GAA Football

Ambrose Rogers: His daddy would have been proud of the man he's grown to be

Ambrose Rodgers junior and senior before Longstone meet Burren in the Down Senior Football Championship final in 1986

HIS MOTHER’S cry for help shattered the early morning stillness and woke 14-year-old Ambrose Rogers from a peaceful night’s sleep.

When he’d closed his tired eyes all was well in his Longstone world of family, football and farming, but tragedy had changed it forever by the time he opened them.

His daddy, Ambrose senior, had suffered a heart attack. Family and friends rushed to the house and his mother Bronagh did all she could, but the great man passed away at just 39 years-old in the early hours of Saturday, June 26, 1999.

Nineteen years later, the memory of that night remains crystal clear for Ambrose junior.

“I remember being awake whenever he came home,” he says.

“You go to bed, but when you wake up it’s different.

“I just remember mummy roaring for us to get up and my sister ran and went to our cousins’ door.

“Mummy’s a nurse so she was trying to do whatever she could and we were there. It’s tough like, I suppose we don’t talk about it that much. It makes you well-up when you do talk about it.”

There are tears in his eyes as we talk in the Longstone GAC clubhouse.

Nestled amid a maze of stone walls and narrow roads in the shadow of the Mourne Mountains on one side with The Irish Sea, glistening across the fields, on the other there isn’t a more picturesque ground in Ireland. His dad covered every blade of grass on it during a career that saw him become a household name for Down throughout the 1980s and win an All-Ireland medal in 1991.

 

Ambrose Rodgers won All-Ireland titles at minor, U21 and senior level with Down

 

As news of the shock spread, burly men that Ambrose senior had played with and against came to pay their respects and the family home was almost overrun during the wake. Ambrose junior and his three sisters Kirsty (13), Aoife (8) and Amy (4) struggled to make sense of it all.

“It’s a blur,” he says.

“Those few days it was just people coming into the house, people came from everywhere to be there.

“We had past presidents of the GAA and players from different counties – there was a few Meath men came who had good battles with him. But sure you don’t remember who you saw when you’re in that moment.

“We were all very young and my mother was trying to make sure we were okay. It’s a blur. I just remember being awake at night and the house was never empty – whether it was three in the morning or six in the evening there was somebody there, it never emptied.

“Listen, there could have been many worse things and he was there with us when it happened so we were lucky too. He was there and we were there and a lot of people are taken away and their family isn’t there.

“You try to look for the positives out of it, but you don’t really get over it.

“Everybody sees the good things but when you’re living with it, it’s tough, it’s tough on my mother. But what do you do? You have to get on with it; you’ve no choice.”

 

Ambrose Rodgers surges past Armagh's Kieran McNally

 

Throughout their 14 years together, Ambrose junior and senior were inseparable companions.

When his dad went out to farm, young Ambrose stamped his feet into his wellies. When he went to football, he grabbed his boots, jumped in the car and was beside him in the dressingroom with future Down team-mate Mark Poland as their fathers pulled on their jerseys.

“Daddy was a busy man,” recalls Ambrose.

“If he wasn’t in the digger, he was at the football and if he wasn’t at the football, he was at the farm.

“I went wherever he went.

“Everybody hung off him and everybody talks about the football side, but he was a good family man and whatever time he had, he made it for you.

“Stone to stone in garden we would have been kicking about, but he wouldn’t have been one for pushing you at the football, that’s the bit I always remember. He never made it just football, it was just ‘play and enjoy it’.”

There was no fun in football any more with his daddy gone. Maybe he’d score a point and instinctively turn to share the moment with him and see a proud smile and a thumbs-up.

But daddy wasn’t there.

“For the next two or three years I played, but it didn’t matter to me and I probably had no confidence,” he said.

“I probably had nobody to talk to about it where the other boys went home and talked to their father about it.”

There’s a lump in his throat and my throat when our conversation turns towards his own career as a Down midfielder.

Over time, the game began to mean something to him again.

“I remember getting to about 17 or 18 and getting a bit more confident again,” he said.

"I knew I had a bit of football about me and I could start to see it coming through.”

He didn’t expect the call-up when it came. Paddy O’Rourke, his dad’s old team-mate and friend over many seasons with Down, took over the county seniors and brought the talented, but untested, 19-year-old into his panel.

“People probably thought it was a bit extreme me coming in because I was only starting to show a bit of promise,” he says.

“I didn’t feel that I was one of the main players with the club, but Paddy seemed to see enough to bring me in and Gregory McCartan and boys like that were still there who had played with daddy, so it was nice to train alongside them.

“I came on against Cavan in the Championship and it was emotional for mummy seeing me coming out to play the first game.

“After my daddy died it wasn’t in my thought process about playing county football but I seemed to be a late-developer and I came through and turned out decent enough.”

