Philly McMahon on life and death after his sixth All-Ireland
Sunday was two months to the day since his father Phil Snr died after battle with cancer
Dublin manager Jim Gavin with Philip McMahon after the game. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho
Every one of the Dublin footballers will have their own little reality checks in the seemingly ever-glowing aftermath of winning an All-Ireland, whether it’s their first or their sixth, only no one is as tuned into them already as Philly McMahon. If anything it makes things even more special.
The fact McMahon doesn’t drink possibly gives him a head start (though certainly doesn’t make things any less special), but just moments after Sunday’s triumph in Croke Park his thoughts were already elsewhere – two months to the day since his father Phil Snr died after a long battle with stomach cancer.
McMahon has had plenty of similar reality checks over the years: he lost his brother John, a heroin addict, in 2012, the year after winning the first of his now six All-Ireland medals, and he’s witnessed countless other lives lost or wasted while growing up in Ballymun in north Dublin.
He’s now made that part of his business, counselling prisoners and those living in disadvantaged areas, as well as running two successful business of his own, Fit-Food Ireland and BeDo7 fitness clubs. Keeping all these things in perspective with his football success helped in no small way with the death of his father.
“Yeah, the last two years have been tough for me because of my dad’s situation,” says McMahon, always as openly generous with his time as his thoughts. “I’m just so lucky I had a great support network around me, with the lads on the team. I think the culture we have within the group, all the lads have growth mindsets, so we’re constantly looking to each other, seeing what people are doing, how they can help others, give back to their communities.
“There are a lot of people who have issues in their lives, and adversity in their lives. Like I’m working in Mountjoy, every Tuesday and Thursday, talking with prisoners. And these lads would have had problems with their self image from a very young age, or their family members or environment would have influenced the choices they’ve made. And unfortunately when we look at Mountjoy, and when we look at the people in there, we only look at the crime, and don’t look at the person, and what they went through.
“There are people in there who have serious issues, essentially shouldn’t be there, might need psychological help, rather than their liberty being taken away. If you want to learn about life, go into to Mountjoy and work there for a couple of weeks.
“For me, I’m very fortunate, I’m just grateful that I was able to get my Dad to see me win the All-Ireland last year. As I said, I was a small part of helping the team win, to do that for somebody else.”
The moment was poignantly captured when a friend of McMahon’s, suitably positioned in Hill 16, threw him a t-shirt in the aftermath of the game, decorated with a simple silhouette image of Walter White, the fictional character from Breaking Bad, who his father resembled during his illness. On it were written three words; ‘Philly, He’s Here’.
“He texted me the day before and said, ‘look in the Hill’, and I’m thinking, ‘what was he talking about?’ Then when we were bringing the cup over at the end I was looking for him again and he was right in front of me. He showed me the t-shirt and he threw it over to me, saying he was here, and it was lovely.
“It’s been tough on my family as well, obviously, and I hope they have a bit of happiness now because it’s been so tough this year, tough on my Mam being there without him, but you can’t fight reality, it is what it is.”
On further reflection McMahon says such realities might well have denied him his chance to play football, were in not for some early hopes and dreams and later the intervention of former Dublin footballer Paddy Christie at his club Ballymun Kickhams: “I can remember, and I can’t give you age, driving over the canal bridge by Croke Park, on the bus with my ma, and saying to her ‘I’ll play there some day...’
“From that, to playing there in school, in the old Croke Park, that’s how old I am now. And what it’s brought, the success of those six All-Irelands, is probably more important than just saying I’ve won an All-Ireland, the way I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to develop a platform to help other people.
“I said it before, Paddy would have seen the energy of the kids in Ballymun, and blended that well with the kids that were from Glasnevin, at a certain age. And I would have had a lot of aggression, because of the problems I would have had at home, with my brother John.
“And because of my education around addiction, I would have been so frustrated and angry, because of that. And I pushed that onto the pitch, and Paddy was the one that spotted that, and did it for a lot of young kids in Ballymun.
“Unfortunately there were a few that slipped through the net, that he couldn’t help. There was one guy, he was incredible, his name was David Bewley . . . Oh My God. He had the movement of Diarmuid Connolly, that’s how good this fella was. But as I said, you kind of drop off, for whatever reason, maybe your community, where you’re from, the influences . . . ”
“And there were loads of lads like that, maybe got caught up in the wrong things, and unfortunately got brought in the wrong direction. There were loads of people in Croke Park, that probably won’t see another game, probably won’t see another All-Ireland. How could you not be motivated to go and pull on the Dublin jersey?”