GAA Football

In the name of the father: by Chris Kerr

Antrim and St Gall's goalkeeper Chris Kerr talks about the illness and death of his father Pat; the grief and depression that followed and how he found support and a place to turn to

Antrim goalkeeper Chris Kerr. Picture by Seamus Loughran.
Chris Kerr

Tuesday 3rd July 2012 my life changed forever.

After a routine return home from work, I was met by my Mummy at the front door of our home.

As I turned my key in the lock, her words stopped me in my tracks. ‘Daddy has cancer’.

At the age of 59, my Daddy, Pat Kerr, had just been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer.

I was in complete and utter shock.

Daddy had always been a heavy smoker from he was a young age but of course I never thought he would get cancer.

I had to go and play a friendly game with Antrim that evening, and thank God I didn’t have to strip out. Over the coming days Daddy had hospital visits and we found out the extent of how bad it really was.

He began his first course of chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

I remember vividly the last game he came to see me play.

Casement Park, 15th of July, Antrim v Galway. Luckily we won.

Little did I know the rollercoaster ride I was about to go on.

To see up close your first hero in your life battle for his own life in front of your very eyes is something you can never be ready for.

Seeing improvements.

Seeing progression. Seeing him deteriorating badly.

Seeing tumours return aggressively in various parts of his body.

Daddy losing the power in his limbs. Losing his sight.

Losing the fight, though that wasn’t the way we saw it.

Watching my Daddy deteriorate is hard to describe.

A few instances are seared into my memory.

When he started to lose power in his arms and legs, we went back to hospital.

The worst was confirmed. The tumours had returned bigger and more aggressively.

And in various parts of the body including his brain.

When he returned to hospital for a third session of chemotherapy, which made him terribly ill and sick, I was in work and I received a text from my mum saying they were getting a taxi to the hospital, I literally ran out of work to where my car was parked to race up to get them.

The worst experience was walking him down the drive way as my mum locked the doors behind us.

He was saying ‘sorry’ to me, apologising.

It’s something you never see ...your Daddy cry.

And that was the first time I had seen him properly crying, despite what he had been going through.

It was a terrible experience for me, but carrying him is something I would do a hundred or a million times again.

Anyone would do that for both their parents without having to be asked.

At the hospital they gave him some medication to settle him.

For the next week or so he was very weak but he wasn’t sick and he felt he had turned the corner.

The power had returned to one arm, he was washing the dishes and trying to brush the floor and other things.

Typical of my Daddy, he didn’t want anyone to feel sorry for him or feel helpless.

It’s just the type of the man he was.

On Friday 15th February, he wasn’t too bad and we sat and had soup for lunch in the kitchen. I was due to head off to a good friend’s stag party that weekend.

I was debating whether or not to go. I was worried about leaving him. He literally forced me out the door, and assured me that he was fine and not to worry, to go and enjoy myself and he would be grand. That was my Daddy.

So I went off on the stag. I came back late on the Sunday night.

I got a call from my mum to say that he had been brought into hospital and that no, he wasn’t great. I went down the next day early. I wasn’t expecting him to be so bad.

He had started to lose his sight and had a patch over his eye.

He was vomiting terribly and was rigged up to all sorts of drips and machines.

I couldn’t believe that in two days he had gone from sitting at the table telling me tales about times he had been in Galway himself to being bed ridden and unable to move.

The doctors and nurses who work in the Bridgewater Suite and Cancer Unit in the City Hospital in Belfast are the most attentive people I’ve ever came across.

They don’t get the praise and credit they deserve. Constantly checking in on patients, attending to their every need. They helped my dad and my family so much.

I was off work until that Wednesday.

The Monday and Tuesday were terrible for him and for us as a family watching helplessly as he was going through pain.

We felt helpless and unable to do anything about it. By the Wednesday he took a turn for the good and was up out of the bed, getting his physio treatment, getting scans, talking, eating.

I remember ringing mum and telling her it was looking good compared to the previous days. Daddy told me to go on to training as there was an NFL game the following weekend against Fermanagh.

It was a temporary respite.

