Irish Examiner article on Mick O’Connell

In November 2002, Mick O’Connell suffered an injury playing rugby for Dolphin that almost killed him and meant he would never walk again. Nobody knew what his future looked like. It became a full life he loves

Mick O’Connell at Aviva Stadium

FRI, 21 JUN, 2024 – 07:15

LARRY RYAN

 

Sunday May 11, 2003. Despite driving rain and strong winds, 8,000 people run and walk and trot out of Musgrave Park and fill Pearse Road on a 5k fun run route. Cork has rallied for Mick O’Connell’s future.

Mick’s underage teammates Ronan O’Gara and Peter Stringer run. Donal Lenihan, Frankie Sheahan and Tom Kiernan are here. There are hurlers, soccer players. Later in the afternoon, the Cork footballers will be shocked by Limerick at the Páirc, but All-Ireland club champions Nemo Rangers field a sizeable contingent at the run.

The evening before, Dave Pomeroy, captain of Dolphin Rugby Club, left Lansdowne Road with the AIB League Division 2 cup following victory over Old Crescent and brought it to the National Rehabilitation Centre in Dun Laoghaire. He brought with it Mick O’Connell’s winner’s medal.

Mick made his first senior start for the club against Clonakilty in November of that season. In the weeks before the sponsored run, Mick told the Irish Examiner’s Hugh Farrelly what happened at the game’s very first scrum.

“I was playing on the loose-head side that day, I can play both. But, at that scrum, I didn’t drop my head fast enough and it hit off your man’s outside shoulder as the scrums came together.

“I suddenly felt as if I was floating. My arms went light, I felt as if I was going up in the air even though I hit the ground. It was terrifying and I knew straight away something was seriously wrong.”

Mick was 25. For a time, he couldn’t move or speak. For a terrifying period, he could only attract the attention of the doctors and nurses at Cork University Hospital by making a clicking sound with his tongue. His lung collapsed, he lost blood. For a long time, it wasn’t clear if Mick would live. It was clear from the start he wouldn’t walk again.

An Irish Examiner feature dated May 12, 2003 on the Mick O’Connell fundraiser.

An Irish Examiner feature dated May 12, 2003 on the Mick O’Connell fundraiser.

At the run, Ronan O’Gara spoke for Cork. “The turnout here today was overwhelming. It was just unbelievable. I know Mick will come through this on the right side. He is a remarkable man with a remarkable attitude and we are all behind him.”

Peter Stringer spoke for hope. “He has an unbelievable attitude and is an inspiration to us all. Mick is a man with a future.”

What would that future look like, Hugh Farrelly wondered, in that Examiner interview.

“The only parts of his body which he can move are his head, his right forearm and right hand. Neither he nor the doctors at the National Rehabilitation Centre in Dun Laoghaire know for sure what the future holds.”

***

Mick O’Connell is a funny man, who hates talking about himself, which isn’t an ideal starting point for this kind of article. He’ll divert this conversation everywhere he can. To my children. To the match at the weekend. To other people “in a lot worse situation”. He makes me promise to go easy. “I am going to cringe reading this. Don’t go over the top.”

At the same time, Mick wants to express gratitude to many people for one simple fact. “I like my life and I enjoy it, I keep going…”

His great friend Paul Mitchell was the initial driving force behind the fun run and other fundraising efforts. The IRFU Charitable Trust, which cares for seriously injured amateur players, supports Mick’s rehabilitation and ongoing medical needs.

Since Mick asked, we’ll go easy, but in his positivity and crystal clear perspective it’s easy to see how he inspired such an outpouring of love and support.

“Wow 22 years ago, time flies… the very early days to where I am now, it’s miles apart. People wouldn’t be able to draw the line between what I was back then to where I am now.

“I think I’m in a good space. A lot of it is down to the Trust really. My family, close friends, the Trust played a big part in helping me to get to where I am today.”

Where is Mick?

“I’m still in the chair. But back then, I needed a lot of personal care. At the very start, I couldn’t even scratch my nose. But over the years, I was given the opportunity to fight and to carve out the life I have today.

“The big difference is I am able to transfer myself. I’m able to get in and out of bed. You’re not using the hoist. I can get into the chair, pop in and out of the van. Come and go as you please. It’s your freedom and your independence.”

Every inch of independence was hard fought for.

“I was brought to Germany. Not that they are any better than the people here… but I was there for four or five weeks. Just into a setting where you did different things every day.

“At one stage, people were helping me up into the standing position. One leg made a step. A week after, the other leg moved. It wouldn’t be classed as walking, but all those exercises and strengthening the body, it eventually meant I was able to dress myself, wash myself. Little things like that. Small milestones.

“The effort in the physio paid off at home in my everyday life, becoming independent.”

Was walking again ever a prospect?

“No, I knew that. It was fairly clear, there was no cure. But I always felt I could make little gains. Even if I set a high target, I could get somewhere close to it.

