Conor Cusack: More than a Yes man

These are busy times for Conor Cusack in the sporting arena and beyond but he is rising to the challenge with his customary passion, writes Kieran Shannon.

Next weekend is a big one for Conor Cusack and not just for the reason you think.

The same day he hopes to be celebrating Ireland saying yes to marriage equality, Cloyne are out in the first round of the local intermediate championship. With all that he has going on, we can forget he’s still a hurler.

He’s just come back from a morning in Dublin where first there was a photoshoot in the Aviva Stadium with Senator Eamonn Coghlan, Taoiseach Enda Kenny and a host of Irish sports figures advocating a Yes vote before he shot across Dublin town to go on national radio with Anton Savage to respectfully challenge the views of his fellow GPA colleague Ger Brennan.

In a little while, he’ll be dashing off again to get some physio to help him be an option for some game-time against Watergrasshill. He’s only played 15 minutes all year and the other evening watching the three O’Sullivans of Paudie, Diarmuid and Colm combine against Na Piarsaigh “like Barcelona playing hurling”, he smiled to himself: how was he going to ever get minutes in a Cloyne full-forward line like that? But he’ll try.

He’s 36 this year, born not only where Christy Ring was but in the same year that Ring died. Dr Eanna Falvey grew up in Cloyne too and at the start of every year Cusack visits him in the Santry Sports Clinic expecting to be told the body can take no more.

Last autumn in a county intermediate quarter-final he broke his hand for the 14th time, ending his season. He’s snapped both his cruciates. A couple of months after coming on for Cork in the 2006 All-Ireland final he was diagnosed with a severe hip injury while Falvey says his shoulders are more banged up than Brian O’Driscoll’s. Yet in January he got the all clear and signed up for more hardship, or rather more joy.

For all the knocks and pain, he’s only been bitter about one episode. Back in his late teens he was playing for the club in the senior championship. Off the ball, the opposing full-back pulled across his mouth.

“I was very naive. I’d no helmet and he completely destroyed my face. People were gagging when they came over to me. My mouth was carved open. For two years I had to go the dentist.

“One time I had to have over 100 injections. I had to have a lot of plastic surgery to piece my mouth together; to this day my lip still has a few marks on it and it has affected my speaking a little bit.” By the time he’d paid his last bill, he was down £27,000, the GAA insurance at the time only covering him for £5,000.

As to how much it cost the perpetrator? You can guess and dread the answer.

“The referee ran in and his words to your man were ‘That was a bit dangerous there now, Pat,’ and showed him a yellow card. My father was close to doing jail if he got anywhere near the referee that night.”

If it happened on the street, if it were to happen now — though it wouldn’t — that full-back would have been in court. But this was Ireland before the turn of the millennium. What was done on the field stayed on the field and all that.

And yet there’s hardly anywhere Cusack prefers than that field. That’s why he’s stayed on that field.

Conor Cusack: More than a Yes man

“A few months back, Miriam O’Callaghan asked me on the radio what makes me happy? I’m not a big believer in the pursuit of happiness. I think happiness — or at least pleasure — is a fleeting thing, it can be a hollow thing.

"To me the pursuit of contentment is much healthier and more sustainable: that you’re comfortable in your own skin, seeing yourself through your own authentic eyes as opposed to the eyes of others. Yet the one thing I can say that absolutely gives me a huge amount of happiness is still going out onto that field with the likes of Killian Cronin and Diarmuid O’Sullivan and playing hurling together as we have since we were four years of age.

“Something we have to be very careful about in the GAA is our tendency to solely worship at the altar of the destination and success. Because I wouldn’t change the journey that I’ve shared with those lads for anything. Of course I’d love to have changed a few of our results [Cloyne lost three consecutive county finals in the mid-noughties]. But my God, the experiences we had: the unbelievable wins and nights after, being there for one another after the terrible losses, the arguments and falling outs and falling back ins...”

That’s why he still hurls.

The last time you met him was Christmas 2013. It was a couple of months after he wrote that monumental, personalised blog on depression. There’d hardly been an evening in which he wasn’t up the country somewhere helping or speaking to people. “I know though this will settle down,” he told you at the time.

It hasn’t. The other day he brought his seven-week old car in for a service: it had already clocked up 20,000 kilometres between his new job with the GPA and all his voluntary work.

Last week up the country he was stopped walking down the street by a young Garda. For a moment Cusack wondered had he parked in the wrong spot. Turned out the officer wanted to thank Cusack, not book him.

