Sport unites us in grief at loss of Anthony Foley
For Anthony Foley and Cormac McAnallen sport didn’t need to be put in perspective
The death of Anthony Foley has shocked the public in much the same way as Cormac McAnallen’s did 12 years ago. Photograph: Inpho
It was impossible not to think of Cormac McAnallen this week.
There are very few deaths in life where you can remember where you were and what you were doing when you heard about them. But to flick over to the rugby on Sunday and find the screen filled with a picture of Anthony Foley and the brutal numbers 1973-2016 underneath was to know instantly that you’d never forget that moment.
It was the same with Cormac 12 years ago.
I was living in a flat down by Dublin’s Christchurch Cathedral at the time and had long since been able to tune out the sound of the bells in the morning but this time I woke to the sound of my phone ringing and my mother’s number flashing up on it. Ordinarily, a sports star dying would have gone in one ear and out the other with Ma Clerkin but this was different. She had actually met Cormac the previous September.
Shamefully, her eldest son, the reporter, was not yet a driver and needed to be brought to Eglish to meet the Tyrone full back before the All-Ireland final. So to hear on the radio six months later that he was gone, just like that, shocked her like it had shocked everyone else. She still mentions him the odd time as a result.
The last few days have had a bit of that. People who wouldn’t normally pass any remarks on sport in general and rugby in particular have nonetheless been stilled by the numb paralysis that has followed Anthony Foley’s death.
Some see a family man who has left behind a young wife and two small boys, some just see a well-known person gone too young and struggle like everyone else to make sense of it.
There’s none to be made of it, of course. Just like there was none 12 years ago. A sudden death like this is such a loutish intrusion on everyday life. It doesn’t ask permission, it doesn’t excuse itself. For those who were close to Foley, a solid, dependable building block of their existence has just disappeared. No warning, no time to tense or brace.
And because he was involved in sport at the highest level, that loss gets shared around. Over 10,000 people visited McAnallen’s house after Cormac’s death. Over 3,000 wrote letters to the family. Most of them never met him and either just admired who he was from afar or wanted to offer solidarity at the worst time because they were familiar with him at the best.
That’s what sport does. It creates that connection, however tenuous, between people. It presents the best of you, the player, to the rest of us, the public. It creates a context for familiarity in a world that otherwise has a tendency to drift into anonymous, community-less solitude.
I didn’t know Anthony Foley but I was in the room for one of the sweetest moments of his life. The press conference in Cardiff after Munster won the 2006 Heineken Cup hadn’t started yet, for the simple reason Foley, Declan Kidney and Peter Stringer all looked completely spent once they took their seats at the top table. Foley was in his socks and just sat there looking at us, as if to say, “What, you want me to come up with words now, on top of everything else?”
The silence was broken by a roar from the back of the room. “Hon Foley!” shouted Mick Galwey, there in jeans and a jacket and working as a co-commentator for Radio Kerry. Foley’s face cracked. “Hon Gaillimh!” he roared back before beckoning his old friend forward. And the two of them shared a hug of such pure and genuine oblivious love that it rendered the press conference moot. If you can’t make good copy out of that, a few post-match clichés aren’t going to help your cause.
This is why that old, well-worn banality that says a death like this puts sport in perspective has just never rung true. For a start, it has always felt slightly weird that people only say it about sport. When Prince died earlier this year, nobody said it put music in perspective. Or that Caroline Aherne’s death really put comedy into context. For some reason, only sport is ever blithely dismissed like this.
Yet to do so is to miss the point spectacularly. For Anthony Foley, sport didn’t need to be put in perspective. It was itself the perspective through which he saw and approached life. Same with Cormac McAnallen. It was their very identity – or at least enough of it to hold a working majority over what was left.
And it is the reason that so many people feel touched by their deaths. They were good enough to share sport with people they would never meet or interact with. We saw them move heaven and earth to get better at it. We saw them at their most powerful and most vulnerable, often in the same afternoon. We saw them at their most human.
That’s why sport is not diminished by the untimely death of one of its heroes. When the put-it-in-perspective people feel the need to remind us that these are silly little games at the back of it all, they presume we’re too caught up in it to figure this out for ourselves. But of course we know that a result here and there isn’t important in the general scheme of things. That’s the very essence of being into sport. Who could handle it year after losing year otherwise?
But this week, just as in those frigid March days in 2004, sport is knitting thousands of disparate strands of humanity together in shock at the loss of a good man. Something that powerful is no triviality. Branding it as such does scant justice to the life that has just been so cruelly extinguished.