ireland, Stephen O’Neill is the only one who has yet to hang up the boots. Of the U21 side he also led to national glory, Conor Gormley is the only other who still hasn’t called it a day. Of the men of 2003, Seán Cavanagh and Dermot Carlin are the only others again who still power on in the white and red.

You can only be sure that if he were still with us, Cormac McAnallen would be putting his time to good use.

He was always doing something. He always had something to do.

Ten years ago this weekend just past, Tyrone gave a masterful display in the Dr McKenna Cup final, wiping Donegal by 18 points in Ballybofey in front of more than 14,000 fans. McAnallen as team captain had been outstanding at full back, yet on the team bus home, while teammates speculated about what pub to hit, he was hitting the books.

A teammate enquired what he was reading. “Politics,” Cormac informed him. The previous week, his students in St Catherine’s all-girl secondary school in Armagh had answered all his questions.

“Tomorrow,” he said, “I want to be able to answer all theirs.”

Then when the bus left him off, he headed away to the Scór quiz semi-final in Omagh to answer more questions and further feed his insatiable intellect.

His weekday was full on too. As well as teaching in St Catherine’s, he had taken on some work as a youth sports officer. His brother Donal has his diary from that year which shows that on March 1, 2004, Cormac had volleyball to organise, the internal school audit to prepare for, the money for the kickboxing to collect, a call to St Malachy’s in Belfast to make, a notice about the Year Eight football course to put up.

Beside each item, he had drawn a little box. Nearly all of them got ticked. That evening he went to the gym in the Armagh City Hotel with an Eglish clubmate, came home, watched a bit of telly and then went up to his room to make his checklist for the next day, Tuesday, March 2. The U14 match versus Lismore. Sort out homework for 8R inspection. Bus notice about training.

But, as Donal would remark wistfully years later, “The boxes aren’t ticked.”

It’s hard to believe that it’s already five years ago since Donal showed me those diaries and even harder to comprehend it’s 10 years next weekend since Cormac passed away in his room.

What’s even harder to grasp is that most kids outside of Tyrone playing minor football for their club or county now probably don’t know, let alone appreciate, who Cormac McAnallen was.

The 17-year-old of today was only seven then.

For those of us who are older, it’s difficult to explain just how sudden and shocking his passing was; about the only comparison is the tragic death of his friend, Michaela Harte. It was one of the GAA’s JFK moments.

All-Irelands are won every year; either you were at it, watched it on the box, or were at something else. When we learned Cormac McAnallen was dead, none of us were watching a game. We were just out of the shower, checking our mail, driving to work. It was not a scheduled GAA event. We were stopped in our tracks from going about our own business because at that time he should have been going about his, ticking off more boxes.

Tyrone then were what the Clare hurlers are now: a team top of the world expecting to rule it forever, forever young. Just as it’s hard to fathom how mature someone like Tony Kelly is, McAnallen was wise beyond his years. When he was still 21, Art McRory wanted him to captain the senior team, only McAnallen declined. He was going to be studying in UCD for the year and felt the team wouldn’t be seeing enough of him.

That awareness showed why he had been offered it in the first place. Instead their back-up choice, one Peter Canavan, got the armband while McAnallen got his first-class honour in his H Dip in Belfield.

Canavan would go on to lift Sam Maguire but it says everything about McAnallen’s extraordinary leadership that within months Canavan was relieved of captaincy duties and they were delegated to Cormac.

His memory is still honoured. His family have been heroic in that effort. Campa Chormaic gives kids aged nine to 16 the chance to celebrate the game and the language that he loved.

Queen’s University have dedicated a medal to his memory, presented each year for outstanding sportsmanship and commitment.

And above all, there’s The Cormac Trust. Ten years ago, no one knew what a defibrillator was. Thanks to the McAnallen family, now everyone does, and clubs countrywide have one.

On March 21, The Trust holds a gala dinner in the Armagh City Hotel to mark 10 years of the Trust and raise further funds for it.

Check out to learn more. And this weekend maybe tell some kid a little bit about another kid called Cormac, and all the boxes he managed to tick in a remarkable 24 years.

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