WHAT a strange football year it’s been! One of twists and of turns! One of defiant unity and bitter division! One of utter dejection, and pure unbridled elation! 

And, as its end approaches, one of the greatest Mayo teams, if not the greatest Mayo team, stand ready once again, to test both their nerve and their courage. Once again they have returned to the well, drawing water when so many believed that it had finally run dry.

It was this resilience in the side and its stars that led me to approach Aidan O’Shea about taking part in an American Football challenge for the AIB sponsored ‘The Toughest Trade’ TV show. I believe the challenge revealed much about him in the way he addressed it, and it produced one of the TV moments of the year from a GAA perspective, when he met with ‘the Flying Doctor’, Pádraig Carney.

I’ve known Aidan for a couple of years. I wouldn’t say I know him well, but I did get to know him better on this journey. He is many things: a gifted and dedicated athlete and footballer, a gregarious and generous personality, and a man with an uniquely competitive zeal. What I learned too, is he is consumed by the sport of Gaelic football almost completely, a student of its history, obsessive about its tactics and techniques, and someone for whom real joy is drawn from the journey as much as the destination.

He is also a straight shooter in what he sees and says. Because of that, he’s been been maligned unfairly in the last year in quarters inside and outside Mayo. The Aussies call it tall poppy syndrome; the late great Breandán Ó hEithir would simply call it old fashioned begrudgery.

When Aidan says he did not dive for the controversial penalty against Fermanagh, I believe him, although I accept there are many who never will. Why do I believe him? Because I saw him in many guises during the production process for the show and in its aftermath – as a son, brother, teammate, leader.

He has disdain for mediocrity and, above all else, wants to achieve all he can in the game. I believe him too, because when you see his reaction to events in politics, daily life or in other sports, something else is revealed, an inherent sense of justice, one imbued from a young age in the O’Shea household.

Mayo captain Sean Flanagan with the Sam Maguire and some Mayo supporters after the 1950 All-Ireland final. Picture: The Mayo News
Mayo captain Sean Flanagan with the Sam Maguire and some Mayo supporters after the 1950 All-Ireland final. Picture: The Mayo News

When a second instalment of ‘The Toughest Trade’ was proposed, all involved felt given his physique and personality he would be a great candidate for an American football trade. Aidan himself might have preferred one to the National Basketball Association, but he accepted the challenge, and from that point on, we began to construct his challenge for him. Once we knew he was trading with Roberto Wallace, and his NFL Scouting Combine would be in Texas, it was clear the American West and, in particular, Southern California would be a part of it. And once it was, fate intervened.

Just a few days before our departure for California, the Reverend Peter Quinn, a star of the Mayo teams of 1950 and ’51, passed away. I had a conversation with my mother and she was curious as to who else was alive from the team.

I said two, according to what I had read – Pádraig Carney and Paddy Prendergast. “Isn’t Pádraig Carney ‘the Flying Doctor’? Doesn’t he live in America? It would be great if you got Aidan to meet him,” she said. And there it was – the eureka moment. I thought: he might be in California too!

I spoke to the other producers. All were excited by the prospect. We then checked with Aidan to ask if he’d ever met him. In fact Pádraig was someone he had not met. He had met Paddy Prendergast, and Fr Peter, but it was clear that whatever we did on this trip, for Aidan, if it could be arranged, nothing would surpass meeting ‘the Flying Doctor’. Within a few hours I had tracked down a location in Long Beach for Pádraig. I thought it best then to find out more about him and the life he had made in America.

And what a life it is. Besides both having successful careers in medicine, he and wife Moira have raised a wonderful family. Their sons, like their father, have gone on to be brilliant amateur athletes. Cormac, now a US federal Judge, was an All American wide receiver at UCLA in the 1980s; Brian played for the Air Force Academy in the 1970s; Terence attended the University of the Pacific on a basketball scholarship.

It was the next generation who would provide the first point of contact for Pádraig.

A news article on Terence’s daughter Katie, who herself was a college soccer star, led me to her. Within a short while, Terence had provided a number to call Pádraig, but in the meantime he was doing his own research too.

Pádraig’s great friend, Bernard O’Hara, aside from being a mine of information on all historical topics, is a family friend. When Pádraig contacted him to see who this other O’Hara was, he gave Bernard the okay to pass on a number too.

In any event, Padraig was delighted to receive the call and very keen to meet Aidan, whom he had watched many times in the flesh and on GAAGO.

MEETING HIS HERO: Mayo footballer Aidan O’Shea with 1951 All-Ireland winner Pádraig Carney at his home in Long Beach, California when they met as part of ‘The Toughest Trade’ TV show. Picture courtesy of Aidan O’Shea’s Instagram account
MEETING HIS HERO: Mayo footballer Aidan O’Shea with 1951 All-Ireland winner Pádraig Carney at his home in Long Beach, California when they met as part of ‘The Toughest Trade’ TV show. Picture courtesy of Aidan O’Shea’s Instagram account

And so it was that immediately after the Dublin v Mayo National League game, myself and Aidan made for Dublin Airport with a couple of copies of The Mayo News in our luggage. Two days later, we and the rest of the crew arrived outside the Long Beach home of Pádraig Carney. Aidan could not have been better prepared – he had done his research. Few probably knew more about ‘the Flying Doctor’ .

When Pádraig answered the door, there was genuine and instant respect and affection. Aidan, although clearly awestruck, was as comfortable in his company as anyone could be. In between filming they conversed freely. Among the many topics of conversation were the parallels between a players’ letter to the county board in 1948 and the events that had led to the appointment of Stephen Rochford as Mayo manager.

When all was done, both wished each other well and we went about completing another five days of gruelling training and tests for Aidan. While unquestionably the challenge of an NFL Combine was always going to be the focal point of the show, I gathered quickly from Aidan the real highlight for him was meeting Pádraig. We waited patiently for the editing of the programme to be completed and its ultimate airing.

What we were gifted on the night was a truly magical moment of television – one all of us who had a part in it in some shape or form will take pride in for many years to come. A gap bridged as two greats of different eras bonded over the colours that have defined their playing careers, green and red. The effect the meeting had on Aidan cannot be overstated. He was in the company of a man who had achieved what he aspired to, one who walked away from the game at roughly the same age Aidan is now. That was not lost on him, the window to achieve is narrow.

In the last six years, Mayo have produced a group of players who are peerless in the county’s history. Their sustained success, their relentlessness in the face of repeated disappointments, the immense sacrifices they make, the athletic and technical abilities they possess, mark them out as true greats of the game. It is inconceivable players of that quality, Aidan among them, would not enjoy the success Pádraig Carney did. He wills it for them, as do all true Mayo supporters, and maybe, just maybe if it’s third time lucky, the well might overflow.

This is an edited version of an article that appeared in this week’s The Mayo News.

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