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Brendan Crossan: John Connolly and Chris Kerr leaving a legacy beyond sporting achievements

John Connolly pictured with his father, Sean, who was buried on his 83rd birthday in April. Connolly revealed recently that he had suffered from mental health issues since his father's death
Brendan Crossan The Boot Room

I ALWAYS remember my lowest point was lying in a seaweed bath in Strandhill. Back home in Belfast, I knew my father was running out of fight.

Strandhill beach is one of the most beautiful places on earth. That afternoon, the sun cast long shadows on the white sand and the skies were eternal blue.

It was April 2010.

I’ve never been back to Strandhill.

My father had been diagnosed with terminal cancer in September 2008.

He passed away on May 27 2010, aged 63.

It was fate my parents down-sized to a small bungalow because after a while my father couldn’t have climbed stairs.

Every time you walked in the front door, you had a side view of him in the living room.

In his chair with the TV remote, probably watching horse-racing.

It was like he never moved from that chair for 20 months.

He’d be quiet for long periods of the day.

That force of nature I grew up with was long gone.

Every Friday, Sawers deli in Belfast city centre got fresh crab claws in.

I would race round at lunch-time, buy a weighed bag of them, and drive up to his house.

It was one of the few things you could always depend on him eating.

The crab claws were messy and stank the place out.

My mother always complained about the smell, grateful she could still complain to him about trivial things.

They were dark days…

Those memories came flooding back after speaking with John Connolly, the former Cliftonville goalkeeper, last Sunday afternoon.

John lost his father, Sean, at the end of April.

He’d suffered a fall at home never really recovered. Sean was buried on his 83rd birthday.

I got to know John a little during his six years at Cliftonville and we played together in a charity match a few years back.

John is one of life’s good guys.

Last week, he posted the following tweet: ‘Think I'm ready to open up about the way I'm feeling. I hope it doesn’t show a sign of weakness. April 30th I lost my Da and since then I've been struggling mentally to cope with this. Each day is a mental barrier to try get over. I miss you so much Da.’

It was followed by two broken heart symbols with the hash tag: ‘It’s okay not to be okay.’

John agreed to expand on his tweet in an interview with The Irish News. He was glad he posted the tweet.

To register your deepest feelings and fears wasn’t a step he took lightly but, as a result, some of the mental burden has been lifted from him.

“Do you know what I’ve got out of it is the amount of people who have actually thanked me,” he explained.

“They are either going through the same thing or have gone through it.

“If it helps one person to open up and speak to somebody, somebody that finds themselves in that dark place, then it’s been worth it… The messages I’ve received have been unbelievable.”

John, who is playing with Ballinamallard United this season, carries a small bottle of holy water belonging to his father in his kit-bag. He touches it before every training session and match.

Earlier this year, Antrim GAA goalkeeper Chris Kerr wrote a blog about how he had coped with bouts of anxiety and depression after the death of his father, Pat Kerr, five years ago.

It was entitled ‘In the Name of the Father’. It was a powerful piece of writing, where Chris laid bare his sense of loss and how difficult it was to cope.

Since writing the blog that was published in full on the Gaelic Players Association website and The Irish News, Chris experienced a sense of liberation.

In a subsequent interview, he said: “I thought about doing it for a long time and being from west Belfast and playing football and playing soccer, the suicide rates in young men in those areas are so high, I just thought if somebody can read it and get something out of it, that's all I wanted. So I put it out there.”

A few years back, Joe Kernan revealed he had been prescribed anti-depressants for a brief period after he finished managing Armagh.

In a wide-ranging interview, Joe insisted I printed the segment in the hope that someone else, in similar circumstances, would get something out of his story.

We are all emerging from a generation and a culture where nobody spoke about their troubles.

Everyone was meant to be bullet-proof.

It was a time when nobody asked for help and, in some instances, families were left with the desperate repercussions.

People like John Connolly, Chris Kerr and Joe Kernan deserve immense credit for raising mental health awareness and making discussion more accessible.

They have used their respective profiles in the most prudent, uplifting way possible.

From Chris and John’s point of view, they have shown the positive aspects of social media.

A quick internet search and a raft of well-known sportsmen and women reveal similar stories of mental illness.

We primarily know Chris Kerr and John Connolly for their sporting endeavours on the GAA and soccer fields, but they have left another, more important legacy in the area of mental health awareness.

Leaders come in different forms.

Both men are at the forefront, leading the way, smoothing the path for others and perhaps helping them realise that one’s greatest strength is being able to share and talk, and to understand no-one is an island.

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