It ends for everyone eventually. Whether you are running out to a thousand adoring fans in a packed stadium for the last time, or sitting alone in a lonely physiotherapist’s office awaiting results on a career shattering injury, the life of a professional athlete is both sublime and fragile. Yet, for most of us, it remains a distant dream. The dream of being paid to live out a passion. Imagine if you had this dream for a few short moments and experienced every brilliant and brutal moment, then you either ended the dream yourself or worse, something did it against your will. This is what happened with four men from Ireland in three different sports in their twenties.
Jamie O’Reilly is in his student flat by the River Lagan in Belfast knotting a tie for work. It may be a grey Saturday, he may be mentally and physically exhausted from a week of intensive gaelic football training and study for his master’s degree in software development, but he still has to pay the bills somehow, and does this in a clothing shop most weekends.
He can afford to look back nostalgically at his previous life only just over a year ago, playing professional Australian Rules football for Richmond Tigers in Melbourne. A former Down minor star, he was offered the chance to pursue professional sport far away from his home. “It was a life experience thing for me, the chance to play professional sport, meet new people and experience a new life, it was incredibly attractive.”
O’Reilly went to Melbourne at 22 and worked hard in a sporting culture that demanded it. “I had to work really hard coming from gaelic football, and life can become quite regimented and strict. It’s repetitive. I found the structure helped to improve me as a player, but then I also understand that if all you’re doing is playing football, you’re in a fishbowl, you need something else.”
O’Reilly was two years into a business degree at Queen’s when he moved to Richmond, being assured that he could transfer his studies to a university at Melbourne. This never transpired due to academic bureaucracy, leaving him with a difficult choice. Take up a full time contract in the AFL with Richmond, or go back and complete his degree.
“For me the whole choice came down to education, the club tried their best to help, but I couldn’t continue my degree. My Mum and Dad have always said don’t give up on your education, and I knew one injury and my career could be over. It was a smart choice, but not necessarily an easy one.”
O’Reilly is now back gaelic football for Queen’s and is studying for a master’s degree in software development. He admits to thinking about his old life in the sun sometimes. “I was cycling back home recently in the pouring rain in Belfast and my chain came off, I was standing ready to throw the bike in a ditch, soaked to the skin far from home, thinking one year ago I was running about at the MCG and now I’m a skint student, but no regrets, I know I made the right call, education was too important.”
Sean Brophy was part of the Dublin schools’ rugby conveyor belt. He stepped on to it because that’s what his friends were doing at Belvedere College, he simply forgot to get off and ended up playing prop for Leinster. “I was just like a lot of Dublin kids, I played rugby since I was 8, it was something I enjoyed and was lucky enough to get onto underage teams at Leinster and then for Ireland, it just went from there.”
After a stellar rugby career at Trinity, he played for Leinster under Gary Ella. He had never planned to be sharing a dressing room with Brian O’Driscoll, but sport can work in mysterious ways. “I found rugby difficult to understand at times, there were guys I played with at school or later I could have sworn would have been Leinster or maybe even Ireland, then something happened, an injury, selectors looking the other way and it was over for them.”
After a season with Leinster, at 23 and facing competition for places in the front row, Brophy received interest from Connacht. “In that season, towards the end, I was weighing up options, and had also applied for Oxford University to do a master’s. I could go to Oxford, do something different, play rugby and hopefully have a good career afterwards. I went for it because I couldn’t afford to risk everything on my rugby. The attrition rates were too high.”
Brophy now lives in London where he works in banking for Lloyds. After this interview he makes his way to see Leinster beat Cardiff at the RDS, rugby is still a huge part of his life. “For me rugby is about commitment. I was lucky to play for Leinster and share the pitch with amazing people, but pro rugby for me was looking at the world in quite a narrow way, it can be monotonous and hard work. I needed something more than just sport for an income.”
