Co Down GAA player Philip Bonny on the long road to recovery after Hodgkin's Lymphoma
Bryansford footballer Philip Bonny tells Neil Loughran about his 10 months of hell battling serious illness, how he was itching to get back on the pitch after his recovery and Monday evening's fairytale comeback contribution off the bench...
“FRANK, I’m bringing my boots tonight. Hopefully you won’t need me but I’ll be available if you do.”
It’s over an hour’s drive to Ballymartin from his home in Richill, where he lives with girlfriend Naomi and baby daughter Sofia, but the minutes seemed to fly by as Philip Bonny headed towards the coast on Monday evening.
His club, Bryansford, was taking on Rostrevor in a do-or-die Down senior championship clash, with the winner tumbling through the exit door. Bonny had been back training once a week for the past month, as well as bits and pieces either side when time and energy permitted.
He had stood on the sideline in Castlewellan, shouting and roaring, sharing in the frustration as Francie McKibbin’s men lost out to county kingpins Kilcoo in their first championship outing nine days previous, just wishing he could offer something. Anything.
The fitness levels are nowhere near what they once were and, having barely touched leather competitively for the guts of a year, miracles could hardly be expected when it came to match sharpness.
But he couldn’t bear the thought of another 60 minutes plus losing the plot on the line, so on Monday afternoon Bonny picked up the phone to McKibbin.
“I wasn’t saying he had to play me or whatever, but it might have been the last game of the year - if we’d lost we were out. So I just wanted him to know I was there if needed…”
The day before, he had imagined coming off the bench as a late sub with Bryansford well ahead. A nice wee clap, a few gravity-defying leaps, maybe a point from a close-in free just to top it all off.
Instead, Rostrevor sprung from the blocks and marched ahead by three at the break, a lead extended to six midway through the second half. It looked for all the world as though Bryansford’s summer was about to be cut short.
That Sunday afternoon day-dream had been completely forgotten about in the heat of battle. Bonny wasn’t thinking of anything other than getting up to the edge of the square and wreaking havoc. Not the fear of fumbling the first ball that came his way. Not the thought of a full-back’s knee in the back.
Not even the 10 months of hell he and his family had just endured - the constant trips to the hospital, the shock, the sleepless nights, the sweats, the shakes and the smells that made him sick to his stomach.
In this moment nothing else mattered, only football, and what a feeling that was.
Staring down the barrel of a gun, McKibbin turned his direction and delivered the only words Philip Bonny wanted to hear.
“Right, get yourself ready…”
IT was dad Philip sr who first mentioned it not long after his electrician son had come in through the door from a day spent tracking walls on the site.
“He just noticed a bit of swelling on my neck and told me to go to the hospital, get it checked out - they’ll give you antibiotics or whatever to bring it down.”
There was no initial suspicion of anything sinister but once the hospital staff saw the veins on the side of his head and neck, Bonny was sent for an x-ray. The results showed a massive shadow on his chest.
Different tests were taken - bloods, a bone marrow biopsy, a biopsy of the tumour itself - yet at no stage did he allow himself to even consider the worst.
After all, he had only turned 27. Sofia wasn’t even three months yet.
It couldn’t happen to him - it just couldn’t.
“They suspected it was cancer but in my head I always thought they’d find it was something else. There’s going to be some other explanation – there’s no way I’m unwell here.
“I’m a fit young man, I don’t eat badly, I’m training all the time… there’s no way I’m not well. There’s going to be a mistake here.
“They took a chunk of the tumour out and did a biopsy, then called me in. I was sitting there waiting on the good news, and then they told me what it was...”
Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. He had never even heard of it before, and spent the first month telling people he had non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, which is a far more common form of cancer.
Naomi and mum and dad, Philip and Anne, were at his side when the news was delivered at Belfast’s Royal Victoria Hospital that October day in 2017.
Yet as tears fell around him, he sat there, numb.
“Your heart sinks. You’re just sitting on the chair looking at nothing, trying to get your thoughts together.
“People say it’s like an out of body experience when you get news like that, but I was just sitting there thinking ‘f**king hell, how’s this going to affect the people around me?’ You don’t even think of yourself, you think of your baby girl, your girlfriend, your family.
“It’s funny, when you think of it happening to somebody else you think ‘I couldn’t deal with that’ but when it happens to you, you just get on with it. I would far rather it was me sitting in that position than Naomi. That would have cut me in two.
“So I was determined to be strong for my family and the people around me, telling them ‘look, this is quite common in my age group, I’ll get the chemo in, get the tumour down and I’ll get better’.
“I just knew I had to have a positive mindset and believe I could beat it.”
A course of chemotherapy started within weeks but the first treatment flattened him completely, leaving Bonny bed-bound for a fortnight at the Ulster Hospital as his immune system plummeted.
“That was hard. I was basically shaking 24/7, then there’d have been staff in every four hours between urine samples and getting antibiotics to try and fight off whatever was attacking my system.
“I’d say I had a maximum of maybe 12 hours sleep over those two weeks. That was probably the only time I got a bit glum but at least I was sort of on my own for most of that time. I was able to text, saying ‘I’m okay, I’m well’, even though I wasn’t.”
