The last of the Mohicans - Donegal's Eamon McGee...
THE living room clock ticked beyond midnight. My notepad and pen lay on the floor. They needed some company.
I decided to raise a glass to Eamon McGee.
I reached for my favourite glass, three ice cubes from the freezer drawer, a measure of whiskey and a few glugs of Diet Coke.
The room was tired and quiet.
I don’t know Eamon McGee on a personal level. I have his phone number and I follow him on Twitter.
But that's as far as it goes.
The reason why I raised a glass to McGee in the early hours of yesterday morning was because he was my favourite GAA player to interview.
After Donegal's All-Ireland quarter-final defeat to Dublin last weekend he announced his retirement from inter-county football.
All good things come to an end. Or maybe they're only beginning for one of the game's free thinkers.
He’s already been signed up to write a GAA column for a daily newspaper.
I fear that writing about all things GAA only curtails the man.
I encountered McGee on numerous occasions after Donegal games.
Win, lose or draw, the laid-back Gweedore man would always stop and speak to reporters.
There were many Sunday afternoons he made my job a little bit easier.
During his 13-year rollercoaster inter-county career, McGee was put off the Donegal panel by no fewer than four different managers.
In many ways, he epitomised the best and the worst of Donegal football. He had talent to burn but lacked discipline.
Here was a player who would never get near to fulfilling his rich potential.
During the ‘Noughties’, Armagh taught Donegal an invaluable lesson: talent alone is never enough to win you Ulster titles.
Brian McIver was one of four Donegal managers who was forced to banish McGee from the squad.
McIver, the man responsible for digging the foundations for the county’s eventual All-Ireland success in 2012, axed McGee and his club-mate Kevin Cassidy after they failed to observe a drinks ban following a Division Two semi-final victory over Westmeath in April 2006.
McIver got wind of the two lads going on the lash and duly dropped the pair.
The Donegal County Board didn’t do Cassidy or McGee any favours by releasing a statement that suggested the duo were dropped for a “serious breach of discipline”.
And so the rumour mill went into over-drive in the hills. One story that grew legs was Cassidy and McGee were involved in a hit-and-run accident.
It got so bad that McGee and Cassidy had to “get out of town” for a few days.
A couple of weeks passed and a contrite McGee made his peace with McIver and returned to the fold, while Cassidy headed to the States for the remainder of the summer.
A few days before Donegal were due to face Down in the Ulster Championship, McIver held a press night in Jackson’s Hotel.
And who walks into the room only Eamon McGee.
If the same situation occurred in this day and age, McGee would have been the last man to appear at a press night.
It was his chance to set the record straight. He didn’t need a carefully crafted press statement.
He was well equipped to deal with the matter himself.
“We went out for a few pints and we know we shouldn’t have been out,” he acknowledged. “It was kind of unfair the way it was handled though [by the county board]…”
McGee enjoyed his interactions with the media. And the media enjoyed him.
He was the perfect antidote to the maddening, media-trained blandness that has infected the GAA.
Upon hearing the news that All-Ireland winning manager Jim McGuinness had stepped down, I lifted the phone to McGee. He picked up. It was a Saturday morning.
Avoiding well-worn clichés, McGee was brilliant. He always provided the reader with insight. Thoughtful insight. And he always came at a subject from a unique angle.
He talked about how McGuinness had steered him down a different, more fruitful path.
“We thought about winning Ulster and All-Irelands. But it was fantasy,” he explained.
“We talked loads about it but we didn’t know how to achieve it. That’s all we did was just talk about it.
“We weren’t going to spend three mornings per week in the gym.”
When he sat down with McGuinness he didn’t believe him.
“The first time I met Jim he was talking about winning Ulster titles and All-Irelands,” McGee recalled.
“I wanted to go to the gym, no bother, but I wanted to do it my way. I didn’t believe Jim.
"Within a week of walking away I was in the local bar talking about McGuinness talking sh*te about winning All-Irelands.”
Six or seven months after walking away, McGuinness knocked on McGee’s door one evening. From their conversation in McGee’s sitting room, everything changed.
For McGee, it was never just about the medals. McGuinness’s impact had a more profound reach.
“I can’t begin to express what Jim has done for me,” McGee added.
“Only for him I would have taken a completely different road. Jim put me on the right road.”
If you got McGee on the phone, or after a game or at a press event it was a waste of time to ask him about the opposition. He had more interesting things to say.
Via Twitter he would delve into the burning issues of the day. He backed the ‘Yes’ vote in the same-sex marriage referendum in the south and was praised in some quarters, derided in others.
I remember asking him last summer did he regard himself as left-wing, he replied: “I don’t like putting labels on it – left wing or right wing. If you go through every single one of my views you could get one extreme to another, some left, some right. I don’t like those kinds of labels.”
But it just wasn't in press interviews where McGee excelled.
He was a brilliant footballer.
A self-confessed 'Sledger', McGee’s faith in his own ability was never more apparent than when McGuinness threw him into the Croke Park cauldron against Kildare in July 2011 for Paddy McGrath after 27 minutes.
Chest out, McGee exuded confidence and became an indispensable member of the Donegal defence that went on to lift the All-Ireland the following year.
Here was a player who fulfilled his rich potential. He had scaled the highest peaks when it never seemed remotely possible.
Eamon McGee was the last of the Mohicans. A free thinker with an affability that would kill the cynic inside you.
He is a glowing parable of finding the right road and making the absolute most out of the journey.
He leaves behind a rich legacy - and he leaves an indelible mark on our profession too.
That's why I raised a glass to the Gweedore man in the small hours of Thursday morning...