Séamus Hickey hadn't yet rounded the corner towards his 19th birthday the day Limerick decided to make a man of him. It was May 2006 and they were in Thurles facing Tipp on one of those afternoons when Eoin Kelly hurled the world flat just because he could.
Hickey hadn’t even started a league game by that point yet it was to him the management turned when wing-back Denis Moloney’s knee caught and buckled under him just 19 minutes in. They tossed him out of the plane, with no time to check if the ’chute was secured. No matter. He survived then, he’s survived ever since.
Life is just one big roundabout all the same. Moloney’s cruciate problems – he was back for the 2007 league but was struck down again upon his return – meant he didn’t start a championship game for Limerick for another three years. Meanwhile Hickey bedded in, played in an All-Ireland final, won Young Hurler of the Year. Opportunity knocked and he answered in his Sunday best.
Spin the reel on as far as last summer and it was Hickey who was laid out on the turf, this time in Croke Park in the All Ireland semi-final against Clare.
Cruciate gone, season over, nothing left to say. That night, as his phone beeped a chorus of well-wishing, one text in particular landed with the offer of an ear anytime he wanted. Denis Moloney, coming around because these things go around.
Moloney helped him talk it out and think it out over the winter. While it’s common for cruciate victims to detach themselves completely from the rest of the panel the better to throw themselves into the long road back, Hickey didn’t want that. He made sure not to rehab completely at a remove from his team-mates in the dog nights of January, usually taking himself and a few cones into a corner of the pitch and going through his exercises there.
His first game back was a challenge against Cork in May.
“I was raw as steak,” he says now. “I came on half-forward. TJ literally sent me on and told me to run around sniffing for ball. Just to get my touch and get my eye in.
"It was funny, it was more of an awakening. I played on Mark Ellis, big, massive, strong lad. He ran down the field and scored a point. He actually played well that day. I got him his place!"
Cruciate injuries are so common now that we take recovery for granted. There’s an odd dichotomy to our reaction – we pronounce them a curse, all the while mentally calculating the nine months or so it will take to see the player again.
Hickey was never in any doubt that he would be back, nor were any who had seen him grow to become the soul and conscience of the Limerick set-up. But nothing is guaranteed.
“I was just absolutely thrilled to get a jersey the last day. It’s a very difficult thing to do in the group of players we have at the moment, to actually have a 1 to 15. I was thrilled especially with the time frame I was dealing with before it.
“The confidence that TJ has in me, he gave me every possible chance to prove myself. It was up to me then after that. I was fit enough and well enough to hurl after that. The most satisfying thing about that was just lining out on the day. Anything that happened after that was a bonus.”
For such a warrior, that seems a slightly loose-lipped phrase. The idea of Hickey declaring himself just happy to be there feels a bit too hippy-dippy so you pull him up on it. Really? Thrilled just to get a go?
“Oh yeah,” he says. “I swear to God. The parade and everything – it’s literally the feeling of being there. You’re privileged to play intercounty hurling and to get back there is huge.”
But did it feel any different in that sense to other years?
“Absolutely, 100 per cent. Very, very different to other years. Very satisfying.”
A surprise awaited upon his return, with TJ Ryan deciding he had a place for him at corner-back. It was a position he hadn’t played since 2007 – indeed, his last experience of it was
shaking him down for 1-5 in that year’s All Ireland final. Such was the shelling the Limerick full-back line took that day that most fair-minded people felt Hickey nearly broke even, despite Brennan’s Man of the Match display. Talk about a thankless task.
Ever since, he’s played at wing-back, midfield, half-forward, all the colours of the rainbow. This was one he didn’t expect to see again.
“To be honest, I didn’t think I would. I said to TJ at the start of the year, I think every manager has asked me, ‘Where would you prefer to play?’ And I always tell them I prefer to play between numbers two and seven but if they tell me to go corner-forward I’ll go corner-forward. If they tell me to sit on the bench I’ll sit on the bench. I’ll do whatever they need me to do.
“It was funny, the conversations that I have had in the last few years have been about where do I fit. With managers, selectors, friends, family, even just interested others. Where do I fit in the Limerick team and where can I be the best I can be? I don’t know the answer, I genuinely don’t. It’s funny, I really enjoy playing corner-back now.
"There's something about it that I rebelled against when I was first put back there in school and in minor. I rebelled against the notion of being a hurler at corner-back. Corner-back is for people like Tom Condon who can't hit the ball! Finesse players like me should be further up the field! No, I rebelled against that notion when I was younger. But in 2006 and 2007 I really enjoyed playing it and I hadn't played there since."
The last time Limerick played Cork in Páirc Uí Chaoimh was The Year That Must Not Be Mentioned, 2010. Hickey watched from a bar in Boston as Cork tattooed them with a 2-19 to 0-12 scoreline.
t Even now, even with peace in our time and a Munster title tucked away with the prospect of another to come, the scar still weeps. Hickey is as thoughtful and reflective a hurler as you’re likely to come across but this is the one subject on which he clams up.
“All things being equal, it was a year of my life that I got to experience something I would never have experienced. I got a chance to do something I would never have got to do. That’s the way I look at it.” At the same time, was it hard to watch?
“I’d rather not talk about it. I’m not going to rehash that.”
And, to be fair, why would he? These are good days for Limerick hurling. Minors and seniors in the Munster final for the second year in a row, the sport looking up again after decades of staring at the ground.
Whatever else he’s had to come through, Hickey has never needed telling where to point his gaze.