Brendan Crossan: What price playing through pain barrier?
THE crushing reality of nearing the end of my playing days was rammed home to me one Saturday afternoon.
It was winter. It always felt like winter at Mallusk Playing Fields on the outskirts of Belfast, no matter what time of the year. A howling, unforgiving wind blew across the vast acreage and would invade your very marrow. It was always windy at Mallusk Playing Fields.
Lying on my back on wet sod, I’d take a firm grip of two clumps of grass. I'd summoned Joe Duffy, one of my team-mates, to assist me in my pre-match warm-up. Joe would lift my two legs, place them under his arms and pull as hard as he could at my behest. At the same time, I would be trying to resist his pull by clutching the two clumps of soggy earth with my hands. The objective was to pull apart ever so slightly the degenerative discs in my lower back.
For the last 20 years, on and off, back pain has been the bane of my life. I remember clearly the first time I hurt it. I was playing for Malachian's at Knockbreda Parish. The sun was out. The pitch was firm. Perfect conditions for a game of football.
I jumped - the kind of height at which you would struggle to get an Irish News under my feet - to head the ball. Bang. I crumpled in an untidy heap and wailed in self-pity. I felt murderous pain across my lower back. That was the beginning of my back trouble. But it was only in the latter stages of a thoroughly modest playing career that I established this pre-match ritual of clutching the grass and getting Joe to pull my legs towards him.
It reached the stage where everything hinged on this primitive ritual being executed successfully in order to play. The relief felt beautiful. If, for some reason, I didn't experience that pre-match pain relief my chances of getting through the game were about 50-50. Lying on the soggy turf at Mallusk that bleak Saturday afternoon and smelling like a bottle of wintergreen, I knew my time was up.
Those last few months of playing competitive football were miserable. Something I'd loved doing every Saturday afternoon in life had slowly been overtaken by a sense of dread.
Perhaps I'm biased, but I'm of the firm opinion that back trouble is the worst sports injury of the lot. Any sufferer of back pain will tell you, when it strikes it has a paralysing impact. Once you suffer back pain, it never truly leaves you. No matter how cautious you are, another 'episode' is just around the corner.
A few weeks ago, I was lifting my two-year-old daughter out of her pram in the local park. A run-of-the-mill manoeuvre, you might say. Bang. Suddenly, I was locked at a 45-degree angle. It was the worst pain I'd suffered in years.
It required a week off work, a borrowed pair of crutches, negotiating stairs on all fours, a diet of anti-inflammatory tablets, a Swiss ball and a couple of worthwhile visits to the physiotherapist team at Belfast Back Care.
In my role as a sports journalist, I've always had a certain empathy with GAA and soccer players who have battled with serious injuries. While interviewing them, you hear some nightmare stories and you sometimes wonder why they put themselves through it.
Paul 'Shorty' Shiels is one of the finest hurlers ever to come out of Antrim. One of the joys of this job is getting paid to watch high-calibre players like him play. In a recent interview, 'Shorty' explained he couldn't train between games this season because of a hip injury. He will undergo surgery in January. It's not the first time he's been troubled by his hips.
In 2009, he underwent surgery on his other hip and spent the best part of a year getting back to full fitness. That's a lot of lonely hours in the gym and unbelievable dedication. He faces the same soul-destroying rehab process in 2016. He's already insistent he'll be back before the end of the season.
Armagh's 2002 All-Ireland winner Ronan Clarke suffered back trouble and two debilitating Achilles injuries, which probably shaved three or four peak years off his brilliant career. In the winter mornings, Clarke says, he feels every one of those old injuries.
I think of Fergal Doherty of Derry and wonder how on earth he managed to last so long at inter-county level with terrible back problems. In the latter stages of his career, former Down ace Liam Doyle suffered from knee tendonitis. He used to pray for the soft ground. Armagh's Brendan Donaghy of Armagh is in the same boat, still battling this debilitating injury and still competing at the highest level.
Marc Smyth is Cliftonville's centre-back, the best in the Irish League. He's reached the stage where he can't play two games in-a-row because of chronic groin pain. It's the mark of these players that they don't want to quit. But at what price in later life?
'Shorty' is 27-years-old. What will his hips be like when he's 45? Shane McNaughton suffered exactly the same hip injury as his county team-mate Shiels. The Cushendall clubman had hip surgery a couple of years ago, did the rehab, but still doesn't feel 100 per cent.
In the second half of Cushendall's Ulster final win over Slaughtneil, McNaughton was sublime. He played through the pain barrier before limping off towards the end of an unforgettable match. Bad injuries affect players in different ways. McNaughton is starting to listen to his body and the wise counsel of his father Terence.
“During my rehab," Shane explained, "there were certainly times I didn’t think I’d get back playing.
"Being out for so long gave me a good insight into what it would be like after a player retires... Me and my da were talking about this because you want to walk properly when you’re older and to play with you kids. So it changed my outlook a bit.”
Shane is probably an exception to the rule as most sportspeople in their mid-20s feel bullet proof and don’t think about how they’ll feel in 20 years time. Shane's words have been ringing in my ears over the last few weeks. Thankfully, I've made a tentative recovery from my latest 'episode'.
I was back in the local park again with my two-year-old daughter. Smiling, she ran from me calling out: "Can’t catch me, daddy."
She was right. I couldn’t.
Maybe that pre-match ritual all those years ago, where Joe pulled my legs and I held onto the grass for dear life, wasn't such a good idea after all...