Thursday, April 9, 2015

Shining lights in the darkness

Rarely have I been so proud of the four main sports teams who represent my city and county as I was this week . . . and none of them had to kick or hit a ball.

This is my second year to volunteer to organise the Darkness Into Light 5km walk for Pieta House in Galway and on Wednesday night I was simply blown away by the humility of the men who represent our county and province with pride.

The Galway city DIL committee was tasked with hosting a launch on behalf of all nine walks in the county this year and none of us could have dreamed of the cooperation we received from people who have busy sporting lives.

Galway and Connacht teams might not always have the greatest successes, but the people who lead them should make us all feel truly proud.
Connacht Rugby manager Pat Lam at the DIL launch

Both the managers of Connacht Rugby and Galway United were keen to get involved as soon as they heard our launch was to raise awareness of suicide prevention, while the hurlers and footballers sent along some of their bright young stars. 

Their speeches were, quite simply, phenomenal and gave more than a modicum of hope that our culture is changing when it comes to us men and how we discuss our problems, lows, and fears.

These people might run out at Croke Park or the Aviva Stadium in front of 80,000 or 50,000 fans, but they are subjected to the same kinds of frustrations, fears, down days, and vulnerabilities which make us all human.

Connacht Rugby manager Pat Lam spoke from the heart about the loss of a friend to suicide. 

He described how his wife had walked the Darkness Into Light 5k in Salthill last year and how the Connacht management team would keep the Galway walk in their minds, even if they will be miles away, preparing for a game in Italy.

Lam, a New Zealander, made it so clear why he has become a hugely popular figure during his relatively short time in Galway. 

He talked about the importance of how the players shake hands with each other whenever they meet up. They know how important it is for each and every one of them to connect and look out for each other.

Galway United manager Tommy Dunne joked that he had not worn a suit in four years. 

But he had an even more moving message about a former team-mate who took his own life while playing professional football in Scandinavia.

He described how sad he felt that he had not spotted the warning signs.

There and then, he decided that the Galway United players would warm-up for their next home game in bright yellow Darkness Into Light t-shirts. For the derby against Sligo Rovers, he wanted to highlight the importance of suicide prevention. He brought some people in the room at the Galway Bay Hotel to tears.

He said a manager’s task can involve “reading” players, evaluating who is in good form or confident ahead of a big game. But he referred to how much more there is to life than just being up for a game.

Next up was Galway hurler David Collins, who was only given about ten minutes’ notice when asked to make a contribution on behalf of the GAA.

Instead of complaining abou the short notice, he said he had no problem speaking about a cause which was close to his heart.

Within minutes, he moved most of us present in the room to tears.

He spoke about the pain of losing a team-mate, Niall Donoghue, in 2013. Niall was a gifted young man who played alongside him in front of 80,000 people in an All-Ireland final and replay just over a year before.

David said most of us have no idea of what it’s like to play in such massive games. Within the members of the panel themselves, players often have no idea what’s going on in each others’ lives.

He said that not a day goes by when the members of the Galway senior hurling panel don't think about their former team-mate.

All three speeches were stunning; all three showed that the stigma attached to talking about suicide and depression is being tackled at the highest level by people involved in sport.

It was so uplifting to see Irish men, sporting heroes, talking honestly about mental health and the support available.

They showed that even people with amazing jobs, top level sports people, know the pain involved when someone they love takes their own life. 

Footballers, hurlers and rugby players are no different from the rest of us . . . they know what it’s like to experience pain or loss in their home, family, community, or even the dressing-room.

Galway hurler David Collins, who made an amazing speech

They left all nine Co Galway committees with a bit more of a spring in their step as they continue the countdown to the Darkness Into Light event in the early hours of Saturday, May 9.

When people in such wonderful positions can speak so eloquently about the pain of loss, there really is hope for us all. On Wednesday night, our sporting heroes did the people of Galway and Connacht a huge favour by shining some light into the darkness.

They told us all to look out for each other, which is the theme of this year's walk.

The guest speakers sure shattered the myth of the "macho" sportsmen, too proud or tough to talk about their problems. 

And they left many of us feeling inspired.

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