GAA Football

Former Down star Miceal Magill relives the day that changed his life forever

Five months ago, former Down star Miceal Magill appeared to have the perfect life - loving family, a successful business and good health. But when he was struck down by a stroke at the start of April, it rocked him to his core. The 1994 All-Ireland winner shares his story with Neil Loughran...

Former Down player Miceal Magill has spoken of the day he suffered a stroke in the hope that it might spark others to take note and ensure they don't suffer the same fate. Picture by Mal McCann
Neil Loughran

BEEEEEEEEEPPP. BEEEEEEEEEPPP. BEEEEEEEEEPPP. BEEEEEEEEEPPP. BEEEEEEEEEPPP. BEEEEEEEEEPPP

APRIL 4, 2017 6.45am. A weary hand reaches right to shut off the alarm. Yawn, stretch, check phone then up. Down the stairs, water on, kettle filled then back up to the bedroom.

After a brief chat with wife Nuala, it’s out the door again, grabbing a glass of water from the bedside table on the way back to the kitchen.

The start of a brand new day, the same as any other.

April 4, 6.57am.

“Miceal, are you alright? Miceal… you’re scaring me now.”

Hanging perilously over the edge of the staircase at his Warrenpoint home Miceal Magill can hear everything, but it’s the only sense he has any control of. His vision is blurred, his head banging like a Lambeg drum in summer.

The legs that transported him across the landing without thought seconds earlier are no longer receiving the messages he is trying to send them. His motionless arms are nothing but dead weights. His face is falling on the left side.

Shards of shattered glass lie nearby as puddles of water form and come to rest.

Forty-seven years old. A father of five. A husband. A son. A brother. A friend. A businessman. A coach. A footballer. An All-Ireland winner. An Allstar.

And now - like the flick of a switch - a stroke patient, facing up to the biggest battle of his life.

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“I SUPPOSE looking back, in January, February and March-time I had overloaded work-wise through no fault of anybody else’s.”

The warning signs were there, even if he didn’t recognise them.

“Nuala would’ve always been saying to me ‘Miceal, your life is just 120 miles an hour 24/7, every day of the week. Jesus, just slow down’.”

His description of having “overloaded” at work is a masterclass in understatement.

Heading up Michael Magill Entertainments, the company – started by his father Mickey in 1986 – is among Ireland’s market leaders when it comes to providing wedding bands.

That work can take him the length and breadth of the country on any given day. Couple that with an increasingly popular country music scene, and all of a sudden the workload begins to creep up. And up. And up.

For 14 Sundays in-a-row from the turn of the year Miceal Magill was on the road - leaving early, home late, attending wedding fayres and promoting events. This was on top of the usual five day working week.

Yet, to him, such a hectic start to 2017 was nothing out of the ordinary.

“It’s my business, it’s how I make my living.

“The industry that I’m in, that’s a period of time where you’re trying to strike with the newly-engaged couples from Christmas time. If you don’t get them in January, you can always get them again on Valentine’s weekend.

“We did quite a lot of wedding fayres up around the north-west in that time and, on top of that, January and February is a good period of time for concert tours with some of the big country artists, so we were working with that as well.

“In retrospect, to go so many Sundays on the spin was quite intense. Leaving the house at 9am, driving to, say for example, the Everglades Hotel in Derry to do a wedding fayre, leaving there at maybe 6pm, going to the Millennium Forum to do a show, then leaving around 11pm and back home to Warrenpoint.

“You’re talking 14-15 hour days, with maybe five hour round trips on top of that.”

Unsurprisingly, it began to take a toll.

“Dad, did you see that goal?”

Youngest son Harry’s enthusiastic words stirred him to semi-consciousness on more than one occasion as he struggled to last the pace of evening soccer games in front of the television.

“You didn’t take any notice because you presumed it was the tiredness and the stress of work at that time.

“My father Michael had been diagnosed with prostate cancer in the last two years so the strain of running the office was going on too.

