For about 20 minutes last Thursday afternoon, and with barely a pause for breath, Domhnall Nugent talked a small Croke Park gathering through his considerable life story so far.
The Antrim hurler – he is taking a break from intercounty duty in 2024 – spoke with searing honesty of abuse suffered as a child, a later addiction to alcohol and cocaine, six months of sleeping rough on the streets in Belfast and of how, at one point, he “just didn’t want to be alive anymore”.
It was a tough listen, particularly the part about the close bond he struck with another young sports man with whom he attended a treatment centre. They left that centre on the same day in 2019 but while Nugent was called into the Antrim squad two weeks later and ultimately got his life back on track, his friend passed away following a relapse.
Nugent (26) told his story at the launch of the Movember Ahead of the Game campaign, an evidence-based emotional literacy programme designed for delivery in a sports club setting.
He, and 21 other current and past intercounty GAA, LGFA and camogie players, have been trained up to deliver what will be interactive workshops and they plan to engage 10,000 participants in 200 GAA clubs across the 32 counties by May.
“I’ve done a lot of work within GAA clubs all around the country,” said Nugent, now an addiction counsellor who has been happy to share his story and to offer encouragement to anyone it might benefit. “The difference was it wasn’t evidence-based stuff that I was doing and I think seeing the stats behind this programme, and the people it has helped, just seeing the stats as well behind the suicide rates in Ireland.
“The three organisations involved in this, the GPA, GAA, Movember, like, the GAA and the GPA in particular, I wouldn’t be alive if it wasn’t for them, to be honest with you.
“I saw a quote that said, ‘If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together’. It’s so true. I think what we’re going to be doing will make far more of an impact than me going around to clubs on my own.”
The target audience is 12- to 18-year-olds and the hope is that the workshops will enable young players, their parents and coaches to better understand mental health and how to develop mental resilience.
“It’s tools for life really, I just wish that I had it whenever I was 13, 14, 15,” said Nugent.
Another story he told the group last week was how he returned from the UK after working and playing hurling over there. He had the guts of €20,000 saved and intended to use it for a house deposit. Eight months later he went to the bank machine to make a withdrawal and realised it was all gone, blown on “drugs and drink and facilitating other people’s addictions”.
There was a period of homelessness – “On nights when people might go out and go to McDonald’s after, I used to go around to McDonald’s and see if there was any chicken nuggets lying on the street, just really, really horrible times” – before he eventually found treatment, thanks in part to the GPA.
“It’s been an amazing few years,” said Nugent. “This time 4½ years ago I was in a rehab centre, not really having a purpose in life. I am the luckiest man in the world. I really believe that, deep down. Every day is a blessing. There’s a lot of things that haven’t went right since either, a lot of obstacles that have come my way. I’ve had the ability to overcome those too, with the tools that I’ve got through counselling and rehab and keeping focused on myself and just building. I call it the journey with no destination.
“I think we live in a world where people say they’ll be happy ‘when’. I’ll be happy when I get that new car, I’ll be happy when I get a new job, when I get a promotion or get a wife or whatever it is. I’m just happy now.
“I’m a big advocate for people just being the best version of themselves. If you’re your authentic self, then you have no competition. I love that quote.”
Intercounty hurling, Antrim and manager Darren Gleeson have all been good to Nugent but he’s decided to take a break for 2024. The big forward came on in Antrim’s Leinster SHC win over Westmeath in May, a result that kept the Saffrons in the MacCarthy Cup, but he needs time out now, for both mind and body. With Neil McManus announcing his retirement and several other first teamers planning to take the year out, resources will be stretched.
“I’m on a sabbatical, just to get my body into a place where I need to,” said Nugent, who suffered cruciate damage on club duty last summer. “And, like, I’ve been through a lot, in terms of even my childhood and trauma. And trauma is trauma at the end of the day. You’re picking up injuries and this and that. Sometimes you just need to give yourself a wee bit of headspace.”