It’s never easy for the son of a legend to make his way in the world. There are unfair expectations and comparisons but Ambrose – perhaps driven on by the famous name he carried – earned the red and black shirt he wore for close to a decade.

“I’m always going to be Ambrose Rogers’ son,” he says.

“It’s pressure, but we aren’t comparable, we aren’t the same type of footballers.

“He’d have been very much a flair player whereas I was a good runner, very athletic and could take a score. I wouldn’t bracket myself as the same type of footballer as him.

“Paddy O’Rourke always said: ‘You’re your own man, if you’re living in somebody’s shadow, you’re never going to do anything’. He was the making of me as a footballer.”

 

Ambrose Rodgers side-foots the ball past Donegal's Matt Gallagher

 

He blossomed in the Down midfield, learning all the time up against the likes of Paul McGrane but misfortune was never far away and tragedy almost struck in a Qualifier against Wexford at Croke Park in 2008.

Rogers had scored two points when he took a heavy hit near the end of the game. Initially he felt “winded”, but he didn’t recover, began to feel unwell and was taken to hospital.

“I was lucky the medical team was there and they were quick to react and we were beside the hospital,” he explains.

“If it had happened somewhere else – on the bus back from Clones or somewhere - you mightn’t just have been as quick to get it seen to.

“They removed my spleen and I was in intensive care for a day. It was a big shock for my family when they came in.

“A lot of people came to see me - team-mates and clubmates and the management. When I came round the next morning there was a lot of people there – I got a lot of family support and friendship support and I’m very lucky.”

After recovering fully, new Down manager James McCartan made him captain in 2010 as the Mourne county assembled their best squad since the glory days of the early 1990s.

Down had played in fits and starts until they travelled to Breffni Park for a Qualifier against beaten Connacht finalists Sligo and Ambrose plucked balls out of the sky in a man of the match performance in midfield on that summer evening.

“That was the game when we really turned it on,” he recalls.

“That whole year I had no injuries, I felt brilliant and we had a good team.”

He scored 1-1 that night and two points next time out as Down convincingly beat old rivals Kerry to reach the All-Ireland semi-finals. Again luck deserted him when he needed it most.

“They (the Down County Board) wanted to get a round of the club championship in and we were the last game of the weekend,” he recalls.

“We were winning handy, I turned to take a ball and a fella pulled me back and I went down. I just knew, I knew going off the pitch that it was over. I was in tears.”

 

Ambrose Rodgers junior smashes the ball into the Meath net

 

His cruciate was gone and his All-Ireland dreams seemed ruined, but Down’s win over Kildare in the semi-final bought him time to get back to near fitness.

He stripped out for the All-Ireland final against Cork, hoping to get a run out late on if Down had the game in the bag. It didn’t work out that way though and the Rebels won a see-saw encounter by a single point.

“I was hoping to get on the pitch before it finished but it wasn’t a day for that to happen because it was too close,” he says.

“It’s all ifs and buts. If I had been fit… Who knows? I don’t dwell on it too much because you can’t do anything about it. I was lucky to be involved in that team, but we just fell short and that team in 2010 never all played together again.”

For four more seasons he battled a series of injuries that prevented him from reaching full fitness and the end for him came in 2014 when he was taken off at half-time against Tyrone.

“It was a bad finish,” he says with a wry smile.

“I was having too many niggles and knocks. 2012 or ’13 was probably the last year I was feeling good. I wasn’t old, but I was only a shadow and if you’re not playing at 70-80 per cent for county football you shouldn’t be there.

“When Jim McCorry came in (2015) I would have gone back again, but I wouldn’t have been fit to do the training every night and I just never went back again.”

Now 33 and with two young girls, his work as a coaching officer for the Down County Board, a role on the U17 management team and farming to occupy his time, football isn’t the “be-all and end-all” any more.

He’s still playing for his beloved Longstone though and a couple of weeks ago he landed a last minute free to seal victory for ‘the Stone’ against St John’s.

On Saturday, July 16 Longstone will host teams from Down, Derry and Armagh in the 19th annual Ambrose Rogers Tournament. His father meant so much to his club and his community and, as ever, the tournament is a bitter sweet day - proud and sad – for his family.

“It all comes flooding back - what he meant to everybody and it’s all positive,” said Ambrose.

“He has a lasting legacy, but you feel sorry for family coming after he’s gone who didn’t get to meet him.”

 

Ambrose junior in action against Wexford, he had his spleen removed in hospital after the game. Pic Seamus Loughran

 

Afterwards we stand in the car park talking football for a while before we say goodbye.

I learned some things: Those who knew Ambrose senior loved him, those who loved him still miss him and no-one misses him more than his son.

His daddy would have been proud of the man he’s grown up to be.

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