“To me, I was going about my everyday life. Nothing was different about what I was doing – there were wee things like that you maybe identify looking back, but I still didn’t have any indication as to what was going to happen on the fourth of April.”

That morning when he was awoken by his alarm, the former Down star felt “100 per cent”. Children Charlie (17), twins Danny and Molly (16) and Harry (13) all get their school bus around 8.10am before Nuala takes 11-year-old Ruby to school at 8.30am.

He was always the first up to get breakfast under way, and would occasionally joke about with the kids to try and raise spirits amid the early morning chaos.

But when Nuala heard a sudden thump and the smash of glass shattering on the wooden floor, she knew this was no prank.

“At the top of the staircase the stroke hit me, just like that,” says Magill, clicking his fingers.

“All the power left my body, and obviously the glass hit the deck and smashed. As it hit, Nuala shouted to see was I alright.

“When you drop something the immediate reaction is to swear or shout or whatever, but there was nothing coming from me. I had totally lost my speech.

“It’s very disorientating, just this complete fuzziness. You’re trying to say something but nothing’s coming out, it’s like a really bad drunk feeling. You can’t do anything, you’re completely powerless.

“I was trying to talk but nothing was coming out. Your head in exploding with pain, I lost part of my eyesight. I can specifically remember Nuala saying ‘Miceal, you’re scaring me now…’

“Danny came out of his bedroom and grabbed me by the t-shirt. I was hanging over the edge of the stairs, just about to fall down, and he pulled me in.

“Nuala was on the landing with him and at that stage the paralysis struck, the whole left side dropped...”

Miceal Magill admits the after-effects of the stroke he suffered last April took a long time to come to terms with, as he continues to rebuild his life, Picture by Mal McCann

AFTER 12 hours of tests, x-rays, being hooked up to different machines, more tests, Miceal Magill regained consciousness. Power back in the limbs, speech, sight, awareness. Crucially, the paralysis had gone too, his facial features restored to normal.

Kept under observation in the stroke ward of Daisy Hill hospital until the weekend, he was finally allowed out for a few hours on the Saturday.

It was Grand National day and, as per tradition in the Magill household, a couple of pounds were thrown on favoured names in the field, daughter Ruby raising smiles all round as 14/1 shot One For Arthur raised a gallop to finish first past the post.

But all bets were off as the MRI scan results were sent from Craigavon to Newry three days later.

“The stroke team came around, four of five of them, at 10am. Visiting hours were from 2pm but, and I’ll never forget it, one of them said ‘we have the results of your MRI and it’s probably best your wife comes in early’. Then you’re starting to think ‘what’s the story here?’

“Dr McGlennon brought us into her office and when she told us she needed to confirm that I was now her stroke patient, it came as a bit of shock. You would have feared it but you had to keep positive. Actually hearing the words though, that I had suffered a full blown stroke, was hard to take.

“It was only then you really start to think; I’m 47 years old, pretty healthy, always kept myself okay – how can this happen?”

Stress had played a major part but, little did he know, things would get worse before they got better.

The day it happened was traumatic for all concerned, especially his kids, but returning home, walking through the doors, sent emotions into overdrive.

Told to do nothing for six to eight weeks, a form of depression tries to take hold. Medication has been prescribed to combat those dark days but, in those early stages at least, it’s a constant struggle.

“Your confidence is completely and utterly shattered. You just want to stay in your house and see no-one.

“When people call to the house, you don’t know how to react to them because you don’t know what they’re going to ask you. It’s draining, and then there’s the post-stroke fatigue which is simply unbearable - you just feel as if your body is leaden down with weights.

“Where you look okay, you’ve had a major brain trauma. Your brain has been very badly affected.

“They were able to identify by looking at my MRI that my memory, concentration and attention would most likely suffer in the short-term. I couldn’t speak as fluently as I wanted – even now I find that my speech is slightly stop-start.

“My attention sitting around a table in a restaurant… I would get very fidgety, looking around - ‘is he looking at me? Why’s he looking at me?’

