“I was lying on the ground and just thinking ‘what the hell have I done, am I paralysed?'"
At the end of an in-house game before Armagh's championship clash with Tyrone last year, Niall Grimley fell awkwardly and fractured two vertebrae in his neck. The consequences could so easily have been life-changing. Fully recovered, back in Armagh colours and now father to four-week old daughter Olivia, he spoke to Cahair O'Kane…
THE manicured championship-season grass. The sun’s disappearing glances over the rooftops behind the terrace. Worried faces standing over him. The sterile panelled ceilings of the Royal Victoria Hospital’s spinal unit.
For 60-odd of the longest hours imaginable, pretty much all Niall Grimley could do was stare at whatever was straight in front of him.
May 27 last year. A beautiful Friday evening. Donegal have pushed the Ulster Championship tide out on Armagh again but the qualifier draw delivers a home tie against the All-Ireland champions from across the Blackwater.
Nine days out, there’s not a pair of gloves to be seen. The sun seems to be rising, not falling. Beads of sweat carry from the foreheads to the forearms.
The in-house game is nearing its end when the salmon all rise for a kickout. Grimley rises highest.
He likens it to an AFL catch, one where he’s up above the shoulders of an opponent.
As he comes down, the ball slips from his grasp. Falling head first, he grabs after the loose possession in mid-air. The break is there and a scrum of bodies burrow in after it.
“I secured the ball and I fell, and as I fell the ball fell, and I went to snatch it into me. Whatever happened, I banged against the ground. It was just a freak accident.”
Straight away there’s panic. Everyone recognises it.
He knows himself it’s bad.
Five, ten, twenty seconds, he’s not sure how long passes. Forever, it feels. The initial pain is so distinctive.
“Like being hit on the top of the head with a sledgehammer, that was the only way I could describe it.”
Lying on the ground, he knows it’s his neck. The mind goes straight to worst-case scenario.
“I was lying on the ground and just thinking ‘what the hell have I done, am I paralysed?’"
The shock of the impact begins to settle. Maura McGeeney, Kieran’s wife, is the Armagh physio. She was straight on to help. But it’s his own instincts that he hears first.
“You’re thinking then can I move my fingers, can I move my toes?”
More seconds pass and it seems to ease. Into the recovery position, he’s put through the protocols. It starts to feel as though he’s just been badly winded.
Wanting to believe he’s alright, putting on the bravado, thinking of Tyrone in nine days, he insists on getting to his feet and walks the few yards into the changing room.
By the time his team-mates come to the door a few minutes later, he’s on the floor in a neck brace and the ambulance is on its way.
“I thought ah no, my back is in bits here. My thumbs were on fire. It was like someone had lit a flamethrower on them.”
Rushed to Craigavon Area Hospital, they ran a CT scan and packed him straight back into another ambulance and sent him to the Spinal Cord Injury Unit at the Royal Victoria in Belfast.
Niall Grimley had suffered a three-column fracture of the C6 vertebrae in his neck. The C7 vertebrae was also fractured. The discs, the ligaments, the tendons in the area, everything was destroyed.
Crucially, the spinal cord to which damage is life-changing and irreversible, was unharmed.
That gave him some comfort across two-and-a-half very long and lonely days.
Covid protocols were still in place meaning his wife Emma and the rest of his family had to take turns to visit and were only able to be there for an hour at a time, twice a day.
None of the rest knew what he and Emma knew. Six months after their wedding, they’d only just found out she was expecting their first child.
Long before the fear of never playing football again hit, there was the fear that his quality of life would be significantly altered. The fact he could move his feet and toes eased the worries but the burning sensation in his hands terrified him.
“We had just found out Emma was gonna have a baby and then I’m thinking holy shit, if I lose feeling in my hands, will I be able to hold my baby?
“At that stage we hadn’t told anyone, literally only me and her knew. Her emotions were up the left regardless and then I do something like that on her.”
Olivia Grimley will be five weeks old on Monday. Weighing in at six pounds and six ounces, she was born five days after her father pulled on an Armagh jersey for the first time since breaking his neck.
* * * * *
TRANSFERRED from Craigavon to the Royal, one thing he remembers about the spinal unit is the situation a lot of the other patients around him were in.
“Outside people’s rooms there were wheelchairs. There was no wheelchair outside my room. There’s a lot of people in there that don’t get so lucky.”
The injury happened on the Friday night. When the initial haze calmed and the doctors had explained that they wanted to operate, calmness descended.
It wasn’t necessarily a good calmness. With visitation restricted, the silence left him alone with his own thoughts. Saturday, May 28 was a long day.
Liverpool were playing Real Madrid in the Champions League final that night. Emma brought him an iPad to watch it on but the former Cliftonville youth was so wiped out physically and mentally he never saw a kick.
“That was the hardest day. You’re lying in the Royal Victoria Hospital staring at the ceiling thinking what the hell have I done and what the hell is there to come?
“At the time, that weekend, there was no mention of football. It was just like right, we need to make sure this fella’s gonna be ok to have a normal life.
“The doctors are coming in saying we need to do this, need to do that, and they’re uncertain how it was going to go.
“But they were content in terms of not being paralysed or that I wouldn’t lose any feeling in my hands.
“What those doctors and nurses and everyone in there does is amazing. I’ll be forever thankful for the work that they do. It’s quite amazing how they can literally fix you.”