With his weight dropping and hair beginning to fall out, the effect of the aggressive treatment was taking hold. One of the coldest, and longest, winters on record didn’t help as he attempted to negotiate his way to chemo sessions in the Mandeville unit of Craigavon Area Hospital.
“Christmas was horrific. In the new year I couldn’t leave the house because of the cold weather. They told me not to be anywhere near anybody who could give me anything. There were times I couldn’t be near my daughter because babies are full of germs, so it was very tough.
“I was basically bed-bound for a long time. I could see in the mirror my muscle deteriorating, my weight was dropping – I was lighter than my brother for the first time in my life. My average weight’s about 14 stone but I was touching 11.
“The first two cycles I wasn’t throwing up but the last two were awful, just throwing up all the time.”
It got so bad he couldn’t even turn on the window wipers in his car, such was his aversion to the smell of the cleaner. In the days after chemo sessions he survived on a diet of ginger biscuits and soup until the nausea would pass and he could get back to something approaching normality.
“Indian food was the one thing that helped because I could still taste the chemo in my mouth a week later, but if I had an Indian it made me forget about it all.”
Eventually, though, light would appear at the end of a seemingly endless tunnel.
Coming towards the close of his treatment, Bonny’s consultant revealed that the tumour had been successfully shrunk to nothing, but advised him to see out the course to guard against the possibility of a relapse down the line.
The long winter finally over, in May he was given the all-clear once and for all, just as the sun began to show its face and summer burst into bloom. The smell of the green grass warmed his senses where once it had warmed his stomach.
He had never lost hope, but this felt like a new beginning.
A couple of weeks later he went out to a local Chinese restaurant with family and ate to his heart’s content. Afterwards they made the short walk to the Donard Hotel at the top of Main Street for a quiet pint.
Unknown to Bonny, waiting inside was a welcoming party of over 100 people from every corner of Ireland.
“Everybody was just standing there, clapping. It was incredible.
“Seeing all my friends and family from all walks of life there in the one place… it was just amazing. Throughout it all, the support I had was incredible. Naomi was just amazing, she’s been the difference. My mum and dad, her mum and dad, Bryansford club, I honestly couldn’t thank them all enough for all they’ve done.
“I had hundreds of messages from people through the Gaelic, through the soccer, through everything. People like Pete McGrath who was here a few years ago. Even people who I didn’t know even knew my name like Ross Carr and PJ McGee.
“It meant a lot, it really did.”
THERE was no fanfare as he strode onto the pitch and made his way towards the Rostrevor goals. A midfielder by trade, Bonny’s lack of minutes made any notion of throwing him in around centrefield – even just for the last quarter of an hour – redundant.
“I’ve been doing my own bit at home because I went from really painfully skinny to being really fat,” he says with a laugh.
“I put on serious weight – I was feeling better about myself, I was able to eat and I just ended up out of shape. One Indian takeaway too many I think!
“But I’ve stopped all that and I’m not too bad now. I’m back to roughly where I should be, though I need to get fitter still.”
McKibbin’s instructions were simple – get up there and try to get on to as much as possible. Bonny may stand just short of six foot but always boasted a prodigious leap and good hands, so it was a chance worth taking.
“I was stood on the sideline and we were six points down with 15 minutes to go. I was itching to get on, I was so angry at what I was watching. It was absolute tripe.
“It wasn’t how I imagined coming back. I had it in my head the night before, come on, wee cameo, get it out of the road and just let them know I can still play if they ever need me, but it wasn’t like that at all.
“The first couple of balls came in and I knocked them down to Timmy [Hanna] but we didn’t get a goal. At that point you’re thinking ‘it’s not our day’.”
But Bryansford kept plugging away, cutting the deficit to three. And then the ultimate Roy of the Rovers story unfolded before the eyes of those supporters dotted around the Pat’s Road pitch.
“With a couple of minutes to go, big Joe [Ireland ] just hoofed her in. Timmy punched it down and I took two steps and drilled it.
“The ball came off the underside of the bar and I was away celebrating before it even hit the net – the friggin’ thing bounced down on the line too! But thankfully it went in eventually.
“That made it level with two to go, the whole crowd went mad, the bench went ballistic.”
Bryansford embraced that momentum and got the last two points of the game to seal an unlikely victory, but the result was soon forgotten as players clad in green and gold swarmed the comeback king, tears in eyes.
“When the final whistle went I was relieved but knackered. I was trying so hard I could barely breathe so when I was walking off everybody started mobbing me, every player, everybody on the bench and it ended up like a 25 man huddle in the middle of the field.
“Some of the Rostrevor boys came over and shook my hand so that was a lovely touch. I’d had a bit of aggro with Caolan Mooney a few minutes earlier, but to be fair he made a point of coming over and saying ‘it’s good to have you back’.
“I thought that showed a lot of class.”
Castlewellan, one of Bryansford’s biggest rivals, are up next on Monday evening.
Ten months ago days like these couldn’t have seemed further away but, having had a taste for it, Francie McKibbin can expect another phone call in coming days to say the boots are in the bag. He’s on his way.