Dealing with life after the floodlights fade
RETIREMENT FROM SPORT:By choice or chance, many sporting careers end early – we talk to four for whom the whistle blew prematurely
It ends for everyone eventually. Whether you are running out to thousands of adoring fans in a packed stadium for the last time, or sitting alone in a sterile physiotherapist’s office awaiting results on a career-shattering injury, the life of a professional athlete is both sublime and fragile.
For most, it’s just a distant dream. But imagine if you had this dream for a few short moments and experienced every brilliant and brutal moment, then you either ended the dream yourself or, worse, something intervened against your will.
For the retired Australian Rules professional Jamie O’Reilly and former Leinster rugby player Seán Brophy, the decision to turn their back on potential riches and fame was based on a need for stability in their lives. Conversely, the plans of ex-soccer players Keith O’Neill and Kevin Grogan were thwarted by cruel injuries that tormented them for years afterwards.
All four men were only in their 20s when their professional careers were over, leaving them with the challenge of rebuilding their lives.
Jamie O’Reilly is in his student flat by the River Lagan in Belfast studiously knotting a tie for work. It may be a grey Saturday, he may be mentally and physically exhausted from a week of intensive Gaelic football training and study for his Master’s degree at Queen’s University, but he still has to pay the bills somehow, and does this in a clothing shop most weekends.
He can afford to look back nostalgically at his previous life just over a year ago, playing professional Australian Rules football for Richmond Tigers in Melbourne. A former Down minor star, he was offered the chance to pursue professional sport far away from his home. “It was a life experience thing for me, the chance to play professional sport, meet new people and experience a new life, it was incredibly attractive.”
O’Reilly went to Melbourne at 22 and worked hard in a sporting culture that demanded it. “I had to work really hard coming from Gaelic football, and life can become quite regimented and strict. It’s repetitive. I found the structure helped to improve me as a player, but then I also understand that if all you’re doing is playing football, you’re in a fishbowl, you need something else.”
O’Reilly was two years into a business degree at Queen’s when he moved to Richmond, being assured that he could transfer his studies to a university at Melbourne. This never transpired due to academic bureaucracy, leaving him with a difficult choice – take up a full time contract in the AFL with Richmond, or go back and complete his degree.
“For me the whole choice came down to education, the club tried their best to help, but I couldn’t continue my degree. My Mum and Dad have always said ‘Don’t give up on your education’, and I knew one injury and my career could be over. It was a smart choice, but not necessarily an easy one.”
The return to Ireland wasn’t initially as smooth as he might have hoped for. “When I was over there, my life was football, seven days a week. Up in the morning, eat, play football, sleep, think about football, go to bed, repeat. I found myself after a couple of years out struggling to study in the library for assignments and just not feeling as strong or fit as I was, it was annoying, I couldn’t balance things, sport or study, one had to give.”
O’Reilly is now back playing Gaelic football for Queen’s while studying software development. He admits to thinking about his old life in the sun sometimes. “I was cycling back home recently in the pouring rain in Belfast and my chain came off, I was standing ready to throw the bike in a ditch, soaked to the skin far from home, thinking one year ago I was running about at the MCG and now I’m a skint student . . . but no regrets, I know I made the right call, education was too important.”
Seán Brophy was part of the schools’ rugby conveyor belt. He stepped on to it because that’s what his friends were doing at Belvedere College, he just simply forgot to get off and ended up playing prop for Leinster. “I was just like a lot of Dublin kids, I played rugby since I was eight, it was something I enjoyed and was lucky enough to get onto underage teams at Leinster and then for Ireland, it just went from there.”
After a stellar rugby career at Trinity, he played for Leinster under Gary Ella. He had never planned to be sharing a dressing room with Brian O’Driscoll, but sport can work in mysterious ways. “I found rugby difficult to understand at times, there were guys I played with at school or later I could have sworn would have played for Leinster or maybe even Ireland, then something happened – an injury, selectors looking the other way and it was over for them.”
After a season with Leinster, at 23 and facing competition for places in the front row, Brophy received interest from Connacht. “In that season, towards the end, I was weighing up options and had also applied for Oxford University to do a Master’s. I could go to Oxford, do something different, play rugby and hopefully have a good career afterwards. I went for it because I couldn’t afford to risk everything on my rugby. The attrition rates were too high.”
