Tom Parsons thankful for the journey as he bids goodbye to the big stage
‘My whole sporting career has taught me so much’ says long-serving Mayo stalwart
Tom Parsons: “Happiness isn’t found in winning an All-Ireland or winning All Stars or playing in these big games. Happiness in sport and in life is found in the daily routines of everything we do.” Photograph: Oisín Keniry/Inpho
In the end, Tom Parsons got to call his own way out. He got to sit down and type up a statement and put it out into the ether, happy that the road ahead is the one he wants for himself and his family. The outside world sees a Mayo footballer who has retired; he sees a choice that he was able to make.
Though it might sound like a small distinction, it’s anything but. Parsons has been an ex-Mayo footballer twice before. James Horan dropped him between the league and championship in 2011, three years into his career. He had just turned 23 and by his own admission was “mentally and emotionally rocked” by the experience.
After spending the next couple of years in Cardiff licking his wounds, Horan called him in for a second life in 2014. Upon his return, he flourished into one of the best midfielders in the country, an All Star nominee in 2015 and 2017 and a stand-out performer in some of the decade’s greatest games.
All of which was cut short by a devastating knee injury sustained against Galway in May 2018. He dislocated his knee, tore his cruciate ligaments, hamstring and calf. His foot turned black and a doctor in Galway University Hospital told him he might not be able to run again, never mind play intercounty football. It took a long time but he made it back to play in successive All-Ireland semi-finals.
So yes. It matters that he is able to do it this way. In his own time, of his own volition. With a 14-month-old son at home, spending 20 hours a week driving up and down to Mayo from his Dublin home was bound to have a limited future. The pull of real life was becoming too strong for football to be able to outmuscle it. But that’s okay. That’s how it’s supposed to be.
“My inter-county career had ended twice already,” he says. “And forcefully ended. That’s why it has been so special to be able to put out a statement and say, ‘Hands up, I’ve had a great journey’, and to do it on my own terms. Because a lot of players don’t get that. I would say 90 per cent of players don’t get that chance. Being lucky enough to be able to say, ‘See you later, lads. Thanks for everything’ – I’m privileged to be able to do that.”
His was a unique career. With the jigs and the reels, Parsons ended up playing just 36 championship matches between 2008 and 2020. And yet everything you would – and wouldn’t – want from a career was in there. Sean Boylan picked him on an International Rules team when he was 20 and yet he was playing five-a-side in Wales three years later with people who hadn’t the first notion that he had ever been anybody.
His knee injury was so bad he had to take seven months off work and yet was able to play the last 10 minutes against Dublin in his first game back. That was in the 2019 All-Ireland semi-final and if you want an indication of what he meant to his people, check out the video on the hour mark. Brian Fenton has just buried the third Dublin goal, pushing them 11 points up. Parsons is announced as coming on to replace Seamie O’Shea and the Mayo support is loud and infused with genuine love.
“My whole sporting career has taught me so much,” Parsons says. “It’s like experiencing your whole life in 10 years. You have that young childhood stage of learning to play the game. Then you grow up and you’re full of confidence and you’re in your element. Then you’re in your latter years and you’re appreciating every session and you know the end is coming and you’re trying to give back to the young lads in some way.
“And along that journey, you realise that you wouldn’t have been able to get to the end without all the setbacks and disappointments. I know resilience is a bit of a buzzword but it’s a non-negotiable trait for everybody. In life, you will experience bereavements, setbacks, relationship break-ups, stresses, traumas, all that stuff. So it’s non-negotiable to be able to fall, get back up, dust yourself off and go again.
“And it’s really hard to learn that in life. But in sport you have to learn that quickly. And I don’t even mean the big ones like a serious injury or whatever. It’s all these small ones like pulling a hamstring that leaves you out for six weeks, it’s being criticised in the media or among the supporters, it’s being the root cause of a defeat that got your team knocked out of a championship. These are all mentally, emotionally and physically big setbacks.
“Sport forces you to make peace with the fact that you might fail. I look back at my younger self when I played poorly or didn’t make a team, my head would be down and I would feel like a failure. But in later years, I found myself glad of those experiences, of trying and failing and trying again. It’s a hard lesson to learn. It’s that great cliché in life or sport or business – I will not say I failed a thousand times but rather that I found a thousand ways to fail. That’s what brings you success.”
