There’s a classic Gary Larson cartoon from The Far Side comic series that depicts two deer standing in a forest, shooting the breeze.
One deer has a target painted on to his chest. The other says to him “Bummer of a birthmark, Hal”.
It came to mind this week as news emerged that Mayo’s captain Aidan O’Shea had sustained a knee injury, prompting fears that he may now miss the entire year.
O’Shea’s prodigious talent has been his birthmark to wear since he bulldozed through a minor football championship in 2008. Since then, he has been an ever-present for Mayo, clocking up 58 consecutive championship appearances, having not missed a game since the summer of 2012.
This would be a remarkable stat in any sport, but is especially so, given the attritional nature of Gaelic Football and Mayo’s predilection for going deep into almost every autumn.
Of course, there are those that argue O’Shea painted the target on his own chest, simply by being 6 feet five inches, from Mayo, and very good at football.
The last fella to have the audacity to combine that trifecta of gifts was Liam McHale, who was so bold to take it two steps further by daring to have a year round tan and larger than life personality.
This was too much for many, who liked their Gaelic Footballers drawn as black and white characters, as bare-knuckled fighters on the field, and strong, silent types off it.
McHale polarised opinion within his home county as much as he did nationally, but, just like Ciarán McDonald after him, the same polarisation that dogged their careers evaporated into warm, sepia-tinted nostalgia some years after they both retired.
There’s no revisionist history quite like a YouTube montage and a Laochra Gael slot to mask the years of confused feelings folk can have towards their county footballers.
While we still await the extent of the Breaffy man’s injury (reports suggest it’s not as bad as first feared), the sudden - rather grim - possibility of life without Aidan has hung in the air as an unspoken possibility.
No sooner had the season’s fixtures been (rather covertly) announced, than the prospect of being without one of the games biggest talents drifts like a foreboding cloud in the sporting sky.
Outside of, indeed, perhaps because of Dublin, the game has struggled to engage the imagination of a public who crave entertainment. Donegal had a moment in the last decade, Kerry too, but outside of that it’s been a two county show.
Yes, Dublin have done all the winning, but Mayo, for the most part, have done all the entertaining.
O’Shea has been at the centre of most of it. A prophecy fulfilled, like the mercurial talents that went before him, he has proven similarly divisive.
There was an element of the showman about him from the first day he lit up Croke Park as an explosive minor, tossing opposing players aside like a Pamplonian bull, fetching ball from clear blue skies and kicking skyscraping points from fifty yards. Each subsequent fist pump acted as an advertisement for his Olympic swimmer’s physique.
He was like Gulliver in Lilliput. Like the prodigious high school quarterback, everyone seems to know what’s best for him; from the rate of his introduction to the senior team (first year out of minor), to his best position on the field (O’Shea has played full back, midfield, centre and full-forward in huge games for Mayo), he has lived the life of a comic book footballer. Loved, hated, feared and respected, that such diverse opinions exist about the player 12 years after he made his debut is testament to the incredible career he’s had.
There has arguably been no better transition from brilliant minor footballer to a brilliant senior footballer than Aidan O’Shea in the modern game. David Clifford looks like an obvious successor but is still only at the beginning of his odyssey.
The drawn and replayed minor finals against Tyrone in 2008 were memorable for two stand-out performers; O’Shea and Tyrone’s Kyle Coney. Given Tyrone’s stature in the game and Coney’s Canavan-esque acumen, the Ardboe man looked a banker for greatness.
Sadly, injuries and unfulfilled potential robbed us of watching a generational talent in full flight. Coney retired in January of this year after a stop-start intercounty career. Conversely, O’Shea captained Mayo to another All-Ireland final last December, three All-Stars into a career that is hopefully far from over. During that span, he has undoubtedly frustrated as he has inspired. The skyscraping points have been replaced by subtle hand passes and dancing feet.
At different times in different seasons, he has played like a colossal link-man; a conduit between defence and attack. The memory of the marauding minor made us all want more. Our lack of appreciation for the finer details in his play is an inevitable reaction to the reason why we are confined to armchairs and high stools, and not out there helping him.
Because he destroyed Donegal by himself in 2015, we wondered why he couldn’t do it all of the time. Because he won every throw-ball for what seemed like an entire season in 2019, we wondered why he couldn’t win every ball, every time. Because he swatted away markers and kicked scores for fun when he was 18, this became the standard by which we would judge him for the rest of his footballing life.
What the hell do we know? For all his dominance as a teenager, the sceptic in all of us must have suspected he would never fulfil his potential as he has. The odds were against him. His size would hold him back. The weight, too hard to shake off. If not that, then surely an epic fallout with a manager who deemed him too big for his boots, given he likes to do outrageous, Black Sabbath stuff like drink good coffee and tik tok. Crazy, then, to think he has lived an entire life in front of us and disappointed us so profoundly by never letting us down.
Last week’s scare should serve as a reminder that someday, there’ll be no Big Aido, and the game will be infinitely the lesser for it.