The Big Interview: Light at the end of the tunnel exists for David Collins

It doesn’t take long to realise David Collins is not your typical county player or young man.

The Big Interview: Light at the end of the tunnel exists for David Collins

As you wait for him at the reception of Hewlett Packard in Galway, Sky News is on the TV screen and Sepp Blatter is on Sky News.

Watching old Sepp on a swivel chair just showered by a comedian’s dollar bills, you can’t help but laugh at the thought that someone once as hip as Tim Roth who starred in two Tarantino masterpieces stooped to play a cleaner-than-clean Sepp in the unintentionally-farcical recent FIFA propaganda movie United Passions (“Everybody, be cool, this is a robbery!”).

When a smiling Collins arrives down to greet you, you make the Sepp-Roth observation to him.

Only to find out he’s never heard of Tim Roth. He’s never watched Pulp Fiction.

And there you were thinking any GAA player that didn’t have Shawshank Redemption down as their favourite film automatically plumped for that other timeless classic released on the very same day in 1994. But Collins isn’t really one to head for the box office or reach for the box set. He likes to put his time to other things.

Just this morning he was in the sea in Blackrock, there on the Salthill waterfront, a little after waking up at 7am. Actually, you’ll find him swimming there most mornings around that time – summer, winter, doesn’t matter.

After a day’s work, he’ll either head to the gym or Galway or club training for 6.30. By 11, it’s lights out.

And yet he’ll still find time to cycle 80km a week; be an ambassador to the local mental health service Jigsaw; hold down a demanding job in HP here as a senior software management specialist; keep an eye on the highly-popular website mocks.ie that he founded seven years ago to help students prepare for their exams; and oh yeah, be secretary to the national executive of the GPA, something we don’t even get round to talking about from covering everything else he has going on.

You can see why Anthony Cunningham appointed him as captain this year, why Ger Loughnane gave him the same role back in 2007 when he was just 23, even why he hasn’t got round to seeing Tim Roth come face to face with Samuel L Jackson in a diner booth.

“It’s about time management,” he says, “and I have my involvement in the GAA to thank for that. You just learn so many lifelong life skills from it. Like how to communicate with people, deal with environments like playing in front of 80,000 without getting flustered; how to commit to a goal, cope with disappointments. I can apply all that outside of hurling, from hurling.”

Take his involvement with Jigsaw, that mental health service for 15 to 25 year-olds in the Galway area.

This year he got HP to adopt it as their charity of the year. He assembled a team of six like-minded, energetic people and together they organised a coffee morning to raise awareness of the charity.

The vibe they created, the interest and passion they stoked, the funds they raised; it was like something you’d get working together with the lads in Galway.

He first got involved with the charity in October 2013, cycling the Giro d’Galway. It was a cause that really resonated with him: a few years earlier a cousin from Cork had taken his own life. Then within a week of the Giro his Galway teammate Niall Donohue did the same.

“I was very close to my cousin. I’d have had two cousins of about the same age as me and he was one of them. And it just tore that side of the family apart. Because there are so many unanswered questions, so many issues that it leaves and people struggling as to where to go from there.

“There are times when I look back and think, ‘Jesus, David, how didn’t you see that coming? How didn’t you realise that was there in his head, what he was going through?’ But now that I’m more aware of how people hide depression, at the time I couldn’t have seen it.”

It was a lot like that with Niall as well. Collins was actually with a couple of teammates in the car just back from a swim in Blackrock when the news broke.

“The feeling was exactly like when I first heard about my cousin. ‘Oh my God, it couldn’t have been that bad.’ We knew that there were problems with Niall and that he was under pressure but never to that extent.”

He can’t bring Niall back – but what he can try is to keep every other teammate and everyone else he can here.

“If you were to see someone like that under pressure or that someone isn’t dealing well with things that they normally would deal well with, I’d be more aware of that now. To ask, ‘Hey, are things alright? Seriously?’ Just keep that eye on them.

