It was breaking away from club training and returning with his face muddied and gravel strewn that first alerted Paddy Gumley’s teammates to his closely guarded secret.
Until his 20s, even the Cavan man’s parents didn’t realise that he blacked out after periods of intense training, a problem he kept to himself out of sheer embarrassment.
It was only when he suffered one such incident while training with Tommy Carr’s Cavan football panel in early 2009 that he was rumbled.
Until then, he’d always recognised the symptoms of an imminent attack and used the 40-second or so window to get to somewhere private where he would effectively lose consciousness.
Truth be told, he never knew exactly what was happening in those moments when he was ‘out’ and was told by his stunned Cavan colleagues after he came around that he’d been shaking and that his eyes had rolled in his head.
“I was very good at masking it,” Gumley, now 35, admitted.
“I’d have about a 35- to 40-second window and I’ll get to wherever I have to get to. If I was down in the club, say, I’d walk around to the back of the dressing rooms and I’d walk back (afterwards) and someone would say, ‘Why is the side of your face covered in gravel?’ I’d be like, ‘Ah, it’s nothing’. So they’d have a fair idea something was up I suppose.”
Yet it was only after the incident with the Cavan panel that the situation finally came to a head for Gumley.
He eventually got the all-clear from a specialist in London but with a strict proviso; he wasn’t to push himself to breaking point anymore in training.
That might have seemed like a positive outcome for some but it amounted to the end of Gumley’s inter-county career.
“That was me, I was finished,” he says now, admitting it, “knocked the stuffing out of me for a long time, confidence-wise”.
The Redhills man was just 26 and cursed the diagnosis of an enlarged muscle in his heart which, during the episodes, was restricting the amount of blood-flow to his brain.
The sense of something stolen was strong. Gumley had only returned to Gaelic football at 21 after being turned off physical activity in his mid-teens by the fear of flaking out.
“It happened as a youngster all the time in PE but I quit football when I was 15 until I was 21 and I actually forgot about it if that makes any sense,” he said.
“It was actually a friend that coaxed me back into it. I used to go down to play a pool competition of a Friday night and he’d annoy me every time about going back to play football.
“I eventually said, ‘Right, I’ll just tell him, “Yeah”. So I went back and Jesus, for about two years it was torture, the training. I was so far behind. I wouldn’t be the most naturally athletic dude in the world. We were junior at the time but I remember after the first training session I had to physically lift my left leg up onto the clutch of the car!”
Gumley reckons he only started playing the football he was capable of at 23 but just three years later, having been called into the Cavan setup, disaster struck under Carr’s watch.
He would play on with his club, with whom he won junior and intermediate titles, until he was 33 but by that stage work as a rep for Lucozade had taken him to Cork.
Figuring his best years were behind him, but still keen to play some ball, he pitched up at Junior C training with Nemo Rangers.
That was early 2016 and by that summer he’d progressed all the way up through the ranks to senior status. Still he kept his condition to himself though word spread quickly across the GAA grapevine from Cavan to Cork.
“I think it was after a game, Steven O’Brien came up to me and said, ‘You never told us this’,” recalled Gumley.
“I said, ‘Well....sure it’ll be alright, Steven’. He was there like, ‘Hmmmmmmm’. I was in the middle of it with Nemo before I knew where I was and it was probably the same for them too. It’s not really thought about. It doesn’t really affect me. I don’t let it.”
Years of trial and, sometimes, error, and plenty of fine-tuning of his preparations, has led Gumley to adopt a personal regime that keeps him at a decent level of fitness but, crucially, avoids risking an attack.
“Instead of training seven nights a week, which I probably could if I wanted to, I only train the two nights with the lads and the football, and I might do one other session,” he said.
“I wouldn’t train like the lads would do, there could be some lads in the gym three nights a week as well as their pitch sessions.”
Perhaps the problem will disappear entirely for Gumley when he cuts out high-intensity training altogether. It’s likely that Saturday’s All-Ireland club decider at Croke Park will be his last game as a senior player.
Given how Nemo fast-tracked him up through the ranks, and with Tomás Ó Sé still going strong at 39, the club might have other ideas.
But with a young family, Gumley reckons it could be his last hurrah and, after everything he’s gone through to get to this point, what a way to bow out.
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