Old rivals Down and Meath go to Extra Time for healthy hearts

Donal O'Neill won’t ever forget the phonecall coming through last October.
Old rivals Down and Meath go to Extra Time for healthy hearts

Former Down footballer Brendan McKernan, second from left , with ex-Meath players Ian Kearney, left, and Colm O’Rourke, second from right, and legendary Royals coach Sean Boylan in the documentary ‘Extra Time’ that looked at the cardiovascular health of the 1991 All-Ireland football finalists.
Former Down footballer Brendan McKernan, second from left , with ex-Meath players Ian Kearney, left, and Colm O’Rourke, second from right, and legendary Royals coach Sean Boylan in the documentary ‘Extra Time’ that looked at the cardiovascular health of the 1991 All-Ireland football finalists.

Donal O’Neill won’t ever forget the phonecall coming through last October.

The shock. Followed by the hollowness. Then the guilt.

The message was tragic: Eamonn Burns had died from a heart attack.

The same Eamonn Burns whose versatility had been so crucial to Down claiming two All-Irelands within three years of one another in the 1990s.

The same Eamonn Burns who had managed his county up to 15 months previously.

The same Eamonn Burns who, as part of O’Neill’s soon-to-be-released Extra Time documentary, had been cardio-screened.

O’Neill now lives in Cape Town. He looks outside his window and there is Table Mountain.

His business interests lie in South Africa, the US, and Australia. It’s 13 years since he stepped down as commercial director of the Gaelic Players Association (GPA).

Ireland lives only in his heart. But this project brought him home both physically and metaphorically.

It was his father Kevin, a two-time All-Ireland winner with Down, and the heart attack he suffered 10 years ago that prompted his crusade to make more people aware of their health.

After producing three highly-applauded documentaries, he turned his attention to home.

The vehicle? The 1991 All-Ireland final and the Down and Meath men who lined out that day.

For Down, it was personal. Ambrose Rogers, a used substitute that September day, passed away from a heart attack at the age of 39.

Wing-forward Gary Mason survived one in his early 40s.

Down had been a case study in themselves but O’Neill’s modus operandi had been to try and prevent more lives being lost that way. And he had. And then Burns died.

“When I got the news about Eamonn, I was concurrently getting news about one of the other Down players who was in big trouble.

"The news of each literally came into me within the space of an hour.

"It just takes the wind out of your sails. I was completely floored.

“I went back over the interview Eamonn had done with us. He said something that I flagged at the time, that none of the men on the father’s side of the family had lived to see 60 and he mentioned having some serious issues about five years before.

“But he was doing everything right. Eamonn was not flagged in the tests that we did.

"Eamonn Burns did everything right in life in the last number of years, everything you would hope a man of his age would be doing. Remarkable and we saw that.

“We had three cardiologists around the production and when they tell you something they’re like a blunt fucking instrument.

"They said there is no such thing as a zero risk; when you get into the 50s the rules change and there is no guarantee.

He contributed enormously to Down GAA as a player and manager but what he did as a teacher was absolutely remarkable too. 

"He was a figure who achieved tremendous things for a lot of people and so much of it was unseen. He was just a lovely bloke.

“You’re 56 years of age and then all of a sudden you’re not here anymore.

"In what I do, you meet a lot of people who just have this bizarre, completely misplaced belief that they’re flying fit and they’ll be grand.

"Well, that just isn’t the case and when you look at something as completely inexplicable as a seemingly perfectly healthy middle-aged man who was a phenomenal athlete leaving us like that, the lesson is that every day counts.”

O’Neill and his team had just completed the first cut of Extra Time when Burns died. He momentarily thought about spiking the project.

“It made me question everything we did, to be quite honest.

"But then within the hour I was trying to deal with something else on that Down team, which is and was fixable and you come away thinking: ‘Nobody could have caught Eamonn’s difficulty — he probably would have sailed through any test you wanted to give him — they were on the right train but they were very far from the tracks.’

“It was just very poignant and it was a very dark place to go to.

"Because it was so close to me, I had never really done anything that resonated at home.

"I was just very conscious that it was home and you almost had a duty of care to people that you don’t bullshit them and you lay it out.

“Out of respect for the family and everything else, the nicest way to do this was to keep Eamonn in there and let people remember him with the smile he wore on his face in it because anything else would be an injustice to him.

"I couldn’t really find words for it because it was not something I experienced or ever want to experience again.”

GPA co-founder Donal O’Neill, seen here in the documentary, ‘Extra Time’ which he also produced.
GPA co-founder Donal O’Neill, seen here in the documentary, ‘Extra Time’ which he also produced.

At this stage, few if anyone has watched back the 1991 All-Ireland SFC final more than O’Neill.

It was through bleary eyes that he saw it live in San Francisco, cheering on his cousin James McCartan.

“We were up all night and PJ McIlroy, who would be my uncle through marriage, was on the Down teams of the 60s with the father and Seán (O’Neill).

"He had a nephew in San Francisco and we were meant to be staying with him.

"We ended up breaking into his house, three of us, slept on the floor and went to watch the game and to this day I have never actually met the man.”

Paddy O’Rourke, who led Down up the Hogan Stand steps that morning in California, became familiar to O’Neill in later years.

Seeing what he was doing with his health documentaries, O’Neill received a call from O’Rourke out of the blue to commend him and offer his assistance in the future.

The gesture got O’Neill thinking. He had been planning to assess the cardio fitness of South Africa’s 1995 Rugby World Cup winning team but couldn’t get the financial support.