On Thursday and Friday he gradually went down hill. On Saturday they stopped the drips, apart from the pain relief so at least he wasn’t in any pain.

The doctors and nurses just told us to wait around at the hospital as it was only a matter of time now.

His brothers, close friends and a good few of my own close friends came down to visit throughout the week.

On 24 February I went to county training that morning as usual.

Training finished, I was on my way back and arrived at the hospital.

Daddy had passed away just 10 minutes before I arrived at 12.20pm on 24th February 2013.

It’s a day and a date in my life that I’ll never forget.

I remember being in shock for a while sitting there. Being in that room with him, staring at him.

Daddy was brought home the following day and the next two days were chaotic with his wake and with visitors to the house.

The amount of people who came to show their respects was overwhelming. From 9 in the morning both days, the front door never closed.

People came from all over the province within the GAA. That meant a lot to me.

People came from every area of Antrim, and from places as far away as Maghera, Castlewellan, Ballinderry, and Newry to name a few.

Along with my friends and team mates basically setting up camp in the house for the both days to help in any way they could.

That was amazing support not only for myself but also my mum and sister also.

I suppose the adrenaline helped me through the next few days as did the amount of people who came to the house telling stories about him from doing the coal, milk run, DOE and taxiing.

Hundreds of people had attended both the wake and funeral. Daddy was buried next to my beloved St Gall's GAC in Milltown Cemetery.

The support I received throughout it all from my friends and lads I played with, and the help and hospitality by St Gall's was first class in all aspects.

That year, 2013 in St Galls as a club was emotionally charged.

We lost a lot of great men that year, men who had contact with the team, our players from underage and the club.

That year we won the championship and there’s no doubt in most people’s minds that it was for the people who couldn’t be there.

They all remain in my thoughts.

After the funeral I threw myself straight back in to training and work.

Stupidly I was trying to keep myself occupied. I thought I was ‘dealing’ with it all by staying active and occupying my mind.

I was very up and down for months on end. I thought I could handle all of this. That I was okay.

After a while it finally came to a head.

I wasn’t okay at all. I felt I didn’t want to be here anymore and I couldn’t keep it under wraps. I was thinking of suicide.

I had enough of living like this and feeling like this.

This was a serious kick up the arse.

What the hell was I doing? One of the hardest things was telling my mummy that I was feeling like this.

I became withdrawn from my family.

From my friends. From sport. Not eating and losing weight, up to 9kg at a stage.

Going to training was a chore.

I found myself during drills and games just wanting to be back in bed on my own.

I was going to work, coming home, getting in to bed, putting my earphones in and I just lay listening to my daddy’s favourite songs.

Crying myself to sleep into the pillows so my mummy or sister wouldn’t hear me.

Overthinking everything. Jobs. Sport. Relationships.

Lying in a pool of my own tears.

This became my routine and the norm for me. I couldn’t sleep at nights and was exhausted during the day. It became a vicious circle.

Over and over.

Operating on no sleep added to the way I was feeling.

A rollercoaster I couldn’t get off.

From the outside looking in people would have known me as the outgoing personality. Loud and in the middle of all the craic.

Messing in the changing room.

A lad with a highly successful football career, everything to live for and enjoying life. Inside it was a different ball game altogether.

I was probably the last person anyone would imagine who would feel like this or go through this daily routine.

I became an expert and master of putting on a mask and a front to people. In particular those closest to me, pretending things were okay.

Far from it. They weren’t. I wasn’t.

I came across my fellow goalkeeper Alan O’Mara’s story via the GPA Twitter page.

As I read it, the more it sounded more and more what I was going through.

Not the same circumstances, but the same feelings and self hate. I decided to call the GPA confidential line and was set up with a counsellor.

I was so nervous going to the first meeting.

When I first went I felt a huge weight off my shoulders.

I completed CBT counselling and also tried medication and sleeping as I was crippled with anxiety and nerves to the point where I wasn’t eating, sleeping or doing anything productive.

The sleeping tablets I’d been prescribed were having little or no effect on me.

Every night I lay awake for hours on end.

Sport was becoming like a chore.