“But I’m not a counsellor. I can only point them in the right direction to people like we have in Jigsaw that can help. It’s just that I can help raise awareness of it, being fortunate enough to have the profile a county player can have. To just spread the message, that there is help there. That place you’re in right now may be very dark and you can’t see any light but the end of that tunnel does exist and there are ways and people to help you find it.”

He tries to honour Niall every day when it comes to his hurling. In the 2012 All- Ireland finals the 22-year old was one wing back, Collins was the other. Since then Collins has often swapped over and worn the same number five jersey his old flame-haired colleague use to wear. The kid had been so full of life before suddenly he had none at all.

“I’d always think of him. Whenever I put on that jersey I think of Niall. It was his jersey and he wore with such pride and passion. I think of him in training. I mean, he was part of the set-up for three years and he was such a character about the place. He was aggressive, buzzing, full of energy, a phenomenal athlete.

“I remember we went to NADA (National Athletic Development Academy, in Dublin) for a training camp and he blew every record out of the book that was up there. And he was great for the one-liners. You’d be there, he’d pass some comment and just walk off and leave everyone in stitches. I remember [former selector] Mattie Kenny saying one time, ‘Niall, go over there, I just can’t deal with you anymore!’ That’s how I remember him. We all have great memories of him.”

Although the tragic passing of Donohoe brought it to a completely other level, Collins already had some idea how transient and precious a hurling career can be.

Back in the late autumn of 2007 while playing an Interprovincial final in Croke Park, he tried to run quickly but the studs of his boots remained rooted in the turf. His ankle had been completely dislocated and that night on his hospital bed he was bluntly told that he would never be able to play again. Only two years earlier Collins had been Young Player of the Year. At 23 he was a yesterday’s man. He looks back now at the experience with gratitude. “I could be negative and say it was a disaster but it was a massive learning curve.”

It was how he’d come to learn there was always light at the end of the tunnel. But there were months where he only saw darkness.

“I went off the rails and started drinking and acting the maggot. Hurling had been my whole life. I didn’t care anything outside of hurling. [Ger] Loughnane was coaching us at the time and I loved playing for him and I was completely absorbed in doing everything with such intensity and discipline, but then when it’s all taken away from you, you’re kind of going, ‘Right, what do I do now?

“If I’m not hurling, what do I do? If I’m not a hurler, who am I?’ And so for a while I wasn’t myself.

“I put on weight. I wasn’t happy in myself. I wasn’t treating people the way I should. I was being aggressive towards them, especially family.

“They were just wanting to help me out and I was going, ‘Go away, leave me alone.’ It took me a good four months to cop on to myself.”

A number of things helped him do just that. A heartfelt yet blunt few words from his father. Throwing himself into his work in HP and founding mocks.ie. Things got a lot brighter then when he went for a second and third medical opinion that suggested he could get back to at least 80% of where he was.

“Once I heard that, I was like ‘Right, what do I need to do here to do this? Go balls out for it and feck it, see what happens. And that’s when the bike thing kicked in.”

In his two years out from the game he’d compete in three triathlons, including one in Miami. If he’d given up the hurling, he could have made an international triathlete. But he was never giving up the hurling. Growing up, it’s all he ever wanted to do. His father was from Cork and Collins was reared on stories about Ring and JBM but as much as he’d admire such Leeside figures and attributes some of his “thickness” to those Cork roots, Collins aspired to play like and with his Galway heroes. He was too young to see ’88 but he’s watched all those old games and the desire to emulate those men by heading up the steps of the Hogan has never been as strong as it is now.

“I’m coming to the end of my road. I’ve only a few years left of this. It has to happen and I have to help drive it. The players are driving it. You’ve a lot more fellas like (Cyril) Donnellan, Tan (Iarlaith Tannion), Fergal Moore, Colm Callinan who’ve been there the guts of 10 years and also know All-Irelands don’t come easy. You need to instil it into the younger players to put your best foot forward from the start. Treat everything as if it’s your last year. That’s the intensity and mentality we’ve brought to it this year: you either do it or you don’t.