But at home with the aid of H&K International owner and GAA benefactor David Bobbett, who himself had heart issues and established the Irish Heart Disease Awareness charity, the idea could become a reality.

“The whole concept was to try and almost time travel with them but have them endorse and carry the message of the movie, which is know your (coronary artery calcium) score and get yourself checked.

"It’s a very dull, boring message packaged up in a glittering ball of decoration.”

Down were not a problem to get on board. Meath on the other hand?

“I would have had some contact with Colm O’Rourke before but that was a Meath team coming towards the end so I wouldn’t have known any of them.

"When we finally went to get the scans with them, I didn’t know whether to bring a gun or a camera.

"That’s how I remembered them as players.

“I called Colm O’Rourke and he said: ‘You’ve got to speak to McEntee. If the doctor says yes, we’re all in.’

First time I called him, I said: ‘Hello, Gerry (silence). Hello, Gerry (silence).’ Then finally at the other end came a ‘Yes?’

“We had started filming and Meath were still in the changing rooms so to speak and I was shitting myself.

"I felt I was going to have to prey on the competitive spirit here so I called Gerry McEntee back on a Tuesday and I said: ‘Gerry, there are 16 Down men confirmed here. Hello, Gerry? (silence)’

"He eventually says: ‘I’ll be back to you on Thursday.’ He came back to me on the Thursday with 15.

"It was a case of: ‘Well, if the Down lads are out we’ll not be found wanting’.

“Gerry McEntee went on to not just play a huge role in making it all happen but everything that transpired thereafter and getting some of the lads looked after at the back end of it.

He’s an absolutely incredible human. He has such a presence. As I say to Gerry now, every time he calls me I think I’m in fucking trouble.

O’Neill was acutely aware of retaining the nostalgia.

“I was thinking if we could get how I was feeling like a giddy 19-year-old, 20-year-old again sitting across from the Lyonses and the McEntees and Martin O’Connell, if that comes through then it was going to be special.

“I wanted to take people back and remind them of how great that game was and how physical it was.

"The fact four or five players should have been sent off. In the modern era, they absolutely would have been.

"You hear (Mickey) Linden talking about being knocked out on the day and when we cut it, the editor who is South African and a rugby man, couldn’t believe what he was seeing.

“We had a clip where Wee James releases the ball to Ross Carr but the camera is just moving with Ross and James, I mean he gets absolutely fucking buried. (Greg) Blaney put one in too, which nobody saw.”

Nothing is given away by revealing several of Down’s team were found to have significant heart disease.

In a movie teaser released last year and bearing in mind that scores from zero to 100 for calcium plaque in the arteries are considered good, Down’s average was 264 to Meath’s 16 with one Down man’s score recorded at an alarmingly high 3,100.

On foot of the testing, eight of them had to go for follow-up consultations in contrast to one Meathman.

“The latest research in this field is looking at lifelong athletes and atherosclerosis and heart conditions,” explains O’Neill.

“They’re basically starting to hone in now on middle-aged men who are very fit and to all intents and purposes flying fit.

"They’re starting to see that a percentage of those men are in fact inflaming the arteries and having an adverse reaction.

Ross Carr gets cardio-screened as part of the documentary.
Ross Carr gets cardio-screened as part of the documentary.

“Heart disease, the terminology is all wrong.

"If you had a branding expert, you’d change the name because their engines are superb and they’re still able to pump the blood but the arteries, the soft tissue… it’s like they can charge up and down the pitch but the kick-pass is gone astray, the hand-pass is off.

"The subtlety, the soft touch, the skill, that’s the piece that’s eroded.

"The problem is the arteries are starting to calcify and break down.

“What athletes are very good at doing is creating secondary pathways.

"The cardiologist explains it like if the blood isn’t flowing well on the A road it’ll take the B road.

"They can be completely unaware of the fact that their arteries are in very poor condition and the radiologists in Belfast told me that the findings were remarkable because they had never seen such a group of asymptomatic, fit, middle-aged men but what we’re seeing is the fitter they are the more calcified their arteries are.”

O’Neill is proud of the work done but even happier that some of the former players were put in good hands before it was too late.

“The Down and Meath teams will influence research in this area because what we have seen is fresh, new, very bad news in some cases but it gives the research cardiologist in some cases something to work with and that’s helpful.

“Some of the doctors didn’t know what they were seeing. They told the lads they were fine but they were anything but.

"Guess who filled that void? McEntee. Gerry McEntee was playing for Meath and Down in this game.

"He was midfield for both, he was unbelievable.

It got to the point where I had done everything I could do and there had to be difficult conversations among very high-ranking medical experts.

"Between us all, we dug out the very best people to look after these men not just now but going forward.

“That was really the end of the road for the project but the beginning of the road for what we want to achieve.”

Burns’ death may convince some that CT scans and blood tests are futile but O’Neill hopes the memory of him proves to be an inspiration for people to check themselves out.

“The problem is everyone will say: ‘Ah, there’s no point in being tested’ when you see what happened to Eamonn but that’s not helpful either.

"There are certain things that you just can’t account for.

“I sat down with the cardiologist and I was devastated. It actually doesn’t change the message of what you’re trying to achieve.

"Lives will be made a lot easier if people take it on board but they can never tell you there will be no risk.

"There will always be risk. There can be electrical issues with the heart.

“I don’t know what Eamonn’s specific issue was — he mentioned something about a clot five years before and he went through procedures — but his lifestyle was fantastic from what he told me and that makes it more difficult for me.

"He will be remembered for many things. I hope this movie is one of them.”

Extra Time is set to be released next week. For more details, visit www.ihda.ie

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