Kevin Grogan never felt that sport was a narrow existence, it was all that mattered to him. Like Brophy, he attended Belvedere College, but instead skillfully sidestepped the Jesuit Priests wish to turn him into an Ollie Campbell prototype. Grogan’s game was football, and he was exceptional at it.
Every school holiday from the age of 12 was spent at Manchester United. Seeing Alex Ferguson huffing and puffing in the corridors at the Cliff became as normal to Grogan as a schoolboy cowering at the sight of a totemic headmaster. He progressed to win the European Championships for Ireland at under 16 level, doing things with the ball came naturally and instinctively.
“I remember when I was first went into Manchester United when I was so young, Alex Ferguson had me up in his office and talked to me, I was very comfortable in a football sense. I was battling homesickness, it was very tough mentally, I had a lot of growing up to do, but I knew I was never going home, football was going so well.”
Tragically, Grogan’s career at 17 was practically over at Old Trafford, a pelvis injury frustrating him by teasing him into thinking he could still survive at UCD and then Millwall. He felt a brutally hard work ethic would carry him through, unfortunately it couldn’t. “Once you leave something you love and it’s out of your hands, it’s so hard. My family and friends were brilliant when I came home, but they didn’t quite understand. Footballers were all I could relate to.”
After succumbing to feelings of hopelessness and depression, Grogan decided to work in the game he loved through coaching. He has lived in New York for the last three years where he manages a successful semi-professional team. He shared a breakfast a few weeks ago on 6th Avenue with the man who helped secure his visa by writing a personal letter.
“It was surreal seeing Alex Ferguson again after so many years, you’d think at 30 you’d be relaxed, but seemingly not. I was still a bit nervous, like he was still the boss. I’ve learnt a lot from him, when I finish my playing I was depressed and could barely get out of bed, now I have that huge passion again for the game. I have no regrets.” Grogan politely ends the conversation, another full day beckons that starts at 7am and ends in the small hours.
Keith O’Neill never played more than 10 games of football in a row from the age of 14 as a schoolboy in Dublin, but it almost didn’t matter. He was talented enough to gain 13 caps for his country and play professionally for Norwich, Middlesborough and Coventry. But it was over at 27 due to persistent back injuries, and he is in a reflective mood in his office in Cornwall where he heads up a sales team for a meat company.
“For the couple of years after I had to stop playing, it was great. You travel, you go where you want, when you want, there were no rules that you get when you’re playing football.All I knew was full on training, games and injuries. Then reality kicked in, what was I going to do with my life? I was very down and very dark, you can go either way then, wallow in self pity or try to do make a new life.”
O’Neill played at the highest levels of the game, but was unequipped for real life. “I was so cocooned, I didn’t have a doctor or dentist or money worries. Normally things you should deal with, but the club did everything for me, I was living in a bubble, I certainly know I’m a better person now.”
After speaking to his father-in-law, O’Neill decided to work in the meat industry. The pampered world of a professional football hadn’t prepared him for his new life. “At the start everyone was thinking who is this footballer, I never mention it, but you have to earn your own respect. I used to drive down to Preston and be in a slaughterhouse at 4am and travel back to Cornwall in pitch black. I remember sitting in the car thinking what am I doing.”
Things got gradually easier, and banter that O’Neill shared in the dressing room has helped him foster lasting relationships in his new game. “People in the meat industry are great people, real and true and everyone is always slagging, I love that banter, it’s almost like the dressing room. I get a huge amount out of it. Every day is different. I could have the worst day, then something will happen and it’s great.”
During the conversation, O’Neill has to put clients on hold. He has meat to sell, not a story. But he remains engaging and animated when he talks about his happiest times. “When I chat to you now, I can still feel raw goose pimples on my arms when I talk to you about my football career, scoring a half volley for Ireland, that is just joy. Undiluted joy. It’s surreal like an out of body experience. It was the biggest rush, but I don’t beat myself up that it’s over, I still feel proud of myself and my career.”