“Not everyone in my situation has that opportunity, so I feel very fortunate in that sense. I know people focus on the accident and the injury, but that’s life isn’t it? No one is exempt, we all have our ups and downs. What can you do, one day at a time.”

Mick’s future became a full life he loves. That life became its own driving force. Wife Colleen. Leah, Ruben and Sam, now 10, 8 and 6.

“Whether you like it or not, my situation does draw on the family. My parents, my brother, Colleen, they’ve been very good. Part of it was wanting to set them free I suppose.

“For a while, it was always, ‘someone has to stay and look after Mick’, but now they don’t…

“Being able to transfer myself made it all worth it for me anyway. Everyone would have a different calling. Some people might have other priorities. But to me, to be able to come and go…

“With the kids now, you can say, ‘come on, let’s go’, instead of saying, ‘no, sorry’ all the time.

“The work was tiring. I trained twice a day for nearly a decade. And then as I did more for myself at home, that helped in itself. Any time I get a bit tired, I think back to the start at where I was. You don’t be long getting out of bed.

“There’s no going back. Only forward. You have to make a choice, don’t you? Are you going to get up or lie down? It’s easier said than done of course, but I’m very fortunate with the support.

“Life goes on. With or without you…”

***

We don’t need to rewind to the day. Mick doesn’t much.

“I don’t dwell on it. It was just an accident. Could I have done anything different? Probably not. I can’t blame rugby. The fact that it happened on the rugby pitch… maybe one was destined… all the support I got around it. If it happened somewhere else, I mightn’t be living the life I am now, the quality of life.

“It could happen anywhere. Fellas have done the same on a trampoline. There’s a lot of fellas up in the hospital and they have nobody. They mightn’t have had a family or the means.”

The life he loves still has a place for rugby.

“I don’t have any… what’s the word… I haven’t built up any resentment to the game. That’s another plus I suppose. I feel lucky that way.

“I watch rugby. I look forward to the Munster games. I was at the Crusaders match. I’m not far from SuperValu Páirc Uí Chaoimh.

“Sometimes you see some of the collisions and you go ‘Jesus’. It’s a lot different to when I played. The lads are so big and powerful and obviously it’s a different level as well. The hits are brutal but I still enjoy it, I must say.

“The rugby community is fantastic. The sporting community. The first fella I met in the aftermath who had a similar injury to myself, he did it playing Gaelic football. He was talking about the community he had around him at the time as well and how fortunate he was to have that.

“There’s a lot of people who give a lot of their time and effort, volunteering, to give me a shot. That motivates you as well. You have to take it really. And I’m delighted to have the opportunity.

“It’s been 22 years for me, but there are others there a lot longer. The Trust is a reflection of that community spirit. Week in, week out, they are working, trying to raise funds to help people like myself. You’re never forgotten after all the years.”

The IRFU Charitable Trust currently supports 36 amateur players who were seriously injured playing the game. It holds a golf day and barbeque at Fota Island Resort today to raise funds for its work.

Brendan Glynn is another player the Trust supports. Brendan broke his neck playing for Mallow RFC, eight years before Mick’s accident.

“Brendan was a great inspiration for me. When I was in hospital, I made some good friends. I never went down the psychiatry route, some fellas did of course, someone to talk to. But I made some friends. You’re back and forth, reality checks, advice from people.

“I met Brendan by chance, he was coming into the hospital for some check. He came over and had a chat with me, just some life advice. He had been down the road. He’s married and he’s working. You know what, it’s not all doom and gloom.”

He chuckles at another memory.

“I met an English fella 22 years ago and he was after marrying his occupational therapist. He was working, he had a family, he was getting on with it.

“Don’t get me wrong, it’s tough, of course it’s a tough situation. Especially when you’ve a family and you wish you could be doing different things. But I focus on what I can do.”

Back in 2003, Mick was already regarded as a leader at the National Rehabilitation Centre. A softly-spoken man, it’s not easy to picture him giving rallying speeches on the rugby pitch, or on the ward, but you can easily imagine him offering a kind word in an ear, a reassuring voice to others in his situation, who don’t know what the future holds.

***

Mick’s future is every day, one at a time. The kids keep him busy. They love sport. Soccer, swimming, athletics. Recently, the middle fella, Ruben, posed another test.

“They had been playing tag rugby in school. I’d say I never even passed him a rugby ball. Anyway, he came home, ‘Dad, I want to play rugby’. I brought him up anyway and he loves it.”

Would he discourage him?

“Not now anyway. At the underage, they are very well-policed, well looked after. Will that change in the future, I don’t know…”

The future is a place nobody knows well.

*If you would like to help support seriously injured rugby players, like Mick, and their families, please join the IRFU Charitable Trust’s FRIENDS programme, by visiting: irfucharitabletrust.com/friends.