Ken McGrath has spoken of the depth of gratitude he feels towards those who supported him and his family as he battled back from a brain haemorrhage in 2013.
Speaking with trademark honesty in the upcoming episode of acclaimed TG4 series Laochra Gael (Sunday, 5.55pm), the former Waterford star outlines the philosophy of bouncing back from setbacks that served him well on and off the playing field.
The Mount Sion legend also talks about the roller-coaster years with Waterford, winning four Munster championships and one League, but falling short of the All-Ireland.
He describes former manager Justin McCarthy as his greatest influence, apart from his father Pat, who also played for Waterford, and insists that despite never getting their hands on the Liam MacCarthy Cup, his Waterford team would be remembered forever.
But McGrath is at his most emotional speaking about his illness. Just two years after bringing the curtain down on a 16-year career with the Déise, the then 36-year-old was diagnosed as having suffered a brain haemorrhage in 2013.
“A couple of months later, a few small little things were going wrong and I wasn’t going right,” McGrath declares. “I think I wasn’t right for a couple of years.
“It was harder for the wife and the kids at home rather than me. I was the one stuck in hospital watching telly, watching Deal Or No Deal eating grub! But it was a tough few months. It was three months in hospital.”
The GAA community rallied around and the Ken McGrath All Star Challenge was organised as a fundraiser for the family. McGrath, who himself won four All Stars, found himself centre stage in front of 7,000 people as players accumulating 110 All Stars between them provided the entertainment.
“You’d be humbled by what went on. We walked across the pitch before the game and got a standing ovation. It was hard not to get a bit emotional.
“One of the best moments of my life to be honest with you was walking across the pitch and for that to happen. We’re eternally grateful for the support we got. It was a night we’ll never forget.”
McGrath was always a prodigious talent and made his senior debut as an 18-year-old in the championship against Tipperary in 1996, playing minor and U21 that same month. He played a key role in what was a rollercoaster period for Waterford and hurling in general.
Justin McCarthy succeeded another Corkman, Gerald McCarthy as manager in 2002 and had an instant impact, as Waterford won their first Munster title since 1963. McGrath produced a spectacular performance, scoring seven points.
“He saw something in this team and he changed our hurling. Outside of my father, he’s the biggest influence of my career. What he done in hurling terms was unbelievable for us.” Waterford endured many setbacks but McGrath was never one for self-pity.
“When you’ve been down so long, you’re not going to win respect until you earn it. It’s easy win and come back but to lose and come back is 10 times harder. Until you’ve been in our shoes and have the heartbreak defeats, you won’t know what it’s like to keep coming back every year, to do that training in January, December, November and have that level of commitment. That to me, that’s heart.
“We’ve been unlucky not to win the All-Ireland but I don’t think that defines any of our generation. We’ve been involved in some of the best games of all time, we lifted a whole generation of hurling people in Waterford. We haven’t an All-Ireland but I’ll be honest, the team will be remembered.”
Laochra Gael, TG4, Sunday 5.55pm.
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