It was harder and harder to get out of bed for training.

The medication was having a worse effect.

I decided I wanted to beat this without tablets and without feeling numb. I wanted to be in control of my emotions and moods.

I wanted to control how I was feeling without being sedated with medication.

I had a lot going for me. I was playing consistently with my club and county at the top level.

I had family, friends, a good job.

It is more than some people have and will ever have. I asked myself how could someone at my age be depressed.

Full of anxiety. Not want to talk. Not be interested in socialising.

Not want to do anything but crave nothing but to be lying in bed and blocking out the world and everything that went along with it.

Football had always been my escape. Always has been and always will be.

Some of my team-mates are my best friends in life also. I told a select handful of them what I was going through.

The rest helped in ways they will never know.

Things as simple as before training sessions saying: ‘How are ya mate?’ or ‘What’s the craic’.

The most seemingly insignificant thing.

Most of that time I’d have let on I was grand. But it was that sense that people genuinely cared how I was that helped.

Even speaking and getting something off my chest, going on holidays and kickabouts with friends made a difference in helping me.

They know who they are and they don’t need named.

But I will always be grateful to them.

Fast forward 2-3 years and depression/anxiety had raised its ugly head again, this time I was kicking it for good. I got in touch with the GPA again and met a new counsellor.

It has changed everything. I got every last thing off my chest and now have mechanisms in place to combat anything that raises its head again.

My outlook on life is good and I’m in control of my emotional management. I know now that it’s okay to have ups and downs, I accept having good days and bad days. I know that bad days are normal.

I am in control of this now.

Whereas before if one thing went wrong – absolutely everything would rush to the forefront of my mind. Jobs, money, what direction my life is going.

The ups and downs of sport.

Everything. I’ve had two bouts of depression years apart in my life and I feel I have finally kicked it and can now control it.

Now I have a permanent job the last few years.

I play for my county Antrim and my club St Galls. I am extremely grateful each time I pull on the jersey for both teams. I have an amazing mummy and family.

A great group of friends and a beautiful girlfriend, who have all supported me through thick and thin. It’s been a long rocky journey to this point, with a lot of difficult moments.

At times mentally and physically I’ve been on my knees and felt down and out. I’ve learned a lot about myself as a person, being resilient and a lot tougher than I thought I ever was.

I am back in love with sport, Gaelic football and life in general.

I have a lot to look forward to both on and off the pitch. I’m very optimistic about my future ahead and I feel very happy and content.

My favourite film is The Dark Knight and the famous quote throughout the films is ‘Why Do We Fall… So we can learn to pick ourselves up’.

I’ve fallen a few times and fallen hard at that, but I have always got back up and picked myself up. I’ve learned a lot about myself.

And yes, through very difficult times I have become stronger for it.

The thing I’ve taken out of this battle is, no matter how bad it gets or low you are feeling there is always a solution.

There’s always a light at the end of that dark tunnel. There is always help available.

Ask for help, don’t bottle things up or ‘Man Up’, be brave and get things off your chest. I will be forever grateful to the GPA for the help and support they have gave me throughout this journey.

There are times throughout the five years since Daddy has passed, I’d do anything to have a conversation with him, ask him for advice on a lot of things.

Have him ask me the annoying questions that only your dad can ask.

But I know that through those toughest times, he was there with me, guiding me and steering me in the right direction.

Whether it’s on or off the pitch, each day I always aim to make him proud of me. It’s tough at times imagining the big occasions in my life such as marriage, kids coming along, and I know he won’t be there physically.

But I know he will be there in spirit and I can visualise him and hear the advice and guidance he would give me during those times.

That puts me at ease and gives me comfort. He was a milkman and taxi man in the Andersonstown area, he knew everyone, and anyone fortunate or unfortunate enough to get picked up by him would have to endure all about my sporting career and matches even though he had no interest in sport. That was my Daddy.

Anytime I play or anything I do in life in general, I do it in memory of him.

The GPA operates an urgent confidential counselling support line for players which is available 24/7, 365 days a year. Players in the Republic can call 1800 989 285 and players in the north can call 0800 044 5059.

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