It’s that time of year again when some of this country’s finest and fittest stare into the inky blackness of those dark winter nights and decide that one more spin on the GAA’s carousel is beyond them.
Paudie Kissane was the latest, bowing out this week 11 years after his debut with Cork and three since he won an All-Ireland medal and an All Star for his efforts.
Many more have laid down their tools since September but most have done so without much in the way of fanfare. It’s just not how we do these things here. Even Tomás Ó Sé, one of the association’s greatest ever ambassadors, went out quietly via a chat on Raidió na Gaeltachta with old comrade Dara Ó Cinnéide when he explained that, after 15 years and a smorgasbord of honours, enough was enough.
They say the games we play say a lot about a people and the same could be suggested for the manner in which we leave the playing parlour for the last time. In Ireland we tend to exit modestly, by the side door, while someone else is on stage occupying our thoughts. In the States, for example, it is very different.
Trawl through the internet and it is littered with videos and excerpts of players bidding adieu in front of hundreds of journalists, dozens of cameras and on live TV. More often than not, it is sound-tracked by a barrage of cheers, a thunder of clapping hands and moistened with floods of tears.
John Elway, a Hall of Fame quarterback who ended his career on the back of successive Super Bowl triumphs with the Denver Broncos, sought to circumnavigate the solemnity of his farewell by resorting to humour, but even he found himself entangled by the magnitude of the moment.
“I look on it as a graduation,” he said back in April 1999 at an event that began with a moment’s silence for the recent Columbine High School massacre. “We all graduate from High School and college. I’m just graduating from football.”
It was a good line, but his nonchalance was betrayed by a sentence choked with emotion.
You can dismiss such events as stage-managed contrivances but the significance of them to the people for whom they are held shouldn’t be overlooked and the pain of parting from a career, from a way of life, which they have known for so long is the same whether it is a little-known hurler from a weaker county or a millionaire icon in the US of A.
Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to play Major League Baseball in the modern era, once remarked that all sportspeople die twice, the first time being when they retire.
Overly dramatic though that may be, it does go some way towards explaining the sense of loss experienced when the support structures and bonhomie of life as an athlete are removed.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, he of NBA fame, summed it up when he told CNN last January: “The first training camp that I missed, I was like, ‘Jeez, what am I going to do now’?” Eddie Arcaro, a sportsman who stood 2ft smaller than the basketball player, was more pithy when his days of winning the Kentucky Derby came to an end. “When a jockey retires he becomes just another little man,” he said sadly.
It’s a situation worth noting in a week in which Conor Cusack wrote and spoke so movingly and bravely about his battle with depression and the role sport played in turning his life around and it is one made even more topical by the survey released last week by the Irish Rugby Union Players’ Association.
Sifting through the various facts and figures it was clear a large percentage of former professional rugby players have struggled to adapt to life after the guts and the glory of the oval ball game and Omar Hassanein, the organisation’s chief executive, spoke last January of the challenges facing the 35 or so players who retire every year
“It’s not easy and we try to assist every player we can, not just during their playing career but in the transitional phase,” he explained at the time.
“We’re in the process of launching a past professional alumni so we’re formalising that assistance we give to the player.
“Someone like Alan Quinlan has landed on his feet but he’s still doing a number of patchy roles so he’s had to scrap away to find a full-time income.
“There’s only a select few like Brian [O’Driscoll] and Paul [O’Connell] who can use their profile. Beyond that the guys are really starting from scratch.”
For some, retirement can prove to be the toughest opponent of them all.
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