“He said to me, ‘I’ve a button here which I press when I’m in deep trouble. It means I need the support of my fellow Gardaí and they’re coming to potentially save my life. Yet even though I could depend on them to save my life I felt I couldn’t tell them I was gay.’” Until he’d heard Cusack’s story on the Late Late. It’s not that Cusack gave him the courage, Cusack insists: his story just helped the young man rekindle his own.

Another time he was speaking at a seminar up the country. Like with a lot of his talks, he noticed the couple of tentative souls hanging back after it, wanting to have a word with him but waiting for everyone else to head home.

“I could see by the strain on this man’s face he was in a bad way even though he kept chatting away to me about anything and everything except what was going on with him. But if you listen well enough and keep your mouth shout, you’ll hear what the person is not saying as opposed to what they are saying. And a question at the right time can help a fortress to collapse. So we were walking along together and eventually I softly said to him: ‘What is it that you’d like to say but you feel that you can’t?’”

The man broke down crying: he was gay. But in revealing it to Cusack a fortress collapsed. Now that same man is enlightening and empowering others through his work in his GAA club and the community. “It’s hard not to feel privileged when you’re in a position to have that impact on people’s lives,” says Cusack. “They’re the things that sustain you.”

Others interactions though have severely challenged him. You probably heard him on The Saturday Show with Brendan O’Connor well up telling the story of the 19-year-old gay man who took his own life while he had Cusack on the other side of the phone: Cusack could hear him choke, his dying words being that he had no difficulty with his sexuality, his problem was that the people around him had.

What you would not have known is that it prompted Cusack a few days later to experience a panic attack for the first time in over a dozen years, one he didn’t even reveal to his family for fear of worrying them. Even this particular morning in the Aviva with Eamonn Coghlan and Kenny Egan and Shane Horgan that young man was to the front of his mind.

“I was just saying to myself, ‘My God, I’d love if he had been there with us, walking shoulder to shoulder with Denis Bastick and these fabulous sports people and him being able to know, ‘Hey, you know what, it’s okay. It’s okay to be gay. This country and world is going to change and it’s going to be a better place for you.’”

Cusack’s tearful now. Emotional. Even angry. There is hardly another national or sporting figure with such eloquence yet when he thinks of that young man’s death and the upcoming marriage referendum he can’t refrain from some profanity.

“That young fella when he was born didn’t feel less a person than anyone else. It was society who made him feel less a human being. I buried my aunt Kathleen O’Leary a few weeks ago to cancer. She was 55, winner of five or six All-Ireland camogie medals with Cork. When I came out as gay last year, she was one of the first people to send me an email of support, even amidst all the trauma she was going through.

"It’s terrible we lose people like her to natural causes. But think of how crazy it is, how fucked up it is that a gay person is seven times more likely to take their life than the rest of the population. How fucked up is it that a person feels they have to end their life rather than being able to do something as natural as to express love for someone of the same sex?

“One of the most wonderful things as a GAA person is the opportunity to represent that community. Yet the strongest symbol within that community is the prospect of marriage and two people declaring their love and commitment to each other for all that community and the world to see. Not fucking civil partnership but marriage. Of course you don’t have to marry to live out a fulfilling relationship. But by not having the option of it, whether people who are opposed to this proposal realise it or not, it sends out a subliminal message: that somehow you’re less of a human being. That your love isn’t the real thing.

“Civil partnership is legalities. Marriage is about love. Equality. That young man when he took his life wasn’t thinking about fucking legalities! That’s why as a country we have to say Yes next Friday. To tell people they’re okay.” Equals. The real thing.

We move the interview outside now. To help him get some fresh air and some distance. It was a bit like that as well last autumn. He was just after breaking that hand and was feeling burned out. “For those few days I was in a very dark place. Some people seem to think that I have all the answers and live like some Zen Buddhist on a mountain. Believe me, I don’t have all the answers, I don’t always do the right things.”

He needed to get away. Find some time for himself. So he booked a plane ticket for the Camino de Santiago. The same morning bought some hiking boots. The guy at the counter recommended that before heading to Spain he walk a couple of miles every day in them to break them in.

Cusack said he was flying the next day. Lunacy, the guy at the counter said. Two mornings later Cusack was in agreement.

“I woke up and my feet were destroyed. I limped into this beautiful little hamlet called Barbadelo and was thinking I couldn’t continue when I got chatting to an American bishop outside a cafe. He asked if I was married or had a girlfriend. We had this wonderful open conversation. Later then he said ‘You seem to be in pain.’ I showed him my feet. He took out this pack with syringes to deal with blisters. It was like that scene when Our Lord knelt down to wash the feet. This American bishop got down on his knees and attended to my feet. The next morning my feet felt like perfect.