Brophy now lives in London where he works in banking for Lloyds. He is back home in Glasnevin for a quick visit and after the interview he makes his way to see Leinster beat Cardiff at the RDS ; the game is still a huge part of his life. “For me rugby is about commitment. I was lucky to play for Leinster and share the pitch with amazing people, but pro rugby for me was looking at the world in quite a narrow way, it can be monotonous and hard work. I needed something more than just sport for an income. I’m just glad it worked out.”
For Kevin Grogan sport was never a narrow existence, it was all that mattered to him. Like Brophy, he attended Belvedere College, but instead skilfully sidestepped the Jesuit Priests’ wish to turn him into Ireland’s next outhalf. Grogan’s game was soccer, and he was exceptional at it.
Every school holiday from the age of 12 was spent at Manchester United. Seeing Alex Ferguson huffing and puffing down the corridors at The Cliff became as normal to Grogan as a schoolboy cowering at the sight of a totemic headmaster. He progressed to be part of the Ireland under-16 squad which won the European Championships in 1998.
“I remember when I first went into Manchester United when I was so young, Alex Ferguson had me up in his office and talked to me, I was very comfortable in a football sense. I was battling homesickness, it was very tough mentally, I had a lot of growing up to do, but I knew I was never going home, football was going so well.”
Sadly, by 17 Grogan’s career was practically over at Old Trafford, a pelvis injury frustrating him by teasing him into thinking he could still survive at UCD and then Millwall. He felt a brutally hard work ethic would carry him through – unfortunately it couldn’t. “Once you leave something you love and it’s out of your hands, it’s so hard. My family and friends were brilliant when I came home, but they didn’t quite understand. Footballers were all I could relate to.”
After succumbing to feelings of hopelessness and depression, Grogan decided to work in the game he loved through coaching. He has lived in New York for the last three years where he manages a successful semi-professional team. He shared breakfast a few weeks ago on 6th Avenue with the man who helped secure his visa by writing a personal letter.
“It was surreal seeing Alex Ferguson again after so many years, you’d think at 30 you’d be relaxed, but seemingly not. I was still a bit nervous, like he was still the boss. I’ve learnt a lot from him. When I finished my playing I was depressed and could barely get out of bed, now I have that huge passion for the game again.”
Grogan politely ends the conversation, another full day beckons that starts at 7am and ends in the small hours.
Keith O’Neill was another Dublin schoolboy prodigy. He never played more than 10 games of football in a row from the age of 14 due to early back problems that plagued his career, but it almost didn’t matter. He was talented enough to gain 13 caps for his country and play professionally for Norwich, Middlesbrough and Coventry. But it was over at 27 due to relentless back difficulties. He is in a reflective mood in his office in Cornwall where he heads up a sales team for a meat company.
“For the couple of years after I had to stop playing, it was great. You travel, you go where you want, when you want, there were no rules that you get when you’re playing football. All I knew was full on training, games and injuries.
“Then reality kicked in, what was I going to do with my life? I was very down and very dark, you can go either way then, wallow in self pity or try to make a new life.”
O’Neill played at the highest levels of the game, but wasn’t equipped for real life. “I was so cocooned, I didn’t have a doctor or dentist or money worries in those days. Normally things you should deal with, but the club did everything for me, I was living in a bubble, I certainly know I’m a better person now.”
After speaking to his father-in-law, O’Neill decided to work in the meat industry. The pampered world of a professional footballer hadn’t prepared him for his new life. “I used to drive down to Preston and be in a slaughterhouse at 4am and travel back to Cornwall in the pitch black. I remember sitting in the car thinking, ‘what am I doing?’”
Things gradually became easier though. “People in the meat industry are great people, real and true and everyone is always slagging, I love that banter, it’s almost like the dressing room. I get a huge amount out of it. Every day is different. I could have the worst day, then something will happen and it’s great.”
As we talk, O’Neill has to put clients on hold. He has meat to sell, not a story, but he remains engaging and animated when he talks about his happiest times.
“When I chat to you now, I can still feel raw goose pimples on my arms when I talk about my football career, scoring a half volley for Ireland – that is just joy. Undiluted joy. It’s surreal like an out of body experience. It was the biggest rush, but I don’t beat myself up that it’s over, I still feel proud of myself and my career.”