They had plenty of that, too. They didn’t win their All-Ireland but nobody came closer to stopping Dublin. Those games in the middle of the decade will live after us all, each one an epic onto itself. That Mayo were never quite good enough to overcome their flaws does, of course, leave its sting. But he wouldn’t go overboard on it either. They were the best of times. They were the best of him.
“I remember doing an interview a few years ago and being asked, ‘What’s your greatest memory?’ And I said, ‘Being part of the team that won five Connacht titles in a row.’ But really, it’s not. We beat Sligo in that final and we had them beaten out the gate long before the end of it. I performed fairly well and we won but that’s not a game that sticks in my head.
That’s the buzz. The opportunity to test your absolute ability, win or lose. And you can’t replicate that in life
“Because really, my greatest memory is the 2017 All-Ireland final. In terms of emotions, positive and negative, that’s it. We had been on a 10-game run, every game was a battle, ending in a 76-minute battle with Dublin. I have a really stark memory of the final whistle, bent over with my hands on my knees and I couldn’t catch my breath. I couldn’t breathe, I thought I was having a panic attack.
“My legs were like jelly, my brain was dizzy, I was just absolutely exhausted. I remember looking to my left and right and every player on the pitch was just wiped. You’re trying to digest the emotions and there’s 80,000 people looking down at you. But in that moment, you know that you just gave it absolutely everything and that your teammates gave it absolutely everything and your opponents gave it absolutely everything. And you came up just short. Respect. That’s the battle.
“That’s the buzz. The opportunity to test your absolute ability, win or lose. And you can’t replicate that in life. I had that feeling after games that we won as well, even the Kerry semi-final that year. But that moment will stay with me, even though we lost. Because there was nothing more anyone could have done.”
Eight months later, he was laid out on the pitch in Castlebar, with Aidan O’Shea kneeling over him and telling him not to look down at his knee. Parsons is a soulful kind of dude and spoke beautifully to Joe Molloy during the first lockdown about how he wouldn’t change a thing, not even the injury.
But even with all the perspective in the world, you suggest he must grieve on some level for the footballer that was lost that day. He had turned 30 just a few months beforehand and was in his athletic prime.
He made it back, yes. But he played just five more times in two years after the injury and his two championship appearances were both as a sub in games that were already decided. Surely, he allows himself a sense of loss somewhere along the way?
“No, I don’t grieve for it, no,” he says. “Yes, I lost something. I lost my sport. For seven months, I lost my career because I couldn’t work. I lost a lot. But I gained in other aspects of life. A lot of significant people showed up for me in a way I couldn’t have imagined. The bond I have created with my wife over her absolutely having my back through that period was amazing. My parents, teammates – some of the relationships in my life went to an absolutely different level because of it.
“It made me reflect on the fact that life is too short. I made a career switch on the back of it. I was involved in hard project management in an engineering company and I moved into people and culture and a role I absolutely love in the same company. Something terrible happened on the football front but other aspects of life just took off because of the opportunity presented by the huge obstacle that was the injury.”
That’s a terribly grown-up way to think about things, you say.
“Yeah, but what’s life about?” he asks in reply. “Life is about finding a purpose. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what medals I have or what All Stars or accolades I picked up along the way. Like, no one cares about that. They care about how you make them feel, what you’ve given back to people. Yes, that injury was really tough but I think meaning and purpose above and beyond football have increased because of it.
“In some ways, I’m probably a happier, more content person after the injury. In playing those five appearances for Mayo and in playing and training for the club and county, I think I enjoyed football as much as ever. Was I getting the same experience as 2017? Maybe not. But I found absolutely amazing gratitude in being able to play.
“Life isn’t any one thing. My whole career wasn’t any one thing. It wasn’t any one game or any one achievement. Happiness isn’t found in winning an All-Ireland or winning All Stars or playing in these big games. Happiness in sport and in life is found in the daily routines of everything we do. It took me a long time to realise that.”
He has it now. Lucky guy.