Kieran Shannon: Behind the gruff exterior, Brian Mullins had a heart of gold

In an interview he gave to me 10 years ago in this paper, Larry Tompkins spoke about what player was his greatest influence. It was Brian Mullins
Kieran Shannon: Behind the gruff exterior, Brian Mullins had a heart of gold

CLUB MAN: The late Brian Mullins celebrating victory for his beloved St Vincent's in the 2017 Dublin SFC final. Pic: INPHO/Oisin Keniry

When the shocking news broke last Friday evening that Brian Mullins had died, a multitude of images and memories flashed through our mind, but two stood out from sources not most acquainted with the pride of Dublin: a son of Kildare and a son of Chicago.

In recent days we’ve often, rightly, heard of how much Mullins was moulded by Vincent’s and how much he went on to influence Vincent’s and Dublin. And by extension their rivals throughout his playing career because he was for so long their nemesis and tormentor: Jacko and Kerry, Offaly, Meath. 

But Mullins’ reach extended beyond the teams he and Heffernan foiled and educated. Larry Tompkins was the catalyst for Cork along with Meath being the standout team of the post O’Dwyer-Heffo era, and, in the words of Mullins’ old Thomond PE classmate Pat Spillane, was the first professional Gaelic footballer, in attitude at least, a precursor to the likes of Tohill and McGeeney. 

But in an interview he gave to me 10 years ago in this paper, Tompkins spoke about what player was his greatest influence. “The biggest guy who toughened me up mentally was Mullins,” he’d say.

They played together for Leinster, most notably in 1985, several months before Tompkins would play his last game for Kildare – and indeed Mullins would play his last for Dublin.

Initially Mullins hadn’t been selected on the Leinster panel for that campaign but when they played Dublin in a challenge game in Parnell Park team manager Bobby Miller felt compelled to call him up such was his brilliance that day. Mullins’ assertiveness didn’t end there: he told Miller that he’d play for Leinster alright on the condition that he’d be captain. 

“I’ve never won a Railway Cup. I want to win a Railway Cup.” He subsequently set the tone in training. “He brought a real intensity,” Tompkins would recount in his 2020 autobiography, Believe. “One bad pass and he’d bawl you of it.” 

You couldn’t saunter into training and go through the motions: you’d to commit to make sure you got something out of it.

The day of the final against Munster, the team met beforehand in the Ashling Hotel where Mullins addressed each player individually as to what was needed and expected from them. 

“Your job is to kick the ball over the bar,” he’d inform Tompkins. “I’ll do the ploughing.” 

True enough, Mullins shirked no work that day. When they arrived at Croke Park the gates were still locked. Mullins duly mounted the iron fortress and then opened up the gates for his teammates to follow.

Before the game in the dressing room, Miller more than once referenced Jack O’Shea, and understandably so: he was the reigning footballer of the year. It didn’t sit right with Mullins, though; in annoyance he turned over the physio’s table. “Don’t ye worry about Jack O’Shea! I’ll take care of him.” 

And he did. He’d end up man of the match and get his hands on his first Railway Cup medal in the last-ever Railway Cup final played in Croke Park.

Later that evening Tompkins was sitting beside future GAA president Jack Boothman at a victory banquet when Mullins came over to them and plonked the cup on the table. 

“I don’t want to rub it in your faces but ye don’t win too many of these,” he told them. “Take it away.” 

And so Tompkins did, but with a formula to win more and bigger things.

RIVALS TURNED FRIENDS: Brian Mullins with Kerry great Jack O'Shea at Croke Park. Pic: Ray McManus/Sportsfile
RIVALS TURNED FRIENDS: Brian Mullins with Kerry great Jack O'Shea at Croke Park. Pic: Ray McManus/Sportsfile

In 1988 Jerome Westbrooks and his high school sweetheart Lois were returning to Dublin from Paris where they had celebrated their sixth wedding anniversary when they were stopped at immigration and threatened with deportation. Jerome was going to be sent back to his native Chicago immediately via Paris while Lois had the right to stay within Ireland for 24 hours to organise the return of their three children and their belongings. 

At that point he asked could he make a phone call. And so he called the godfather to his son Isaac. Brian Mulllins would know what to do and who could help.

It wasn’t the first time Mullins had gone far and beyond to help his friend. Midway through the 1985-86 season, Trim, the team Westbrooks was playing for in the second flight of the Irish national basketball league, went bust. 

With no job and no work he was struggling to even afford the trip home to Chicago the following summer only Mullins forked out to loan him the required money. When Kevin Heffernan used to talk about Mullins having “a heart of gold” behind that gruffness “that you didn’t know was it for real or feigned”, Westbrooks can vouch for the validity of that observation.

They befriended each other in 1983 when Westbrooks did a bit of coaching in Darndale where Mullins was a PE teacher. At the time Westbrooks was about one of the few black men living in Dublin but in him Mullins saw a soulmate. They both were PE graduates and Mullins himself knew what it was like to be a transatlantic immigrant; a couple of years earlier he had undertaken a masters in New York University, bringing his family with him.

And so that night in 1988 he showed up in Dublin Airport, and through a few calls and connections of his own, secured their safe passage back into Ireland. Shortly after that Mullins alerted Westbrook that a PE teaching job was coming up in Portmarnock Commuity School. And as Jerome recalls, “Brian didn’t tell me, ‘You might have a look at that job.’ He said, ‘Listen, this job is going and you’re going to take it.’ He understood it was in the best interests of my family and our financial security.” 

Over 30 years later Westbrooks was still there and still in close contact with Mullins. Through the years they’re regularly attend games the other was coaching or their children were playing in.

“The word I’d use most to describe Brian is empathetic,” says Westbrooks. “I know that is completely at odds with this gruff unapproachable individual because of the on-field persona he had but he was an educator, and the reason he was an educator was he genuinely loved helping people and through the medium of physical activity and sport. He was the most loyal person I’ve known. A mutual friend of ours said if you had to go to war the one person you’d want alongside you in the trenches was Brian Mullins.” 

It wasn’t Tompkins by the way, though he’d say the same thing. On or off the field he had their back.

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