TO KICK this off with an observation that has been made elsewhere: time travels quickly. In the fastest field game in the world, it flies by at a vulgar pace.
1999 was another century, but it doesn’t seem that long ago. Cork were in the hurling final that September. Usually I would have been up in Dublin for the weekend but when you’re 22, a trip to Kusadasi with the lads takes priority.
Sunburned and ruined from a fortnight’s steady drinking, we landed amid a storm in Cork Airport on the morning of the final. Forget 1939, this was our thunder and lightning final. The heavens boomed as we ascended out of one failed approach to the tarmac.
As we staggered in for a second attempt – tanned faces turned grey with fright – we eyed friends and strangers alike. We didn’t want to go this way. Not with Cork playing in the All-Ireland in a few hours!
The plane descended again, shaking its way through the clouds. Eventually the wheel touched the ground, bounced a few times and then settled into the runway.
“Go on the Rebels,” went the cry from the back of the craft, the Turkish pilot now an honorary Corkman. Everyone joined in, grateful for the chance to see Cork play Kilkenny. They’d think about the rest of their fragile lives afterwards.
That day, a young, unfancied Cork team battled through the rain and the immense mountain of Kilkenny to win the county’s 28th Liam McCarthy Cup. This one meant a little more than the other 27 to a lot of us supporters.
After a drought in the 1990s we were back on top with a team who were mainly around the same age as us. Added to the experience of the incomparable Brian Corcoran and inspiring captain Mark Landers was a bolt of young energy in the form of Sean Óg, Joe Deane, Ben O’Connor, Timmy McCarthy, Seanie McGrath, Wayne Sherlock and, last man standing, Donal Óg Cusack.
Now all but the two Ógs have left the stage; like every other great sportsman, time proved their most dogged opponent. I always imagined Cusack would be the final one to take his bow. Not just because of his position on the field, more so because of his sheer bloody-minded and ceaseless pursuit of excellence.
After suffering a ruptured Achilles tendon on Sunday, his season has been declared over. At 35, the smart money says that we’ve seen the last of the Cloyne man in the famous red-and-white hooped jersey.
Well I, for one, expect him to return.
When we’re young we make heroes out of our favourite sportsmen. Time shows us that these men are as fallible and human as the rest of us. Cusack’s level of passion for Cork hurling, though, goes way beyond the usual human level.
He has that rarest of qualities: absolute belief in what he is doing and what he stands for. Donal Óg stands for dedication, comradeship and a willingness to put the collective before his own self.
After suffering his injury on Sunday, Jimmy Barry Murphy wanted to know how he was. JBM was told to “go away and look after the players – don’t mind about me. Cork hurling is all that matters and drive on with the team.”
From what we know of Donal Óg, Cloyne and Cork hurling is front and centre in his life. Yet even in the moment when he must have felt his world and identity was slipping away, his first thought was for the team.
I don’t have heroes anymore. When I was a kid I had loads, many of them in comic books: Billy Dane, Roy Race, Hot Shot Hamish.
Donal Óg wouldn’t be out of place in a comic strip: the skinny guy with bandy knees who kept goal for Cork over a span of three decades, while fighting the prejudices of homophobia and a sometimes less than benevolent County Board.
In a comic book he’d have captained Cork to All-Ireland glory this year after a half-decade of Rebel decline due to internal rancour.
In real life, though, fellas break bones and rupture tendons on chilly spring days, far from the white heat of Croke Park in early September.
For most players, the end comes likes this: with a whimper, not a bang.
Donal Óg, though, was never most players. He’ll be the last man standing yet, the last of the heroes.