The operation would have to be done through the front of his neck. That was a scary thought too. ‘Why the front when it’s my spine?’ he asked. The tissue is softer, easier to cut through.
It would involve removing the destroyed discs from his neck and replacing them with artificial plates, and then inserting a metal cage between the two broken vertebrae.
The risks that come with such surgery are potentially catastrophic, from damage to the spinal cord to losing your voicebox. But the alternative, not having the surgery, wasn’t really an option.
The cage and plates are in there permanently now. Pins and screws hold the cage in place. It takes time to swallow the idea that it’s as strong as it was before.
The odd time Grimley presses his neck above his scar, just down to the right of his Adam’s Apple, to see if he can feel any of the metal inside, but he can’t.
Day by day, the mind pushes its existence and the memories of how it came to be there further and further back.
It all happened so fast. The whole lot of it.
The injury itself, milliseconds. The spill of the ball, the mid-air decision to go after it, the fall, knowing instantly that something was wrong.
From the changing rooms to Craigavon and then the Royal on the Friday night, surgery on the Monday. By the Wednesday, he was back home in Armagh.
For the three weeks that he had to keep a neck brace on, he allowed himself to wallow a bit.
“The first week or two it was tough, thinking will I put on a Madden jersey again, will I put on an Armagh jersey again? Those things went through my head. Of course it was upsetting.
“From me being 100 per cent, training flat out, doing whatever I could to get playing for Armagh. In one moment, that can all be taken away from you.
“But I had my week or two of sulking. If you want something enough, you’ll find a way. So then it became do I want to get back?”
He surrounded himself with the people that would keep his chin up. His wife, his family, his team-mates, especially the Armagh management team.
Then he began to seek out positive stories he could feed off.
Rory Best would captain Ireland to a Grand Slam, the second of his career, in 2018. But his career was almost ended by a freak accident in 2009.
He and wife Jodie were in Edinburgh attending a friend’s wedding. The morning after, as he went to step out of the shower in his hotel room, disaster struck.
“As I turned it off and stepped out, something went bang. I fell backwards out of the shower and rolled on to the floor of the bathroom,” he wrote in his autobiography.
Scans showed a bulging disc in his neck. It was pushing against his spinal cord. After months of trying to avoid surgery, they went through with it in August 2009. When they opened him up, the disc was found to be completely prolapsed.
Surgeons ought to have removed more of the disc but had to leave enough that he would still be able to play rugby.
The recovery took time. The first time Best went back to the gym after surgery, he couldn’t bench 40kg. Unheard of for a prop forward in rugby.
It took time but it came right. He went on to have a glittering career. That was what Niall Grimley needed to hear when he got the former Ireland captain’s number and had a chat with him.
Getting hold of James Lavery was easier. The Maghery man had suffered a very similar injury in Armagh training in 2014 but fought back as well, and actually ended his retirement again last summer to come back out with the club.
All Niall Grimley needed to hear was that it could be done. He’d take care of the rest.
AS things have been since 2008, it was a bad summer to be an injured Armagh player all the same.
The Tyrone game that arriving to training nine days earlier he’d hoped to be playing in, he’s instead having to watch on TV in his living room.
He and Emma live in Armagh city, two minutes from the Athletic Grounds. That afternoon they could hear the actual crescendo of the place.
The few seconds of delay between viewers in the ground and viewers at home seeing the action were evident. The roar would go up and he’d hear it through the windows, knowing something had happened.
That was a strange and tough day, to be looking in at everyone else living your dream.
“It you down to earth, you realise it’s serious, I need to look after myself. But I was delighted the boys won, I grew five feet taller from them winning.”
By the time they were heading to Croke Park to face Galway, he was back on the team bus, in the changing rooms, sat just behind his team-mates in the Hogan Stand. That was real enough to keep him going.
The initial diagnosis was nine-to-twelve months before he’d be back playing football.
He was signed off to return after six months.
Kieran Donaghy spoke after the Monaghan game of being amazed at how far along he was in pre-season, and of his bravery at going up to catch a ball behind himself.
“Catching ball going backward after that type of an injury shows huge bravery,” said the former Kerry forward.
The years of strength and conditioning under him helped him absorb the damage better than most, he’s convinced. The rehab, as rehab goes, was remarkably straight-lined.
“There was never a stage after the operation where I had to pull back. There was never a stage where anything worsened it.
“Obviously being a footballer, you get selfish, you see a bit of progression after a couple of weeks and you want more and you want more.”
Niall Grimley pulled on the number eight against Antrim on January 4 this year, just over seven months later. A McKenna Cup game was never as warmly welcomed.
“I’ve completely parked it now, mentally and physically. I’m so done with it,” he says of the injury and the healing process.
Coming on against Mayo last weekend in a packed, dry Athletic Grounds, it’s championship football masquerading as the league.
“Those are the days when you’re sitting in a neck brace thinking ‘I dream of a day like that’.
“When someone takes it away from you, you think ‘I want that day back so much’.”
The feverishness that has engulfed Armagh football was a hard thing to miss out on that day against Tyrone.
But he could so easily have been missing out on so much more.
And with that it’s almost time to go again. Olivia will need another bottle soon.
All the things that matter in Niall Grimley’s life are as good as they were, if not better.
He couldn’t be more grateful for that.