“I’ve been honest with the boys and I’ll be honest with you: in my 12 years this is the best group I’ve been involved with, in terms of wanting to win, all being on the same page. We’ve young fellas there in Cathal Mannion, his brother Padraig, Johnny Glynn: they’re training in the gym full time, eating properly, there’s no messing. Everyone’s committed and that leads to real competition for places on the team.

“I’m coming back from injury now. A few years back I’d walk straight back on to the team. Now I may not make it. Fergal Moore played well there the last day. You’ve Daithí Burke pushing, Conor Cooney coming back. The competition is ferocious and that leads itself to an intensity and aggression in training.

“So comparing this to other years, I really can’t. It’s streets ahead of any other year. Even 2012, I’d say.

We’d great talent then, (Anthony) Cunningham had just come in which had created a real buzz but this team is far more cohesive.”

In 2013 they were just flat. Last year they severely tested the two teams that would contest the final in September but that was no consolation to Collins: bottom line, Galway failed those tests themselves.

“I don’t look at it that we put it up to both teams. I look at it that we threw away a championship game against Tipp. Six points up with 15 minutes to go, and we switched off? Mentally we just stopped, they got a run on us and the next thing we got lost. Why did it happen? They implemented a sweeper system there, we never brought out guys to mark him or to stop it, or even start running the ball through the phases.”

This year’s league quarter-final in Waterford was another tough day.

“It was a disaster. Going home on the bus that day you were feeling extremely low, wondering ‘What the hell did we do there?’ Was it an issue of skill and ability? No. When we broke it down, it was because Waterford implemented a system which we hadn’t our homework done on. But if you look at the teams they played afterwards, those sides didn’t learn from our mistakes, while we have.”

That’s what he likes about Anthony Cunningham: how he allows players to speak their mind and his capacity to admit to mistakes and learn from them. Against Laois in the Leinster semi-final Galway encountered an even more defensive formation and between players and management they adjusted, by running the ball and bringing it to their opponent.

Kilkenny taught them some more. “The mistakes the last day showed a lack of composure. When you see a lad trying to pick up a ball three or four times messing up a pickup or missing a handpass or flickpass, it’s a sign maybe lads were a bit overhyped, ‘Right, we’re playing Kilkenny, All-Ireland champions, in a Leinster final.’ But Kikenny’s first touch on the day was immense and so was their aggression.

“We’ve to bring that aggression now the next day, even more than we did against Dublin and Laois. We know going in against Cork it’s going to be an absolute battle and a half. But I think the attitude and aggression has been there in training and that we’ll bring to it Thurles. I think we’re in a really good place.”

He marries Sarah in November. Being a hurler means being an optimist that means there was hardly going to be another time of the year he was setting it for. Together they’ve had just one weekend this year to head off together; hurling has dictated that.

Even back at the start of May when Collins was groomsman at the wedding of a friend who’ll be groomsman at his own, he didn’t have a drop of drink. Galway’s first-round game was still four weeks out he didn’t want to leave himself open to talk that the county man had been drinking. He religiously follows the diet plan drawn up by nutritionist Ruth Kilcawley, journaling everything he eats. All part of being a county player in 2015.

Back in 2005 when he was Young Hurler of the Year he was “a cocky, self-confident player, guaranteed to go to Supermacs after training, have a fry or something.”

It’s all changed now, and he wouldn’t change that change for the world.

“It’s bred into me to be that loyal into the team. People can make out being a county player is a chore, especially playing with a team like Galway that have yet to get over the line. But I absolutely love it. The work I put into it, I get so much more back with the honour of wearing that county jersey. I wouldn’t change for anything the lifestyle it gives me.”

All Ireland or not, how could you say David Collins has been wasting his time?

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