“There’s certain things the children would have done or said and next thing they’re looking for an answer, and you can’t remember what you’ve been asked. That all leads to frustration.”

Yet, throughout a career that took him right to the very top in 1994, Miceal Magill regularly demonstrated his capacity to bounce back in the face of adversity.

Whether it was getting a fingertip on a ball to dispossess an opposing forward who had momentarily escaped his attentions, or recovering from a catalogue of serious injuries, he was never beaten.

Cruciate ligaments, Gilmore’s groin, leg breaks. You name it, Magill got it. Even towards the end of his inter-county playing days he suffered a bad bleed on the brain after catching an accidental boot behind the ear in a National League match against Cavan.

In the months after he suffered weight loss, dizziness, constant migraines. It got so bad that Nuala found him slumped at the bottom of the stairs one day.

Still he returned to wear the red and black before doctors advised that one more knock to the same area could be his last.

But that warrior spirit, the strong mental attitude emboldened by years of baring his soul on the football field, would stand to him when it was needed most.

Miceal Magill was part of the Down side that landed an All-Ireland title in 1994, bringing Sam Maguire back to the county for the second time in four years

WHEN we meet in Newry’s Canal Court Hotel, Miceal Magill has just come from his second rehab session. It was 14 weeks from April 4 before he was allowed to set foot back in a car.

A phased return to work, 9.30am-1.30pm four days a week, is still ongoing. Almost five months on, life is slowly but surely getting back to normal. Inside his head, the fog has begun to clear.

Rather than cursing the fact the stroke happened, he celebrates how lucky he has been. It was a wake-up call for him and, if any good is to come from it, should serve as a wake-up call to anybody who reads his story.

“It just shows it can hit anybody at any time.

“I was very unlucky that I suffered a stroke, but I was very lucky in that I didn’t suffer full paralysis. I saw people not much older than me leaving the stroke ward to go to a home, or full-on home care.

“All of a sudden you’re thinking ‘okay you’ve had a stroke, but it could’ve been a whole lot worse’. My family have been amazing. Nuala quit work right up until the summer to look after me, the kids all rallied round.

“My mum and dad have been great. The business is still standing. Brides are still getting married, concerts are still going on.

“I have suffered some big injuries through football, and the physical rehab with those injuries can be tough, but you know that’s all it is – physical – whereas so much of rehabbing from a stroke is in the mind.

“You have the mindset of going into battle in big football matches, All-Ireland finals, Ulster finals, club finals. You have to keep positive because you don’t expect it. In football, you know injuries can happen, but you don’t expect this.

“And when it does happen, that split second can change your life forever.”

Magill is not the only one still struggling to get his head around it. In the reception of the Canal Court, he is warmly greeted by owner John McParland who, almost disbelieving, asks “did you really have a stroke?”

A few weeks previous, he heard a familiar voice calling his name in the street.

“Hey boy, what are you at?”

He turned around to see DJ Kane, captain of that famous ’94 Down side, standing before him, hand extended.

“DJ came over and said ‘did I hear you had a stroke? I never thought something like that would’ve happened not only you, but any of us’.

“Yet it did – it happened to me, and only then do you realise something has to give. There certainly won’t be as many wedding fayres, I can assure you of that. Work’s not everything.

“You have to look after yourself. Go and get yourself checked out – I’d never had an MOT at the doctors. Take it from me and go and get looked at because you never know when it can happen. “Don’t be afraid to go to your doctor and say you’re feeling tired, or asking can you get a weight check done. Be proud that you went.

“I’m only one past GAA player at 47 years of age, there’s thousands out there, go and get checked out. Your health’s your wealth. If my misfortune is somebody else’s positive gain, then I’ll take that.

“It’s a wake-up call but I’ll beat it. I’ve a positive outlook, and I will get back to where I want to be. We’re coming up on the 25-year anniversary of the ‘94 team, and I want to make sure I’m in Croke Park on that All-Ireland final day.”

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