“I give a lot of talks in churches invited by people well aware of my back story. I think there’s a huge disconnect between what is said by the hierarchy and what people on the ground level are feeling. I don’t know whether Jesus Christ was the son of God or just this incredibly-evolved human being. And I don’t know if I believe in the god that the Catholic Church talks about. But I do know there is a goodness that at some level binds us altogether. And there were several times on the Camino that I had that feeling of connectedness, of being at one with myself and everything else. For me as human beings we’re all connected in that way. That is my spirituality and faith and belief.”

Another thing he strongly believes is what a force for good that GAA county players and the GPA can be. That we’re shamefully underselling them just having them seek or hand out medals.

He thinks of Kevin Reilly. Meath captain. Full back. A giant of a man. A few months ago he rang Cusack. The school he teaches in had kids experiencing depression and being bullied about their sexuality. Reilly and his principal wanted to address the problem directly and asked Cusack to speak at a seminar on such matters. “I spoke to one of the students afterwards who was gay and he said that before Kevin Reilly there was no one in his life who had stood up for him. It’s hard to put into words the impact a Kevin Reilly can have, where you can be the difference between living and dying.”

He has a term for players like Reilly: warriors of the light. Ever since the dawn of time men have been conditioned to fight, to go to war. Now athletes such as GAA county players are also able to embrace their own vulnerabilities and those of others.

“The days of the strong silent man needs to end because a lot of our strong silent men are throwing themselves in the river. We need warriors of the light. And that’s what we have in men like Kevin Reilly.”

At the moment he and the GPA are working with Tony Griffin and his SOAR Foundation on a programme designed for teenaged men which will be delivered by county players to clubs and communities and schools. To help youngsters challenge stereotypes about masculinity and increase their emotional wellbeing and that of their neighbours.

He strongly dislikes the term “mental health”, feels it carries too much baggage and connotations from an era when psychiatry labelled and judged people. More and more suicide prevention agencies instead have a preference for the term “emotional wellbeing” and it’s a term Cusack in his work on national committees in Croke Park as well as with the GPA also favours.

“I was invited by a couple of government ministers to do something around the area of ‘mental health.’ I went in and after about 10 minutes I got up and said ‘Thanks, I’m not interested.’ I could sense it was just a box-ticking exercise. But when I met Dessie Farrell and Siobhan Earley in the GPA I found this complete authenticity about the wellbeing of our players.”

He joined them back in February. He’s been surprised by the number of players and counties that have not been paid expenses, as if it’s still 1999 and county boards and Croke Park and players never agreed on a charter.

“Last week I got a call from a player who was so distressed I was ready to turn the car round and drive up to meet him. He’s sitting his final exams, has bills to pay. He was owed 500 in expenses, only received 85 and his team manager had no interest in helping him out.

“The bigger vision of the GPA is to make sure we produce a next generation of leaders for the GAA and wider society. But it’s like a hierarchy of needs. If the kid comes to school hungry, he’s not thinking about his maths, he’s thinking of his belly. We need to take care of basic requirements first.”

He sees little victories every day though. A month ago a player came into the GPA offices, somewhere Cusack likes to think of as a “sanctuary”. The GPA have a motto: helping players achieve their personal best: be it on the field, in education, in business. For this particular player, none of those areas concerned him. It was that he was only getting a few hours a week to see his 18-month old child. So he was taken through some time management skills.

Cusack’s goal is that every clubhouse and dressing room in the country can offer similar sanctuary. Recently he was asked by Kilmacud Crokes to launch an emotional wellbeing committee. With 4,500 members Crokes is the second-biggest club in the country. The same week he was up in St Dominic’s of Roscommon, one of the smallest in the country. Different ends of the spectrum, yet the same, rolling out what’s known as a safe talk.

“The big fear a person has is asking the question: are you suicidal? Because they’re afraid the person might be insulted or it will put the thought into their head. But last week my sister in law who works in UCC was devastated by a PhD student who ended his own life. No one got to ask him the question.

“When I was growing up as a young man in school I was convinced I was on my own. But there’ll be no lad up in St Dominic’s or Kilmacud now that should feel that they are on their own. I travel all over the world now and the challenges we have in Ireland are not unique but what is unique is we have this incredible sporting organisation that, for all its flaws and failings, has this capacity to bring a community together. That now is appreciating the sacredness of people’s inner worlds. Sure how can you not feel privileged to be part of that?”

How lucky it is to have him too.

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