BARELY a few hours after Michaela McAreavey’s horrific death last Monday, her father Mickey Harte was thinking ahead.
Speaking to his selector Tony Donnelly and trainer Fergal McCann, he let it be known life was to go on for the Tyrone senior football team. There were to be no withdrawals, no cancellations. As he told the media later in the week, it’s what Michaela would have wanted.
When Ryan McMenamin visited the Harte home in Ballygawley on Tuesday, Michaela’s mother Marian spoke to him about the importance of the team. It was she who had instilled into her husband’s county set-up the importance of treating the jersey with care.
As much as they were grieving, as horrendously difficult as it was, she was explaining that football would always be there for them.
“I was up chatting to Mickey and Marian on Tuesday and Marian was on about the football,” McMenamin recalled. “A lot of people in that situation wouldn’t have brought it up but she wanted to talk about it. Football is the main thing in the Harte household and the way the GAA community has come around shows what good Gaels they are and what everyone thinks of them.
“Mickey being Mickey, he didn’t want the games to be stopped. He spoke to Tony and Fergal and he wanted training to carry on - and that was on Monday evening.
“It’s a sign of Mickey - he’d always try and put other people ahead of himself. There was a feeling among ourselves that Thursday night’s session had to be one of the best that we could put in. For him.”
He had been there for them, of course. When they lost their team-mate Cormac McAnallen, it was Harte who kept them bound together. When the 1997 minor team lost Paul McGirr it was their manager — with the help of Michaela - who raised them from their knees.
His resilience and belief has been infectious to such an extent that they followed those tragedies with triumphs, but last Monday is another matter altogether.
“Mickey has experienced the highs with us but he’s had a lot of lows as well. The county is feeling it, but it’s 100 times tougher for the Harte and McAreavey families,” McMenamin said.
He is assured that football has sustained Tyrone and will continue to sustain Tyrone. It will keep minds off the darkest thoughts and focused on what gave Michaela the greatest joy.
“Just getting out and kicking a ball and chatting about it ourselves will help,” he added.
Harte has travelled the length and breadth of the country counselling teams who have suffered bereavements of team-mates. Taking the examples of McGirr and McAnallen, he has encouraged other sides not to play on for those who are no longer with them but to play on in memory of them.
In time, Michaela McAreavey’s spirit will nourish Tyrone’s footballers. Never once did she doubt her father’s players.
“Any time I met her, she’d always be positive,” McMenamin recounted . “Nothing was ever impossible or lost. She’d always find a positive. Any time after a defeat she had the ability to find something that went right for Tyrone and she’d keep going on about bigger things being ahead for us. There was always a chance for her that we would come back.
“I think Big Seán (Cavanagh) said in another interview that she lived her life so perfectly. The main things in her life were her husband, her family, her teaching and her football. She never went out to do anyone harm and that’s what makes it so hard for us to understand this.”
Before his tragic death in a 1999 plane crash, three-time Major winning golfer Payne Stewart had found a new peace in his life after embracing his Christian faith.
In winning that year’s US Open, he was photographed holding aloft the trophy with a bracelet bearing the initials WWJD (What Would Jesus Do?).
It was his way of reminding himself of the path he intended on following. The bracelet was incidentally one of the only items that survived the crash.
Michaela McAreavey has yet to be buried. Tyrone’s McKenna Cup game against Fermanagh, which had been set to take place tomorrow, has been postponed. Life has rightly been put on hold.
Soon, though, there will be football again. And when the time comes, as it will, where Tyrone’s players find themselves thinking more about their manager and his family’s pain than the game, they might ask themselves the question: what would Michaela do?
The answer is a simple one - carry on. Play ball.